Book Reviews

Photo Books to Love: 3 Powerful Portrait Collections

September 16, 2022

By Jim Cornfield

Make room on your bookshelves for these powerful portrait collections from photographers Rania Matar, Ave Pildas and Daniel Overturf. What do these photo books have in common? Each make impactful visual statements supported by backstories that are equally compelling.

Below, we share our three picks of powerful portrait collections in photo book form that recently caught our attention:

1. She
Photography by Rania Matar
Texts by Mark Alice Durant and Orin Zahra
Radius Books
184 pages | $60

© Rania Matar

Following a number of Covid-19 delays, a much anticipated, powerful portrait collection has finally made its way to bookshelves—She, by documentary, portrait and fine-art photographer Rania Matar. This extraordinary photo book is a celebration of that very important moment in a girl’s life when she transitions into womanhood.

As a woman, a mother, and a widely published photographer, Matar uses her own life story, along with her acute sensibilities and skills as an environmental portraitist, to explore this complex pageant of evolving femininity. She is its fourth and most recent iteration in book form and Matar’s most visually sumptuous monograph yet.

An image from one of Rania Matar's powerful portrait collections, of a redheaded girl against a wall.
© Rania Matar

Every image in She seems to harbor its own enigmatic backstory, driven by the persistent aura of vulnerability in these frank, delicate faces and simply adorned figures. As always, Matar’s technique is elegantly simple—available light, most often indirect, in carefully selected locations where her sitters are at ease and free to use their imaginations. She composes her shots with color as much as with shapes, and often prefers more desaturated chroma to help sustain the contemplative mood that prevails in practically every image. But Matar’s truly standout technique is the honesty she brings to interacting with subjects who are no doubt uneasy at first, but—and Matar has a great feel for this—who are also deeply eager to share in this emotional feminine collaboration.

[Read: Fall 2022 Photo Exhibits to Mark in Your Calendar]

Like her previous and powerful portrait collections, Matar’s latest adds a cross-cultural dimension to its overall message. She’s Lebanese by birth, and always eager to articulate the common thread that unites women’s experiences—particularly as they overlap the divide between affluent Americans and women who grow up among the physical rigors and economic uncertainties of the Middle East. The fact that it often requires a second look to determine the ethnicity of some of her subjects expresses in Matar’s visual language her passionate faith in the universality of womanhood.

2. Star Struck
Photographs by Ave Pildas
Deadbeat Club
112 pages | $50

Photo book cover of Start Struck.
© Ave Pildas

Speaking of powerful portrait collections… There’s a natural reflex to call a book like Star Struck “street photography,” but most of the images in the book go way beyond the found peek-a-boo style that more aptly fits under that label. The more proper term here is “portraiture.” Call them “street portraits” if you want, but each one, however much of a grab shot it appears to be, was a conscious transaction between a subject and a photographer, (in this case a topflight photojournalist), and the expectation on both sides was that some truth or other would be revealed. Thus…a portrait.

Powerful portrait collections including image of man on Hollywood Boulevard.
© Ave Pildas

Collectively, the backstory of Star Struck is this: A once glamorous stretch of L.A.’s Hollywood Boulevard that famously honors stars of film and television with distinctive medallions embedded in the sidewalk has evolved over time. Years ago, the so-called “Walk of Fame” became a tawdry tourist attraction and home base to a bizarre collection of visitors, many of them bent on creating their own quirky versions of celebrity. At least for the camera, anyway. The results veer wildly between amusing and poignant, and distinguished fine-art and editorial shooter Ave Pildas made this phenomenon a cause celèbre during the 1970’s. It’s as relevant in 2022, the year of the book’s release, as it was when he made the pictures with black-and-white film and a DSLR. You could walk this very sidewalk today with your Smart Phone and capture locals and tourists vying for their own quirky moment of celebrity, but I suggest you get this book first and use it as inspiration.

3. Illinois Trails & Traces
Portraits and Stories along the State’s Historic Routes
Text by Gary Marx, Photographs by Daniel Overturf
Southern Illinois University Press
294 pages | $29.95

Book cover of Illinois Trails & Traces.
© Daniel Overturf

This remarkable new release straddles the line between a travel documentary and a collection of truly inspirational portraits. Along with the scenic images you’d expect, Illinois Trails & Traces also incorporates the narrative potential of the environmental portrait. The book’s co-author, photographer and educator Daniel Overturf, is a virtuoso of this imaging style, and it’s his 40 or so prominent environmental portraits that truly empower this book.

[Read: 6 Top Tips for Taking Incredible Forest Portraits]

Illinois Trails & Traces celebrates a foundational American experience—the mystique of the road, the wanderers and free spirits among us, and winding stretches of hard dirt and asphalt.

Photo portrait by Daniel Overturf of man against a tree.
© Daniel Overturf

Illinois natives Overturf and Marx have overlaid this theme onto the map of their state for an an intimate look at byroads and rights of way across this folkloric heartland. Some samples include a rutted mule track that Abe Lincoln used as a circuit-riding lawyer, the infamous Cherokee Trail of Tears, and the beginning of storied Route 66.

There’s plenty of visual poetry in the scenic studies of such places. But the human dimension is advanced by Overturf’s eloquent and subdued environmental portraits—soft-lighted, “salt of the earth” area locals in wide-angle captures, with deep-focused background detail—these are the citizens who populate this swath of the republic and breathe life into the remote and fascinating byways of this marvelous new book.