The Ten Best Photography Books of 2023

Our favorite titles this year will make readers feel the power of visual storytelling

This year's list includes The Horses, Still LifeBelievable: Traveling with My Ancestors, and more. Illustration by Emily Lankiewicz

The world of photography has left an indelible mark on this year through a stunning array of captivating books. These visual narratives have transported us across cultures, captured the essence of moments and unveiled the extraordinary in the ordinary.

Among the standout releases of the year, Believable: Traveling With My Ancestors by Lola Flash emerged as a poignant exploration of our shared humanity that, at the same time, embraces our rich differences. The juxtaposition of vibrant colors and intimate portraits within its pages is a testament to the power of visual storytelling. Eugene Richards’ In This Brief Life reminisces 50 years of social documentary photography, skillfully allowing the viewer to step back in time. From fleeting glances to transient landscapes, the book beautifully underscores the temporal nature of existence. And Keith Carter’s monochromatic masterpiece Ghostlight uses stark contrasts to convey profound emotional depth. The interplay of light and shadow within its frames serves as a silent poetry, inviting readers to immerse themselves in the quiet narratives embedded in each photograph.

As we close this chapter, these photo books are representative of the artistry and diversity present in the field of photography today. They provide a visual odyssey through the collective stories of our global community, and as we eagerly anticipate the work of this coming year, these books leave an enduring legacy in the ever-evolving tapestry of visual arts.

Believable: Traveling With My Ancestors by Lola Flash

Silence = Death, circa 1989, Provincetown (from the Cross Colour series) Lola Flash
“Felli,” 2021, New York (from the “surmise” series) Lola Flash
“Koho,” 2013, New York (from the “salt” series) Lola Flash
“Karisse,” 2002, London (from the “[sur]passing” series) Lola Flash
“Bill Coleman,” 2017, New York (from the “LEGENDS” series) Lola Flash
“I Pray,” 2020, New York (from the “syzygy, the vision” series) Lola Flash

New York City-based photographer and LGBTQIA+ activist Lola Flash’s long-overdue first book is a striking collection of portraiture embracing individuals of all ages, genders, orientations and colors. Flash brings out the beauty within their subjects and ensures that they are truly seen. “Queerness, in Flash’s multiverse, is bathed in color, imbued with love, an embrace: infinitely generous and open,” writes Renée Mussai, artistic director and chief curator of Germany’s Walther Collection, in the book’s introduction.

Believable: Traveling With My Ancestors spans four decades of Flash’s work. “It’s pretty much my whole life stuck in there,” they said during a talk at New York City’s School of Visual Arts earlier this year. It begins with Flash’s potently electric “Cross Color” series, documenting queer Black life as an ACT UP member during the AIDS crisis. Visually, Flash played with viewers’ expectations, printing their images on negative paper, creating a saturated world where colors were reversed (blue is printed as red, for example). That’s followed by Flash’s “LEGENDS” series: portraits of LGBTQ+ individuals who lived their true selves, regardless of societal norms or homophobia, paving the way for others to do so later. And their series “Salt” features highly accomplished women over the age of 70 who still have an impact on society—all heroes in the photographer’s eyes. Believable reaches right up to Flash’s ongoing Afrofuturist self-portraiture series, “Syzygy, the Vision,” an exploration of the past, current and future oppression of people of color through the artist’s orange-jumpsuit-clad avatar.

Looking back over the arc of a career’s work on these pages, Flash observes “a wonderful cohesion of powerful themes.” They tell Smithsonian, “As a queer person who grew up with a huge lack of LGBTQ+ visual resources, I am grateful to be part of the necessary change toward fairness and inclusion.” —Jeff Campagna

In This Brief Life by Eugene Richards

Twenty below, Gann Valley, South Dakota, 1985 © Eugene Richards
Li’l George, Roxbury, Massachusetts, 1981 © Eugene Richards
Militiamen, West Beirut, Lebanon, 1982 © Eugene Richards
Sarina and Jim, Arlington, Virginia, 1990 © Eugene Richards
Sunday service, Wilmington, North Carolina, 1990 © Eugene Richards

