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When People Are the Picture

Monitor photographers give their recommendations on sizing up good photo books for the holidays

Naked Babies,

by Nick Kelsh and Anna Quindlen,

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Penguin Studio, 112 pp., $24.95

Jew/America/A Representation,

by Frederick Brenner,

Harry N. Abrams, 93 pp., $75

24 Hours in Cyberspace,

by Rick Smolan and Jennifer Erwitt,

Macmillan Publishing, 224 pp., $49.99

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The Chinese Century: A Photographic History of the Last Hundred Years,

by Jonathan D. Spence and Annping Chin,

Random House, 264 pp., $65

CRAZYSEXYCOOL, selected by the editors of US magazine,

Little, Brown and Company, 152 pp., $29.95

I like photography books that are more than just collections of photographs - even if the shots are terrific. Last year's 150th anniversary of the invention of photography stimulated many volumes of wonderful photographs, but I don't remember any of them as well as I might have hoped. Like any book, a photography book needs a focus, a transparent idea that gives it unity.

The other quality I appreciate is originality, a fresh vision that differentiates it from its shelfmates in the photography section. This can mean it tackles a new subject or simply views something familiar through fresh eyes.

This is exactly what makes Naked Babies, by Nick Kelsh and Anna Quindlen, Penguin Studio, 112 pp., $24.95 such a delightful surprise. Other people's baby photos have become synonymous with boring. But Nick Kelsh's 75 candid, black-and-white photographs are a refreshing reprieve from the "cult of the cute."

These are real babies, undressed and undirected, with toes in their mouth, cowlicks in their hair and innocence in their eyes.

The images are tightly cropped; often just an ear, a quivering lip, or folds of baby fat. The result is a book with style and freshness.

Jew/America/A Representation, by Frederick Brenner, Harry N. Abrams, 93 pp., $75, is Frederick Brenner's vision of Jewish identity in America today. This large, sumptuous volume presents a series of carefully constructed group portraits that examine Jewish life as it engages the surrounding Gentile world. Brenner's provocative photo essay is often humorous and inventive.

24 Hours in Cyberspace, by Rick Smolan and Jennifer Erwitt, Macmillan Publishing, 224 pp., $49.99, isn't for computer geeks; the reader doesn't even learn how to log onto the Web. Its unique goal, at least among computer books, is to put a human face on cyberspace. The often imaginative and engaging color photographs were taken by over 150 photojournalists during one 24-hour period. Their work was also presented on the internet and a CD-ROM with the entire project is included with the book.

Rick Smolan created the "day in the life" format more than a decade ago with "A Day in the Life of America." Subsequent titles included days in Japan, Russia, China, Australia, and Hawaii. This effort may have been the most challenging - an abstract subject with less obvious visual possibilities. And it may provide the greatest rewards for the reader.

The Chinese Century: A Photographic History of the Last Hundred Years, by Jonathan D. Spence and Annping Chin, Random House, 264 pp., $65, is a significant contribution to Chinese history published in this country. Many of the 250 historical photographs came from China and have never been published in the West.

This isn't a "day in the life" of China. It's a detailed political and social history told with revealing images and a scholarly text. Both authors, Jonathan D. Spence, who has written 11 books on China, and his wife, Annping Chin, teach at Yale. Some of the photographs show very violent events including torture and death.

CRAZYSEXYCOOL, selected by the editors of US magazine, Little, Brown and Company, 152 pp., $29.95, is a completely different type of photo book. Its subject isn't important and its approach isn't innovative. It's just fun. This collection of celebrity portraits by several photographers first appeared in US magazine. Mark Seliger's portraits of Brad Pitt, Drew Barrymore, Jerry Seinfeld, Tom Hanks, and Gary Shandling are familiar and yet still delightful.