Best Photography Memoirs

If you’re looking for good weekend reads in photography – enjoyable books that also serve as education and inspiration – this list is for you. The books I cover below are all memoirs by photographers detailing their creative, photographic, and artistic journeys. Some read like novels and others are crash courses in living a creative life. All of them are exceptionally inspiring for photographers and photo enthusiasts.

Table of Contents

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If you have ever wondered what it’s like to work as a photojournalist covering some of the largest military operations and conflicts in modern history, or if you’re just curious about what would drive someone to continuously put themselves in danger in pursuit of a photograph, then It’s What I Do by Lynsey Addario is a must-read book. This book reads like a novel. It starts with the kidnapping of Lynsey and some of her New York Times colleagues in Afghanistan, and it really doesn’t slow down from there. Addario spends the book attempting to answer the question, “Why? Why go to the most war-torn and dangerous corners of the earth to take pictures?” But her answer – the book’s title “It’s What I Do” – isn’t flippant, and when you read the book you will understand that it is a deeply honest answer.

This book reads like it is written by a journalist rather than an artist. That’s not an insult but more a comparison to Sally Mann’s deeply personal work Hold Still (reviewed below). While Addario is bluntly honest about the human toll of her job, both on herself, her life, and the people around her, for the most part, it’s something she just accepts. I can’t decide whether this book makes me want to jump on a plane to dangerous areas with a Domke full of camera gear, or whether I’m deeply thankful to be reading it from the comfort of my living room sofa, but either way, this book will make you appreciate the sacrifice Lynsey and her colleagues make to bring us images from the front lines.

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As the title so aptly explains, Annie Leibovitz At Work offers us a behind-the-lens look at one of America’s most iconic photographers. Even if Leibovitz weren’t the icon she is today, this book would be an enjoyable read just for the amazing experiences and moments of history she experienced (and of course photographed). This isn’t an especially technical volume. Leibovitz share thoughts behind many of her images, and there is a section on the equipment she uses, but the anecdotes and stories combine to tell the greater story of the experiences that came out of her life behind the lens.

As Annie Leibovitz takes us through a handful of her amazing images, we experience some of the most pivotal moments and people in American history through the eyes of the woman who photographed them. From her coverage of the Rolling Stones to the OJ Simpson trial and the photograph of John Lennon and Yoko Ono made just hours before the musician’s death, Leibovitz takes us behind the scenes of many of her most famous photographs. She shares how the images came to be, how they evolved, and, in many cases, how the subjects themselves influenced the final images.

This book is an enjoyable and often entertaining read. Pop culture, politics, celebrities, musicians… Leibovitz has photographed them all, and her experiences are amazing to read about. The images in the book are of course fantastic, and while many of them are likely ones you already recognize, they come to life when we have the opportunity to be “in the room” with Leibovitz while she take them.

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Sally Mann’s work often examines the relationships surrounding families, places, and personal history, and this book is essentially an extension of that work. She delves deep into her own family history and shares the story of her life in a way that gives you a greater understanding of her art. The story meanders at times; it’s not necessarily a chronological autobiography of her life as a photographer. Instead, Mann explores the same themes in writing that she has previously used images to explore. She defends her controversial “Immediate Family” series and shares the sometimes shocking story of what her family endured as a result of that work, while diving into her thoughts on what it means to be a mother and an artist. She shares her personal history with blunt honesty, and she attempts to reconcile her “feral” childhood, her deeply southern roots, and the racism of the American South she loves and was raised in, with the person and artist she becomes.

Sally Mann’s work has always been deeply personal, and Hold Still sheds light on just how much so. As such, I believe this book is ideal for photographers who already like Sally Mann’s work. While this is not always true with photography memoirs, in this particular case, I think you are less likely to appreciate the book if you don’t appreciate her photography. But if you are a fan of Sally Mann’s images, this book will give you a deeper understanding of the photographer and what goes into her images.

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As Jack Dykinga takes you through his 50 year career – Pulitzer-prize winning photojournalist, photo editor, and landscape photographer – the unifying thread to his life’s work is a camera and a desire to keep evolving. A Photographer’s Life begins in what could have been the end of Jack’s story: a near death experience that leaves Dykinga with a better understanding of who he is and what is important. As he explains, “I reflected on my life, seeing it as a journey filled with people who subtly and sometimes abruptly, changed my life… These changes along my life’s journey have often been reflected in the images I produce.” As he generously walks us through that journey, we get to share not only his fabulous images (the book is filled with them) but the story of what a photographer’s life can be.

Jack Dykinga’s photographic journey is fascinating in that it spans the extremes of the craft, from the chaotic and busy life of a daily news photographer to the fastidious work of a landscape photographer. “My journey in photography has run parallel to my life’s journey,” Dykinga writes, “at times intersecting and at times diverging. Balancing the two can be immensely difficult for a committed photographer.” With simple honesty, he shares how his life influenced his photography and, likewise, how his photography influenced his life. This book is worth buying for the photographs, it’s worth reading for the story, and it’s worth savoring for the wisdom he shares both about life and photography.

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Road to Seeing by Dan Winters is a brilliant memoir by an even more brilliant photographer. This autobiographic treatise starts with Dan’s childhood and high school years and takes us on a (roughly) 700 page journey through his life, the history of photography, the life and work of others who influenced him, and of course his own work. If that sounds tedious, this book is anything but. It’s interesting, insightful, educational, and inspiring.

“Every individual instance of life is a function of the whole universe.” Dan Winters tells us, and that is in essence the central theme around which this book is written. He starts with his high school years and shows us, with the benefit of hindsight, how all of the seemingly disparate experiences, interests, and influences in his life come together to make him the person and photographer he became. He walks us through his early years and work in New York, behind the scenes in his work as a photojournalist, and he takes us through the thought processes behind many of his celebrity portraits taken in his studio in Hollywood. (As a side note: when Dan Winters walks us through his celebrity portraiture, the book reminds me quite a bit of Gregory Heisler’s 50 Portraits). Winters shows us how all of these experiences influence his personal work and then takes us on a journey though the history of photography, drawing connections and parallels between other photographers and their work and also relating it back to his own life and work.

This is one of the most interesting books I have ever read. It is one of the best and yet also one of the hardest to describe. Road to Seeing is a massive undertaking, but despite the sheer volume of what Dan Winters tackles here (memoir, philosophy, behind the scenes of specific images, history of photography) it is somehow cohesive. At one point, Winters makes a comment about how he sees his portfolio as one body of work despite the breadth and variety it contains, and I think this book is the same. He tackles so many things here but the underlying thread is his own creative journey. Winters is extremely insightful. It’s a rare thing to be able to see, let alone explain, the creative journey with such clarity.