Sunday, November 28, 2004

Coffee-table books - naughty and nice this year

Coffee-table books are judged unfairly, by some, as mere collections of pretty pictures.

But many of the best new glossy books aren't just visually nice. Some are a little bit naughty as well.

In these, the photographs, artworks or texts reveal their subjects' complexity - showing, as the introduction to one notes, "There is always a darker side, if a story is complete."

With its dandy title, "The Bad and the Beautiful" (Abrams, 177 pages, $45) illustrates just that. Ellen Graham's black-and-white celebrity photos are not mere glamour shots. Robert Wagner frowns a bit at the camera while holding a beer and lying in a hammock. On the facing page, Natalie Wood nurses their baby, Courtney Wagner, in a shot taken the same year, 1974. Rock Hudson smiles happily in 1966, and on the next page his frequent co-star Doris Day, with the barest grin, poses in a T-shirt that says "BE KIND TO ANIMALS OR I'LL KILL YOU." The "Bad" in the title is rarely explicit: There are no extensive captions supplying details of Sharon Tate's death or Robert Blake's arrest.

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