06/08/2011 08:27 am ET | Updated Aug 08, 2011

Amazing Illustrated Art Books And Their Brilliant Publishers (PHOTOS)

At Book Expo America, I was thinking deeply about the role of publishers as I walked the show looking for the new great visual books--gift books, photography books, cookbooks, art books, maybe even a children's book. What is a great publisher and why does America have so few of them in my field? I have been publishing visual books all my life (at Abrams, Stewart, Tabori & Chang and for the last years, Welcome Books). Book Expo is one of the few places you can see books organized by publisher. That is a rare window on a publisher's passion. This is what I found.

It was immediately clear that while certain authors, photographers and artists are truly stars, some publishers have a vision and a passion as strong as any creator. Sometimes, you can recognize their books a mile away - Workman (named for founder and owner Peter Workman), for example. Workman has grown to be the largest privately held American publishing house. One of the ways you observe Peter's genius is in his addition of imprints, each with its own powerful and distinct publisher: for example, Ann Bramson at Artisan, Elisabeth Scharlatt at Algonquin, J.P. Leventhal at Black Dog & Leventhal. In that creatively charged environment, I immediately saw two visual books that will be contenders this fall: The Louvre: All the Paintings (Black Dog, $75, almost 3,000 paintings, in full color, 784 pages, slip cased, plus DVD) and Barbara Kafka's The Intolerant Gourmet: Glorious Food Without Gluten & Lactose (Artisan, $29.95). Winner of the James Beard Foundation's Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007, Kafka is simply a walking encyclopedia. Hands down, every family with a child suffering from gluten or lactose intolerance will conclude that a delicious Kafka solution is their solution.

A few aisles away, and a world apart from the happy commercialism of Workman, in a little booth surrounded by other German publishers of art and photography books, was Steidl with one staggeringly well -printed work of art and photography after the other. His hardcover catalogue is immense (Bruce Davidson, Guy Bourdin, Ruscha, Jim Dine, Robert Frank, Karl Lagerfeld), impressive and serious. Monographs are available in 2 volumes, 3 volumes, 10 volumes - whatever is called for. As Taschen has done before him, Steidl is responding to the retail challenges by opening signature bookstores, SteidlvilleBookshops, around the country.

Next door, another German publisher has copies of Ars Sacra: Christian Art in the Western World on display, (Ullmann, editor Rolf Toman; photographer Achim Bedmorz, $199, 1,100 images, 800 pages, 24 lbs and 20.9 x 15.1 x 4.8 inches). From third-century wall paintings to stained glass by Gerhard Richter, this monumental book is a staggering achievement. "For anyone whose travels include stops to look at sacred art, "Ars Sacra" will be a godsend." --Wall Street Journal, May 7, 2011.

A few more steps brought me to ARTWORK/D.A.P., a distribution company for art and photography books run by the legendary Sharon Gallagher, with mostly handpicked single titles but also titles from MOMA, Aperture, and the San Francisco Museum of Art. I instantly ordered two: Where Children Sleep, by photographer James Mollison (Chris Boot Publisher) $30.00. Seemingly influenced by Peter Menzel, Mollison has travelled the globe, photographed children and their bedrooms around the world, and collected their extraordinary stories... from Kaya, whose proud mother spends $1,000 a month on her dresses to Bilal, who sleeps outdoors with his father's herd of goats. Mollison wrapped them all into a book with a cover featuring a mobile and title printed so that it glows-in-the-dark. Intimate, powerful, and magical. The Story of Eames Furniture by Marilyn Neuhart with John Neuhart (Gestalten, $199, 2-volumes, 800-page book in a slipcase). With more than 2,500 images, Marilyn Neuhart tells the story, to paraphrase Charles Eames himself, of how Eames furniture got to be the way it is. It is a biography not of an individual person, but of arguably the most influential and important furniture brand of our time.

What was Abrams doing, I wondered, having once worked for the late genius Harry N. Abrams. Well, the focus is no longer art. Wimpy Kid is the star, sharing the spotlight with Alton Brown, George Harrison, Oprah and Harper's Bazaar. I couldn't resist the new Babar's Celesteville Games by Laurent de Brunhoff (Abrams, $18.95). A grand tale about sportsmanship, love, and diversity. Perfect for my 20 month old grandson George.

Distracted by little George, I also fell for the new Shel Silverstein Everything On It (Harper Collins, $19.99. 208 pages). With more than one hundred and thirty never-before-seen poems and drawings completed by the cherished American artist and selected by his family from his archives, this collection will follow in the tradition and format of his acclaimed poetry classics.

I walked from there to Prestel, who also distributes the eccentric, profound and passionate Lothar Schirmer and realized that I couldn't seem to shake the Germans. They were consistently creating stunning, ambitious books: Waits by Corbijn, perhaps described more accurately as a work of curiosities by Tom Waits, with photographs by Anton Corbijn, and texts by Jim Jarmusch and Robert Christgau (Schirmer, $200, a collector's edition of 6,000 copies). Descriptive brochures of Waits lay next to FAB GEAR: The Beatles and Fashion by Paolo Hewitt (Prestel, $45), also coming this fall. The Beatles incomparable fashion sense takes center stage in this unique look at how the world's most popular band influenced the fashion of the times. Utterly reminiscent of my teenage years.

On my way to Chronicle, I passed the great Norton (although not known as a visual book company, their books on David Plowden are as beautiful as any out there) surrounded by a line of autograph seekers waiting for Brooke Gladstone to sign The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media, illustrated by Josh Neufeld, ($23.95). NPR's Gladstone is so remarkable as a commentator, and Neufeeld so brilliant as a graphic artist, that all you can do is laugh and be amazed at the clarity of her commentary. Ira Glass said she is in the realm of Malcolm Gladwell, Michael Lewis and Michael Pollan. I agree.

With the big publishers behind me, I wandered into a printer's booth, Artron, drawn like a magnet to the complicated, brilliant packages they were producing for Chinese and American museums. There was a lavish extravaganza: Tim Burton (Steeles Publishing, $69.99), a compilation of forty years of his artistry with over 1000 illustrations and 430 pages plus foldouts. Also available as a limited (1,000) signed, slip-cased edition including a hand signed and numbered lithograph; an exquisitely printed art book: Painted Light, by Kate Breakey (The University of Texas Press, $65), a monograph of her large-scale, richly hand-colored photographs, luminous portraits of birds, flowers, animals, and insects; and an utterly over the top food book: Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking (The Cooking Lab, $625), Nathan Myhrvold, Chris Young, and Maxime Bilet --scientists, inventors, and accomplished cooks in their own right--have created a six-volume, 2,438-page set delivered in a Plexiglas slipcase, that reveals science-inspired techniques for preparing food that ranges from the otherworldly to the sublime. I wanted everything, particularly the books on Chinese museums, but they aren't available in the US. I had rarely seen such astonishing printing (and I have seen a lot). I immediately ordered Painted Light.

I couldn't leave without seeing what Chronicle was doing. But when I got there the only thing I wanted to take away was Protest Stencil Toolkit by Patrick Thomas (Laurence King, dist by Chronicle, $24.95.) Beyond clever, it contains 46 die-cut stencils and a stencil typeface, reflecting concerns of our times, environmental and financial, and including examples from the great protest movements of the 20th century.