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Five Photography Books to Inspire Raw Cinematography

Lewis McGregor

It can be hard to find the right place to look for cinematography inspiration. Let us narrow your gaze to five exceptional photobooks.

I’ve been a longtime collector of filmmaking books. Whether theory-based or art books documenting the pre-production concept stages, my TV stand is filled to the brim with them. However, for reasons unknown to myself, I’ve never dipped my feet into the sea of photography books. Despite working in the medium and endlessly browsing Instagram’s #shotonfilm community for visual inspiration, I haven’t purchased a single monograph. This year, that changed. 

Below are five of my current favorites, identified explicitly because of how well they spark the flames of inspiration for aspiring photographers and cinematographers looking to emulate raw, naturalistic images.      

Please note, due to the formatted blog images, some example photos may not reflect the full composition framed by the photographer.


1. Where I Find Myself by Joel Meyerowitz ($65)

Joel Meyerowitz's Where I Find Myself
Joel Meyerowitz’s photobook Where I Find Myself.

Joel Meyerowitz is one of America’s most iconic street photographers. Of course, he’s known for his portrait and landscape work, as well. Where I Find Myself is part photobook and part biography, as it documents his journey through various stages of his career.

While I’m not wholly fond of illustrative and photography books accompanied with pages upon pages of text, Meyerowitz’s words help illustrate how he forms a picture, and importantly, why. 

Joel Meyerowitz Photography
Meyerowitz’s work not only includes his artistic endeavors, it documents various stages of his career, as well. Image via Joel Meyerowitz.

It covers all of Joel Meyerowitz’s great projects—his work inspired by the artist Morandi, his work on trees, his exclusive coverage of Ground Zero, his trips in the footsteps of Robert Frank across the US, his experiments comparing color to black and white pictures, and, of course, his iconic street photography work.

-Laurence King Publishing
Joel Meyerowitz Street Photography
Meyerowitz is also know for his exemplary street photography. Image via Joel Meyerowitz.

For aspiring cinematographers looking to engage with raw and personal visuals, Where I Find Myself is the perfect pick.


2. I Can Make You Feel Good by Tyler Mitchell ($60)

Tyler Mitchell's I Can Make You Feel Good
Tyler Mitchell’s vision of a Black utopia I Can Make You Feel Good.

Unlike Joel Meyerowitz’s Where I Find Myself, you won’t find any white space in Tyler Mitchell’s I Can Make You Feel Good, outside of the introduction. Each page is filled to the edge with Mitchell’s work celebrating his vision of a Black utopia. 

Tyler Mitchell Photography
Mitchell uses natural light and a rich color palette, portraying his subjects with an elegant beauty. Image via Tyler Mitchell.

At 206 pages, the book exemplifies Mitchell’s body of photography and film. Based in Brooklyn, Mitchell works across many genres to explore and document a new aesthetic of Blackness.

In his debut monograph, Mitchell unifies his body of photography and film from his first US solo exhibition at the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York. Each page of I Can Make You Feel Good is full bleed and bathed in Mitchell’s signature candy-colored palette. With no white space visible, the book’s design mirrors the photographer’s all-encompassing vision, which is characterized by a use of glowing natural light and rich color to portray the young Black men and women he photographs with intimacy and optimism.

-Prestel Publishing

This book is a treasure trove of visual treats for cinematographers looking for inspiration on natural light, soft light, and “candy-colored” palettes. 

Tyler Mitchell Photography
The raw, intimate perspective of Mitchell’s photography. Image via Tyler Mitchell.

3. Girl Pictures by Justine Kurland ($50)

Justine Kurland's Girl Pictures
Justine Kurland’s photo series of teenage girls—Girl Pictures.

The North American frontier is an enduring symbol of romance, rebellion, escape, and freedom. At the same time, it’s a profoundly masculine myth.

-Aperture Publishers

With cowboys and outlaws, it’s hard not to see why. However, in Girl Pictures, Justine Kurland turns that trope inside out with a photo series of teenage girls, taken between 1997 and 2002 on the tattered road of the American wilderness.

Justine Kurland Photography
Kurland’s tribute to the fearless freedom of teenage girls on the run. Image via Justine Kurland.

She [Justine Kurland] portrays the girls as fearless and free, tender and fierce. They hunt and explore, braid each other’s hair, and swim in sun-dappled watering holes―paying no mind to the camera (or the viewer). Their world is at once lawless and utopian, a frontier Eden in the wild spaces just outside of suburban infrastructure and ideas.

