Coffee Table Books – A Brief but Oversized History

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Says Zen Scribe, “The answer often depends on who asks the question.” Americans insist that David Brower, an American, invented the coffee table book during the 1960s. History, or at least the British variation of it, proves that the Brits have been using the expression ‘coffee table book’ since the 1800s.They grudgingly admit that Brower introduced ‘their’ word to the United States of America.

In both countries, coffee table books are big on big pictures, whether photos or illustrations, and small on words. These books are the embodiment of the “A picture is worth a thousand words” philosophy.

In fact, Mr. Brower, either innovative genius or idea robber, specifically wanted the pictures to be very big so that the reader (is that the correct term?) spent time seeing the whole picture.

Iconic Coffee Table Books

One sure way to offend and/or disappoint people is to make a definitive list. You will always leave out someone else’s sure-fire winner or include someone a connoisseur considers to be lowly popular trash! But here at InstaScribe we aim to be helpful and brave!

Sex by Madonna

This book makes the list because it is so popular. In fact this aluminum clad book sold more than a 150,000 copies on its first day! Note that art books generally sell between 5,000 and 10,000 copies. This book has been out of print for quite a while now, but is still highly sought after.

This book contains a collection of pornographic images of Madonna in various poses, with various people, both male and female, straight and gay. Some of the images suggest bestiality. Back in 1992 when the book was originally published, attitudes towards sex and pornography were much more conservative than today.

The controversy that Madonna and her book created made it very popular. Madonna’s writing (she contributed all text for the book) can hardly be credited as engaging.  A statement like “I will teach you how to fuck” is just not writing, no matter who wrote it!

Life: 70 Years of Extraordinary Photography

Here we have a more traditional piece of work. As the title indicates, the photos cover a range of events over a period of seventy years. This book includes many iconic pictures as well as pictures of the most memorable events during that period.

The works of famous photographers such as Dorothea Lange, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Margaret Bourke-White, Irving Penn and Larry Burrows have been collected here.

Many iconic images are found here.

Naked nine year old Phan Thi Kim Phuc running away after being injured by exploding napalm bombs.

Easy Company
Easy Company raising the Stars and Stripes on Iwo Jima.

(Image credit:

The book is filled with life and death. Pain and ecstasy. Animals and destruction. It is truly iconic and comprehensive.

Ansel Adams: 400 Photographs

Cover of

Cover of Ansel Adams: 400 Photographs

The choice was between this particular work by Adams and This is the American Earth. The latter was the “original” American coffee table book that Mr. Brower published in the US when he “invented” the concept.

Adams, who died in 1984, is still recognized as one of the greatest American photographers. He was also part of the group who pioneered the coffee table concept, so his book makes this a valid addition to our list.

He is particularly famous for his black-and-white images of nature, especially of the American West.

This book contains the largest collection of his work. His career spanned six decades, and he is known for revisiting the same place.  The chronological arrangement of his work makes it easy to see how both the man and the technology developed during his long career.

Iconic: A Photographic Tribute to Apple Innovation

So far, our choices have been very conservative, but here we are on the edge of the abyss. How can a book that is still hot off the press, published in 2013, make this list? Is it because of the name?

This book by Jonathan Zufi, who worships at the Shrine of Apple, contains a selection of 650 images out of his collection of 150,000 Apple product related images. This book is self-published. Take note of this!

The topic is controversial, because not everyone loves Apple. But the book is a tribute to the company and its various products which include very old and outdated printers and even a fashion range.

The Future

Apple, whether you love or hate it, has been an innovative force during the past few decades with its iPods, iPads and iPhone. The fact that this hi-tech company is now being worshiped in the form of a very old school paper book brings us to the future of e-books.

The InstaScribe team has already weighed in on the topic of Enhanced E-books. Our helpful conclusion was that these kinds of e-books will be able to enhance corporate reports, but should not be used to turn fairy tales into movies.

What will happen to the coffee table book? No Kindle, Kindle Fire or even iPpad will be able to do justice to this format. The sheer size and induced grandeur of the pictures makes it very difficult to see how this format can be digitized.

Perhaps a 99” HD Kindle? That is just not feasible for so many reasons. Cost and fragility perhaps the most obvious.

Viewing these iconic pictures on a laptop will also not recreate the atmosphere and intimacy of a good coffee table book.

Some argue that these can be enhanced by turning them into apps. InstaScribers are divided in their opinion on this. This InstaScriber struggles to see this happening. A coffee table book is an exceedingly visual and tactile experience.

Will adding sound or movement be able to recreate this experience? I doubt it. Furthermore, with screen savers and all the other images on our laptops, an electronic version of the picture loses some of the magic it has on paper.


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