The acclaimed Eugene Richards dove into his archive of 50 years of social documentary photography to showcase mostly unseen work in his latest book, In This Brief Life. Before the idea for the book was born, on his son Sam’s suggestion, Richards posted the photographs to his Instagram, something he had previously avoided. “The Instagram experience ­became a kind of revelation, as viewers sought to know more about the people in the pictures while also expressing wonder at the diversity of my subjects and their experiences,” Richards tells Smithsonian. The experiences are vast, from intimate moments in hospital rooms showing births, injuries and recoveries to scenes in the wetlands of northern Nigeria and the harsh farming landscape of South Dakota’s Gann Valley. “What prompted me, in most cases, to choose the photographs in this book was an emotional response,” says Richards. —Donny Bajohr

Remember Me by Preston Gannaway

EJ in the window, 2006 © Preston Gannaway
Rope, 2010 © Preston Gannaway
Untitled, Lincoln, New Hampshire, 2019 © Preston Gannaway
EJ Sleeping, 2015 © Preston Gannaway
Barn portrait of EJ © Preston Gannaway

San Francisco-based photographer Preston Gannaway’s book Remember Me is a project 17 years in the making. At its heart, this beautiful, meditative work focuses on themes of love, loss, memory and the inevitable passage of time. In 2006, Gannaway, then a photojournalist at the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire, began working on a story about the St. Pierre family, whose mother, Carolynne, was dying of liver cancer. Gannaway grew close to the St. Pierres, and her images led to five stories in the newspaper and a 2008 Pulitzer Prize. A few years later, she returned to the family to continue photographing the youngest son, EJ, who had been only 4 when his mother died.

“There was this looming question: Would EJ remember Carolynne?” Preston tells Smithsonian. “How would she echo throughout his life after she was gone?” Remember Me includes photographs from Gannaway’s time with the family, documenting EJ’s gradual maturation and preserving important memories along the way. “Preston’s always been there, so I don’t really remember a time when she wasn’t there,” EJ, now a senior at the University of New Hampshire, told the Concord Monitor this year. “She’s always been pretty much just close as family.” —J.C.

Wires Crossed by Ed Templeton

Ed Templeton, Tom Rowe plays guitar, Illinois, 2004; from Ed Templeton: Wires Crossed (Aperture, 2023). © 2023 Ed Templeton
From Ed Templeton: Wires Crossed (Aperture, 2023). © 2023 Ed Templeton
Ed Templeton, Black skies over the High Plains, Kansas, 2004; from Ed Templeton: Wires Crossed (Aperture, 2023). © 2023 Ed Templeton
Ed Templeton, Mike Maldonado, Iowa, 1998; from Ed Templeton: Wires Crossed (Aperture, 2023). © 2023 Ed Templeton

Artist, photographer and former professional skateboarder Ed Templeton’s Wires Crossed is an insider’s look at the subculture of skateboarding, blending personal memoir with a documentation of the DIY, punk-influenced sport from the 1990s to the early 2000s. While some photographs capture skateboarders executing seemingly impossible tricks, Templeton’s work shines best in the quiet moments behind the scenes, like his shot of someone strumming a guitar in a hotel room and his collages of polaroid portraits of characters he met traversing the United States on skateboarding tours. “I really wanted to make a photography book for photography fans. I knew the skate world would embrace it. But I needed to not alienate the art world by being too ‘insider,’” says Templeton in a recent Document Journal interview. —D.B.

Shark: Portraits by Mike Coots

Scuba Steve, a white shark. Guadalupe Island, Mexico. Mike Coots
Dorsal fin of a white shark. Guadalupe Island, Mexico. Mike Coots
White shark. South Neptune Islands, Australia. Mike Coots
Silvertip shark. Fuvahmulah, the Maldives. Mike Coots
The author, photographing a tiger shark at Tiger Beach in the Bahamas. Mike Coots

The waves were particularly good off the coast of Kauai that fall morning in 1997, and 18-year-old surfer Mike Coots never saw it coming. A tiger shark bit his lower right leg, clamping down, shaking him violently, only letting go after he punched it in the head. Coots managed to get back to shore, but his leg was gone. “I felt no pain whatsoever,” Coots said in a recent interview with Surfer. “It happened very fast, the attack itself must’ve been less than ten seconds.”

