Elliott Erwitt is a legendary photographer best known for his iconic Cold War shot of Vice-President Richard Nixon poking a finger in the chest of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. So why is Erwitt's latest photo collection called Woof? Because he loves dogs, of course, and this selection of candid, funny canine shots makes for a great holiday gift (Chronicle Books, $22.95). If none of your friends and loved ones gives a hoot about hounds, there are other good coffee-table books out this fall for aficionados of everything from sports and comic books to Africa and Paris.
For starters, National Geographic Books has two memorable new books on Africa. The Last Place on Earth ($150) is a two-volume boxed set. The wildlife photos by Michael Nichols in Volume I were taken over 12 years, many of them during an arduous 456-day trek through uncharted regions of Congo and Gabon in 1999 and 2000 with ecologist J. Michael Fay, whose account of the trip provides the text for Volume II. The photos helped spur Gabon President Omar Bongo Ondimba to set aside 11,300 acres for parks and animal preserves. Another perspective is found in Through the Eyes of the Gods: An Aerial Vision of Africa ($50) by Dallas leveraged buyout specialist, photographer, and conservationist Robert B. Haas. Taken from helicopters and light planes, the photos range from a brutal image of a crocodile devouring its prey to beautiful high-up views of rivers, jungle, and shantytowns that resemble abstract paintings.
A nature book children will love is Vanishing Act (Bulfinch Press, $50), in which photographer Art Wolfe shows animals camouflaging themselves. It's fun to search out the owls, lions, and harp seals hidden in his scenes.
Among the best new books for art lovers is Andrew Wyeth: Memory and Magic (Rizzoli, $49.95). Published in conjunction with a major museum retrospective (now at Atlanta's High Museum), it demonstrates why Wyeth's often monochromatic paintings are so popular. His best portraits are sensitive and revealing, and few artists invest empty landscapes and homey objects with such a palpable sense of mystery.
Van Gogh: Master Draughtsman (Abrams, $40) shows the drawings of an artist known for his paintings. It's interesting to learn that the insecure and self-taught van Gogh often referred to how-to-draw books for help with his technique.
Gridiron fans will get a kick out of Sports Illustrated: The Football Book (Sports Illustrated Books, $29.95), which collects the magazine's best writing and photos about the game. Its lists of the best players are sure to spark debate, and the writing by scribes such as Dan Jenkins and George Plimpton is marvelous. A nostalgia trip for baseball fans is Smithsonian Baseball: Inside the World's Finest Private Collections (Smithsonian Books, $29.95). Its 350 photos and 21 profiles cover everything from vintage cards, posters, and autographed balls to jerseys once worn by sluggers such as Jimmie Foxx and Jackie Robinson.
Ambitious golfers will go for Golf's 100 Toughest Holes (Abrams, $45). Some of the killer holes are at famous courses such as Pebble Beach in California and St. Andrews in Scotland, but golf writer Chris Millard also ferrets out many at lesser-known clubs, such as the Hallbrook Country Club in Leawood, Kan., with its daunting 454-yard, par-4 seventh hole. Chances are, most readers will find a few within driving distance (by car, not 3-iron).
The 560 black-and-white photos in Robert Doisneau: Paris (Flammarion, $60) form a personal portrait of the French capital from World War II until a few years before the photographer's death in 1994. Doisneau's exquisite timing and sly humor are evident in shots such as one of a worker in coveralls and plaid slippers doing a headstand in a bistro. You can find an astonishing collection of historical photos in Augustus F. Sherman, Ellis Island Portraits 1905-1920 (Aperture, $40). Taken by a registry clerk, the images belie the stereotype of immigrants as cowed "huddled masses." From Romanian shepherds to a Turkish bank guard, many clad in their national garb, these immigrants look confident and eager to seek their fortunes.
A truly sublime photo book about China is Celestial Realm: The Yellow Mountains of China (Abbeville Press, $55). The Tokyo-based China-born lensman Wang Wushen has been photographing the Yellow Mountains in northern China for 30 years. His delicate, black-and-white photos echo the themes of similar scenes in classic Chinese paintings and scrolls.
Lovers of stage and screen will want to check out A Fine Romance: Hollywood/Broadway (The Magic. The Mayhem. The Musicals) (Watson Guptill, $45). It's a chatty account of the making of musicals such as Sunset Boulevard, West Side Story, and The Producers that were both Broadway shows and Hollywood movies. Author Darcey Denkert, who works for MGM, has an ear for the catty quote. For instance, in her discussion of Sunset Boulevard, she quotes a composer as saying: "[Andrew] Lloyd Webber's music is everywhere -- but so is AIDS."
For those who love design, check out American Streamlined Design: the World of Tomorrow (Flammarion, $75). It documents all that was sleek and aerodynamic in American design from the 1920s through the early 1960s. There's everything from Silvertone Streamline radios and colorful Fiesta dishes from the 1930s to sleek Osterett hand mixers and IBM Selectric typewriters from the 1950s and 1960s. Another beautiful design book is Comprehensively Clarice Cliff (Thames & Hudson, $95), the first complete compendium of the Art Deco ceramics created by the English designer from the 1920s through 1950s. Cliff's colorful plates, bowls, and vases now fetch as much as $50,000 from collectors.
Masters of American Comics (Yale University Press, $45) offers a serious look at an amusing subject. It demonstrates the artistry of such cartoonists as George Herriman (who created Krazy Kat), E.C. Segar (Popeye), and R. Crumb (of Zap Comix fame), with examples and lively essays by everyone from The Simpsons creator Matt Groening to Pulitzer Prize-winner Jules Feiffer. Of course, Charles Schulz's Snoopy is there, too. The holidays wouldn't be the same without Charlie Brown's button-nosed beagle.
By Thane Peterson