PHOTOGRAPHY IS making a sharp swerve toward "fine art" once more, and a crop of glossy new coffee-table books suggests that some practitioners are returning to the medium's earliest roots.
The first photograph was a landscape -- a city-scape, to be more precise --taken in 1836 by Nicephore Niepce, the man credited with inventing the photographic process. Within a few years, the slow emulsions and bulky cameras were carried worldwide to record scenes; the long exposures they required made capturing living subjects problematical at best.
For much of this century, still photography has been the handmaiden of journalism, advertising and illustration; and the techniques of the photojournalist have been the paramount expression of the craft, or art, or whatever you want to call photography.
Still, the landscape photograph persisted as a genre and men like Edward Weston and Ansel Adams elevated this classic discipline into high art.
It was Adams' success -- aided by the publishing savvy of Sierra Club Books -- that likely paved the way for "photo books" as a means of expression and income for photographers today.
And of all the photographers working in this way today, none is more exacting, "classic" and mannered than John Sexton.
"Quiet Light" (Little, Brown, 122 pages, $50), a collection of 15 years of Sexton's work, is a spectacular and necessary addition to any photo library.
Sexton works in black and white, mostly using a 4X5 view camera stopped down to capture every nuance of detail.
He makes "archival quality" prints on fine art paper. But these seldom are "straight" prints of meticulously exposed subjects: Instead, Sexton enlarges, dodges, manipulates, bleaches, flashes -- in short, he has mastered every nuance of darkroom technique.
There are 50 plates in this book, all of them engaging to the eye, all of them marvels of composition and lighting and technical, as well as artistic, skill.
"Photography" means "painting with light," and Sexton does that.
Another book worth noting is "Amber Waves of Grain" (Harper-Weldon-Owen, 256 pages, $50), by Georg Gerster. Subtitled "America's Farmlands From Above," this book may be responsible for some publishing mischief, which will be discussed in a minute.
Gerster is an originator. For 30 years he has been probing the limits of aerial photography and has published 17 collections of his work, including "Grand Design," a classic volume that may have opened the doors to his worldwide popularity.
In this newest volume, Gerster has made farmland into easel art. His compositions are vividly abstract but always recognizable -- especially after you read the captions that tell you, for example, that the ruddy, eye-catching striations on the page are contoured tobacco fields; or that the abstract expressionist splash of red and gray is a field of California poppies.
There's even a section on the "farmer as artist/artist as farmer" showing the work of plow-painter Stan Herd, who cuts designs into farm fields with a tractor so they can be photographed from above.
The pictures are the lure, of course, illustrating a text by Joyce Diamanti that covers the role of the farm in life and culture, the bounty we enjoy, the problems facing agriculture (and some solutions) for tomorrow.
The success of Gerster's fine work seems to have spawned a host of similar books that are not quite as sharply focused, but share the bird's-eye view of the world.
Collins Publishers of San Francisco has a new series called "Over" whatever. It has just released "Over New England" with photos by Steven Proehl (who also did "Over Cape Cod" and "Over New York"), and "Over California" with photos by Australian wildlife photographer Reg Morrison.
These are pretty books that offer the kind of views we remember from the children's books of our youth with the rolling fields and storybook villages. Both volumes have 256 pages loaded with 220 photos and offer interesting texts written by Neal R. Pierce (New England) and Kevin Starr (California). At $45 each, they make excellent gifts for anyone on your list with an attachment to those parts of the country.
The series of "Over" books now numbers at least five, with Weldon-Owens planning two more, Hawaii and Florida, for publication in 1991.
If this reviewer's enthusiasm sounds tempered, it is because, despite interesting views of a familiar world, despite decent texts and sometimes spectacularly engaging photos, the books seem less like a statement of an photographer/artist's vision (as Gerster's work definitely is) and more like a trade item, a publishing commodity.