Despite challenging circumstances, Coots didn’t give up the activity he loved, learning how to surf using a custom prosthetic leg. Surprisingly, the shark attack survivor became an advocate for the conservation of sharks, bringing a unique credibility to conversations. Coots helped pass Hawaii’s 2010 ban on the possession and sale of shark fins, even speaking at the United Nations and the U.S. Capitol. During his recovery, Coots discovered photography, a hobby that has since become his profession. His photographs capture the sea and human interactions with it.

Coots’ new photo book, Shark: Portraits, shows off his striking images of sharks—tiger sharks, great whites, lemons, oceanic white tips—in Hawaii, Mexico, the Bahamas, the Maldives and beyond. He isn’t afraid to get up close and personal with what he considers the “greatest muse on earth,” free diving and scuba diving, often with no cage. “The first thing you notice while diving with sharks is how beautiful they are, with some even having individual personalities,” Coots tells Smithsonian. “The goal of my shark photography is to show sharks in a beautiful, authentic light.” —J.C.

Painting Photographs by Alice Wong

Untitled Alice Wong
Untitled Alice Wong
Untitled Alice Wong
Untitled Alice Wong

Artist Alice Wong mines her archive of found images and puts paint to picture in her first monograph, aptly titled Painting Photographs. Taking a variety of vintage photographs of strangers from the past, such as an actress’ headshots, a couple happily cheesing for the camera at a cocktail bar, postcards of horsemen and cutouts from old magazines, Wong uses acrylic markers to add bold color and liveliness. Not all the overpaintings are of people; some feature dogs, landscapes and close-ups of flowers. All of the ubiquitous images of the American experience are given new life with the colorful palette of Wong’s whimsy. In the book, Bruno Decharme, pioneering French collector of Art Brut, says she “invites us on an inner voyage” and “creates a different kind of narrative, a truth that is her own.” —D.B.

Sneaker Freaker: World’s Greatest Sneaker Collectors

Spain isn’t renowned as a hotbed of vintage sneaker aficionados, but Luis Miguel Lozano is on a one-person mission to change that perception. Lozano’s first pair of sneaks were ‘Metallic Blue’ Jordan 1s! That seminal moment would inspire a lifelong devotion to Nike. His hunting adventures all over the world have netted him a chunky collection of classic white leather basketball models. © Canicio Fotografia
If you dialed ‘2008’ into your Tesla time machine and landed in Harajuku or New York, the abundance of shiny BAPEs on cool-kid feet would have dissolved your retinas. That seems a lifetime ago now, but there’s no denying Nigo’s original Japanese streetwear brand was on fire in the late 2000s, as collaborations with Kanye, Daft Punk, marvel, Pharrell and KAWS made the BAPE STA 1000 per cent cooler than the Air Force 1, on which it is so slavishly based. Over in Shanghai, Patrick Pan has stayed true to the cause. Not only has he acquired an impressive stash, but he also has held onto it long after most of his contemporaries cashed out. © Wanf Chen Wei
From head-to-toe Polo to Nike ACG and Air Max ‘Silver Bullets’, collector Tommy Rebel loves sneakers the way some people love breathing air and once ended up with the only pair of 24-karat gold-plated Air Stabs in the world. After selling off his entire collection, they’re the one sneaker he never got rid of. © Tommy Rebel
Julia Schoierer, aka Sneakerqueen, is a Berlin-born 80s kid with a decades long affliction that has seen her acquire more than enough vintage sneaker relics to fill her apartment several times over. © Julia Schoierer
Chis Rosario has played for keeps since the day he was born. A graduate of the ‘fitted and knitted’ mindset, Chris powered through adolescence with a vengeance, flaying all comers with his trademark ‘sandwich’ fashion combos. The filling was head-to-toe Nautica, Akademiks, ENYCE, Ralph, Hilfiger, GUESS, COOGI and Avirex, while his bread game was dominated by Posites of all persuasions. Uptempos, Bakins, Jamgasmics, Vroomlicious, Hyperdunks, Zoom Flights, Flight Ones, Flight Lite and holiest of holies, the unassuming Air Flight 89. What really floats his boat is bonkers basketball kicks that even discerning sneakerheads have never heard of. © Darren Hirose

Sneaker Freaker: World’s Greatest Sneaker Collectors is a feast for your eyes. Or, perhaps more accurately, your feet?

