To the consternation of the publishing industry and the delight of digital consumers, the tech titans at Apple and Amazon have figured out how to perfectly translate the intrigue of an Elmore Leonard story or the lyric beauty of a Jhumpa Lahiri novel into zeroes and ones.

But two areas of publishing have a built-in resistance that Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs’ digital virus has yet to infiltrate: Large-scale art and photography books and graphic novels, so many of which are dependent on their gloriously unwieldy size or tactile nature. They seem likely to remain firmly in the analog realm for some time to come.

The past year was a good one for such books, a handful of which are summarized here to help you cross off the art lovers and print addicts on your holiday shopping list.


At first glance, Mark Laita’s photographs of snakes caught in mid-slither against backdrops of deepest black appear to be the simple products of a simple fascination. But peer a little deeper into his entrancing book, “Serpentine” (Abrams, $50), and you’ll discover that Laita is training his lens on something much deeper and more dangerous than the hypnotic patterns and bifurcated tongues of these wriggling reptiles.

No less gifted a chronicler of evil and violence than William T. Vollmann, in an intro whose logic is as serpentine and peculiarly beautiful as Laita’s subjects, declares the photographer’s stated motives “highly suspect.” The reasons Laita gives for producing the book, including a desire to reveal snakes as coiled containers for “the tension of beauty and danger,” turn out to be weak smokescreens for Laita’s actual intent.

To understand what Laita is getting at, we only have to read a quote from Nietzsche, opposite a picture of a Red Spitting Cobra captured when it seems just about to live up to its name: “The great epochs of our lives are at the points when we gain courage to rebaptize our badness as the best in us.”

Toward exactly what unsavory conclusions Laita is pointing us, of course, he never quite says. His book otherwise might be considered too venomous to sell. But you can catch the faint sound of it, like a far-off rattle in the weeds. Which makes it one of the more insidious coffee table books I’ve laid eyes on.

A much more joyous photographic undertaking can be found in amateur photographer Brandon Stanton’s “Humans of New York” (St. Martin’s Press, $29.99), a book that emerged from his popular blog of the same name.

The pages of Stanton’s book are populated with the transient personalities of New York City’s ever-fluctuating streetscape. They range from snaps of preening fashionistas posing in the middle of crosswalks in the style of Bill Cunningham to perfectly timed slice-of-life shots of, say, a group of bundled-up school students grinning through the window of a silver subway train.

There is nothing to distinguish most of these photographs from what might be produced by a particularly diligent amateur who decided one recent day to learn his way around a camera and discovered he had a bit of an eye. Which, as it turns out, is exactly what Brandon Stanton is, and what makes this book – in whose beaming subjects you can sense the excitement and energy of its photographer – so irresistible.


One of the more delightful art books of 2013 has to be “Diableries” (The London Stereoscope Company, $60), an exhaustively researched and devilishly engrossing look at the strange, stereoscopic hellscapes that were extremely popular in the late 19th century.

This book is the product of a whole host of twisted minds. Three of them are from our century: Brian May, the former Queen guitarist and astrophysicist, who spearheaded the project; Dennis Pellerin, a French photographic historian and expert in stereoscopy; and Paula Fleming, an American photo archivist. The rest are largely from 19th century France, where 3-D visions of hell – populated with skeletons and demons in every imaginable configuration and situation, most of them more funny than frightening – were a gruesome form of entertainment.

The book comes with its own fancy Victorian stereoscope viewer, which brings to full three-dimensional life hundreds of stereoscopic images that fill the book, each one with copious commentary on its meaning and history. Anyone with a morbid side or even a mild curiosity about the strange habits and fascinations of Victorians would do well to invest in a copy.

Buffalo’s small but growing street art scene, an almost completely subterranean affair until recently, has doubtless piqued the interest of many budding Banksys and Basquiats. If you know any such person, a wise choice this holiday season would be Yale’s hefty yet accessible “World Atlas of Street Art and Graffiti” (Yale University Press, $35) one of those laudable but doomed attempts to capture the shape and scope of a phenomenon that refuses to be known.

The ephemeral nature of street art and graffiti, though, makes such volumes all the more important because they press pause on the spinning scene. This one, compiled by Rafael Schacter, is organized by region and artist, chronicling the careers of 113 practitioners of what Schacter quaintly refers to as “Independent Public Art.”

This cast of shady and talented characters includes the well-known São Paulo twins who go by Os Gêmos, whose illustration of a crouched and head-scarved figure on the side of a Boston building has become an identifying mark on that city’s streetscape. There are also lesser known figures like Madrid’s 3TTMAN, whose primitivist scrawlings adorn plenty of public places in the Spanish capital, or 108, whose amorphous shapes and minimalist stickers can be found in Alessandra, Italy.

Graphic novels

In 2013, it is next to impossible for us to imagine the epic scope or particular horrors of World War I, which scarred an entire continent, claimed the lives of nearly 10 million people and set whirring the bloody machinery of the next great war. But in an extraordinary new effort from the graphic journalist Joe Sacco, we’re able to get a sense of both.

“The Great War: July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme” (Norton, $35), is a stunning accomplishment that depicts the outset of the war’s bloodiest battle in one long, fold-out panorama. Sacco chose the battle, he writes, “because that is the point where the common man could have no more illusions about the nature of modern warfare.” After paging through Sacco’s incredibly detailed recreation of the scene, neither can we.

Also worth a look is Isabel Greenberg’s utterly charming “The Encyclopedia of Early Earth” (Little, Brown, $23), a graphic reimagining of early Earth that is both a tribute and send-up of the folk tales we know.

Colin Dabkowski is The Buffalo News’ arts writer.