’Tis the season for Big Books, including several that would be welcome gifts. Easily the most ambitious is Civilization: The Way We Live Now (Thames & Hudson), William A. Ewing’s latest deep dive into a subject that knows no bounds (previous topics: The Body, Love and Desire, and the contemporary landscape). Working with Holly Roussell, Ewing has rounded up nearly 500 photographs to suggest that, when it comes to the world we’ve created, the best of times is also the worst of times. Typically, Ewing’s approach is multi-faceted and exhaustive, touching on progress and pollution, community and alienation, leisure and drudgery, utopia and dystopia. He and Roussell make their case with work by Thomas Struth, Edward Burtynsky, Katy Grannan, Cindy Sherman, Pieter Hugo, Candida Höfer, and a host of lesser-known international photographers who give the project remarkable scope and weight. Although optimism and pessimism almost cancel one another out here, the result is bracing, intelligent, and important. 

Dawoud Bey’s first career survey is titled, appropriately, Seeing Deeply (University of Texas Press). Over the course of 40 years, that’s just what Bey has done. Focusing almost exclusively on portraiture since his Harlem street work in the 1970s, he’s always given his subjects real presence – the sense of being truly seen. Hilton Als, one of nine essayists here, focuses on Bey’s portraits of African Americans: “It was such a relief, to see works of art made out of real lives, as opposed to real lives being used to reflect the artist’s idea of it.” In a retrospective full of previously unpublished work, Bey’s range is broad and trenchant, and his concern with reflecting the black experience ensures a strong framework, most notably in the powerful double portraits of The Birmingham Project, made in response to the Klan church bombing that killed four girls in that city in 1963. Bey’s determination to probe and comprehend the humanity of his sitters makes this one of the year’s great books.

We can only wonder what the reclusive street photographer Vivian Maier would make of her posthumous fame, much less the choices various curators and editors have made from her vast body of work. The latest sampling, with an introduction by Colin Westerbeck, is the first to zero in on The Color Work (Harper Design) and, because there’s less evidence of her instinctive genius here than in previous collections, it focuses particular attention on the editing (which is uncredited). Joel Meyerowitz describes Maier in a foreword as an “unexpected comet” in 2009, when he first saw scans of her color slides. But while he calls Maier “an early poet of color photography,” he notes she was “stronger” and more consistent in black and white, partly, he suggests, because it was faster than early Kodachrome and gave her more freedom. Maybe that’s why this splashy, oversized book feels padded rather than generous. A tighter edit would have allowed the best pictures to pop and dazzle; here, they seem a little lost. The Color Work may be a gift to Maier fetishists, but it already begs for a revised version. 

Speaking of fetishists, there are few books more obsessive than Mario Sorrenti’s Kate (Phaidon), a lavishly produced tribute to Ms. Moss at her most alluring. The black-and-white photographs, all uncaptioned and undated, were made when Moss was in her late teens and Sorrenti was in his early twenties. The couple had met on a shoot in 1991. “I remember sitting next to her and feeling like my heart was going to stop,” Sorrenti writes. His pictures, which inspired Calvin Klein’s Obsession campaign in 1993, capture that smitten moment again and again. Under her lover’s gaze, Moss glows, charms, and, without half trying, prepares to conquer the world.