Vintage footwear, skate shoes, basketball high-tops, and more are on gorgeous display in the seven-pound, 752-page anthology of sneakers. It even has a glossary for the uninitiated, with all the terms you’ll need to become a sneakerhead—or, a “footwear obsessive with a vast knowledge of history and likely to spend of their money on fresh sneakers.” For the already initiated, it’s still worth reading, as it covers essentials for the shoe collector, like the best ways to photograph, clean, repair and store your kicks (keep those original boxes, folks!) and to sniff out fakes.

Sneaker collecting is about quality, not quantity, Simon “Woody” Wood, the editor in chief of Sneaker Freaker magazine, tries to argue in the book’s introduction: “This is not just about putting big numbers on the boards, though accumulating hundreds—and sometimes thousands—of pairs is the natural progression.”

World’s Greatest Sneaker Collectors introduces readers to an interesting cast of characters—from Elliot Tebele, with his unbelievable compilation of game-worn Air Jordans, to Lee Deville and his obsessive quest to collect every Asics collaboration ever made. German sneakerhead Julia Schoierer, known for her love of Adidas high-tops, has nearly maxed out her apartment’s shoe capacity thanks to her passion for the hobby. “When I go to bed, I’m not praying for better health—I’m praying that I won’t be buried underneath a collapsing shoe rack next to my bed,” she says in the book. —J.C.

Ghostlight by Keith Carter

Cypress Swamp Study #3 Keith Carter
Bottle Tree Keith Carter
Clarence Keith Carter
Strawberry Moon Keith Carter
Waders Keith Carter

“I don't mean to sound melodramatic, but I’m pretty sure there are ghosts here,” says American photographer Keith Carter about Southern wetlands, in his latest book Ghostlight. I would have to agree after looking at the more than 100 black and white photographs in the book. Traversing swamps, marshes, bogs, fens, bayous and baygalls across Georgia, Louisiana and his home of East Texas, Carter creates haunting photographs that invoke the imagination. The collection includes mysterious portraits of locals, but it’s the animals and landscapes captured in macabre detail that make the book. Photographs of alligators popping just above the surface, endless moss hanging in the water, and deceased woodpeckers put on display only hint at the secrets of this harsh environment. —D.B.

The Horses by Gareth McConnell

Gareth McConnell
Gareth McConnell
Gareth McConnell
Gareth McConnell
Gareth McConnell
Gareth McConnell

The Horses is a beautiful, candy-colored acid trip of a book. Irish photographer Gareth McConnell began this equine series when he was sent on assignment for the New York Times “Voyages” issue to Skeidvellir, a town about 50 miles east of Reykjavik, to depict the diminutive Icelandic horses. Visually, he wanted to make it abundantly clear the series wasn’t documentary work, opting instead for a more psychedelic approach. McConnell photographed his pony-sized, poofy-maned subjects both indoors and outdoors using flashlights, colored gels and, at times, an analogue film camera, creating highly saturated, dreamlike imagery. The title of McConnell’s book is derived from an Edwin Muir poem, “The Horses,” and the only line of text in the book, the highly appropriate, “Late in the evening the strange horses came,” is a quote from that poem.

“I didn’t want to impose any didactic reading, there is no text other than one line … so it can be: ‘Wow, it’s a book of unicorns and psychedelic My Little Ponies,’” McConnell tells Smithsonian. “Or it can be a darker reading—horse as a metaphor for man’s will imposed on others, for the broken bond with nature and with him/herself with the great creating force.” —J.C.

Still Life by Doan Ly

Untitled from Still Life by Doan Ly
Untitled from Still Life by Doan Ly
Untitled from Still Life by Doan Ly

Still Life is a photographic celebration of the work of New York City-based florist, artist and photographer Doan Ly. Her blend of skills is on full display in floral arrangements masterfully photographed in playful and surprising ways.

The book begins with a quote from the artist: “I want to be caught off guard. I want to see anew. I want to experience a quiet moment that is larger than life. I want to learn something, but mostly, I want to share beauty and bring joy.” As you flip through Still Life, the moments of beauty and joy are instant; flowers posed for portraits with a human-like quality delight. While much of her work suggests inspiration from Old Masters’ still life paintings, Ly’s work feels current with her masterful usage of color and lighting. Ly also finds muses in the people around her. For instance, her driver for a photo shoot once gleefully joined in the fun, posing intensely with a flower arrangement draping down her back as if it had been a part of her for her entire life. —D.B.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.