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Picture Books: Who Needs Words, Anyway?
By David Pitt

The traditional coffee table book is, of course, a book of photographs. For instance, have a look at Public & Private: Twenty Years Photographing the Presidency (National Geographic, hardcover), with pictures by Time magazine White House photographer Diana Walker and (very brief) commentary by Walker and some of her subjects. While some of the photos are your typical let's-sit-down-and-pose shots, others are unique -- the photo of Gerald Ford and Emperor Hirohito emerging from behind some White House shrubbery; Barbara Bush cuddling her puppies; George Bush, photographed from the back, standing in the rain with clenched fists; Hilary Clinton seeing her daughter's Inaugural Ball attire for the first time. It's candid shots like these that make the book; they offer us a genuine impromptu, behind-the-scenes glimpse into the presidency that we rarely get.

Separate, But Equal: The Mississippi Photographs of Henry Clay Anderson (PublicAffairs, hardcover) presents 130 photos taken by Anderson in and around Greenville, Mississippi, a town that, smack-dab in the middle of racial segregation, had a relatively large middle-class black community. The book has a few essays -- there's one about Greenville, another about the photographer, another about the politics of the time -- but I'm not sure how necessary they are. The pictures, taken mostly in the 1950s and '60s, speak for themselves: portraits of affluent citizens, of little-league baseball teams, of family functions (funerals, celebrations), of men and women who were a far cry from the poor, uneducated people the bigots wanted the country to believe they were.

Similarly, there are words in On High: The Adventures of Legendary Mountaineer, Photographer, and Scientist Brad Washburn (National Geographic), by Washburn with Donald Smith, but they're secondary to the images. These black-and-white photographs tell a story all by themselves: here's fifteen-year-old Washburn, in 1926, posing for the camera during an ascent of the Alps; here he is scaling the vertical North Peak of the Grepon, also in the Alps; here are beautiful, poetic mountain vistas, fields of snow and ice as far as the eye can see. While the accompanying biographical text is informative, I'm not sure the book would suffer appreciably if all the words were removed.

For the traveller on your list, there's North Atlantic Lighthouses (Flammarion, hardcover), with photos by Jean Guichard and (minimal) text by Ken Trethewey. The book is what it says it is: a collection of photos of lighthouses along the Atlantic coast. But, oh what a glorious book it is, with pictures that are like works of art: aerial photos of tiny buildings almost lost on massive crags of rock; lighthouses silhouetted against luscious brilliant orange sunsets and thrusting themselves out of snowcapped hills; there's even one lighthouse off Iceland, with accompanying helicopter pad, that sits atop a huge rock of lava that juts out of the sea. This is one of those books you just sit back and page through, slowly, in no particular order, just soaking in the beauty of the photographs and the imagination of the man who took them.

Editor's Note: This is one of a series on coffee table books as holiday gifts. Find more suggestions in our Columns.
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