-Aperture Publishers
Justine Kurland Photography
With each image, a story unfolds. Image via Justine Kurland.

With an element of staging, it often feels like each photo is a still plucked from a feature. It leaves the readers following through the composition wondering what happens next, or perhaps more pessimistically, what happened before. With natural light in natural environments, Girl Pictures is the perfect book to obtain inspiration for naturalistic cinematography, while also evoking a study for compositional positioning. 


4. The Atmosphere of Crime, 1957 by Gordon Parks ($40)

Gordon Parks' The Atmosphere of Crime, 1957
Gordon Parks’ photobook The Atmosphere of Crime, 1957.

Does the name Gordon Parks ring some bells, but you just can’t put your finger on it? It’s because aside from being a powerhouse in documentary journalism, he was also a film director who held the reins of Shaft (1971), making him one the pioneers of the Blaxploitation genre.

My assignment: explore crime across America. A journey through hell . . . The year was 1957. I rode with detectives through shadowy districts, climbed fire escapes, broke through windows and doors with them. Brutality was rampant. Violent death showed up from dawn to dawn.

-Gordon Parks
Gordon Parks Photography
Parks rode with detectives to document and challenge the criminal stereotype. Image vi Gordon Parks.

In 1957, Life Magazine asked Parks to illustrate a continuing series of articles documenting that year’s crime. The book’s photos are a result of Parks embarking on a six-week trip across New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

The resulting eight-page photo-essay “The Atmosphere of Crime” was noteworthy, not only for its bold aesthetic sophistication, but also for how it challenged stereotypes about criminality, then pervasive in the mainstream media. They provided a richly-hued, cinematic portrayal of a largely hidden world: that of violence, police work, and incarceration, seen with empathy and candor. 

-Steidl Books
Gordon Parks Photography
Low, natural light captures the gritty feel of real life. Image via Gordon Parks.

It should be no surprise that the photographs are filled with raw low-light and high key images, perfect for cinematographers looking to emulate a gritty image with minimal light. 


5. Intimate Distance by Todd Hido ($65)

Todd Hido's Intimate Distance
Todd Hido’s cinematic photos of suburban life and landscapes in Intimate Distance.

Unfortunately, this book is currently out of print and sells for a significant price on the aftermarket. Therefore, this recommendation may be more of a tease (I’m sorry). Thankfully, I was able to snag a copy for just over cover price before the holidays. 

Todd Hido is an American contemporary artist and photographer, and Intimate Distance gathers most of Hido’s iconic images in a single book for the first time.

Todd Hido Photography
Hido’s ability to capture the beauty of a moment. Image via Todd Hido.

Well-known for his photographs of landscapes and suburban housing across the United States, and for his use of luminous color, Todd Hido casts a distinctly cinematic eye across all that he photographs, digging deep into his memory and imagination for inspiration . . . Also featured are short interviews with Hido about the making of each of his monographs. From exterior to interior, surface observations to subconscious investigations, landscapes to nudes, this mid-career survey reveals insight into Hido’s practice and illustrates how his unique focus has developed and shifted over time.

-Aperture Publishers
Todd Hido Photography
An eerie image captured from the inside of a car. Image via Todd Hido.

Reading through this book in particular, I often found myself asking, “How does this look so good?” Especially the shots from the rainy interior of a car. They feel almost as if you have it paused during a crime thriller.

For aspiring cinematographers looking for inspiration on isolating subjects with natural light, or creating moody, muted palettes, this book is a must. 


Finding More Resources

I’d love to say that I’ve been able to recommend these books because my knowledge of photographers is vast and infinite. In actuality, while I’ve got quite an acceptable bank of photographers I go to for cinematography inspiration, these recommendations were plucked from a fantastic Instagram account called The Cinematographer’s Archive.

The Cinematographer's Archive
The Instagram account—The Cinematographer’s Archive.

It’s an account formed by Jordan Buck and James Rhodes, and acts as an insight into what’s on the bookshelf of working cinematographers. From commercial to feature DPs, there’s a wide variety of collections to scour through. However, be warned! Some of the more fascinating photography books are out of print and, therefore, hard to find, expensive to purchase. You may find yourself falling down a late-night eBay rabbit hole chasing after the books.


Discover even more inspiration for your next project with these interviews, roundups, and more.

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