Drag queens pose on covered bridges. Puppies learn to swim. Metal heads cuddle with kittens. Polish witches wave incense sticks.
This is just a sampling of scenes from the best photo essays of 2014. It was hard to choose only 24–runners-up included shots of New York’s extremely well-dressed dogs and very hip, very bearded Sikhs.
These photographs are eye candy, but also so much more: They give you an intimate look at characters you might never otherwise encounter (the biker chicks of Marrakesh), and reveal lifestyles you might not otherwise have known existed (and may wish to remain ignorant of, in the case of the Purity Ball movement in America’s Bible Belt). Some illustrate contemporary social and political issues, while a few just put original spins on the Internet’s bread and butter–cute animal photos. What these photo essays have in common, and what makes them so powerful, is that they all tell stories. None are merely decorative. They serve as a reminder that at its best, photography is a storytelling tool.
Purity Balls: Like A Wedding, Except To Your Dad
It’s a lot like a wedding, except to your dad. At purity balls, a Christian religious ceremony that’s gaining popularity, American girls (some as young as four) vow to their fathers that they’ll remain virgins until marriage. The formal events tend to include dinner, a keynote speech, and ballroom dancing, and the girls get decked out in, um, white gowns. The father, as “High Priest of their home and family,” makes a pledge to protect his daughter’s “purity” during the affair. Often, they exchange purity rings. Stockholm-based photographer David Magnusson captures all this in his book Purity. Over the course of five months, Magnusson traveled to purity balls in Louisiana, Texas, Colorado, and Arizona. On each occasion, he spent an hour interviewing and photographing the father-daughter pair. The poses were up to the subjects themselves, undirected by Magnusson.
Magical Portraits Of Modern-Day Witches
If you ever find yourself feeling nostalgic for your secret middle school Wiccan phase, or if have a friend crush on Hermione (or just enjoy casting the occasional spell), you’ll love Katarzyna Majak’s portraits of modern-day Polish witches. Majak began taking photographs of women on alternative spiritual paths after participating in a “shamanic workshop,” which was part of her personal quest for spirituality beyond her Catholic upbringing in Poland.
Illegal Photos Of London’s Abandoned Underworld, Captured By Daring Place-Hackers
London’s exceptionally clean streets hide a dystopian-looking underworld, blocked off from the vast majority of the public for decades. There are networks of dank hidden sewers, cable conduits, road and utility tunnels, old catacombs, and abandoned train tubes. Now, a daring group of self-identified “place-hackers” is using photography to bring this chthonic region to light, however forbidden their explorations may be. Subterranean London: Cracking the Capital, assembles material from 12 anonymous photographers infatuated with visiting and documenting underground spaces illegally. Featured in the book are shots of the abandoned British Museum tube station, rumored to be haunted by the ghost of an Egyptian pharaoh’s daughter; the ruins of stations destroyed by WWII bombs; and deep-level shelters repurposed as sites for secure document storage.
These Are Photos Of Puppies Learning To Swim. That Is All
In his latest photo series Seth Casteel’s underwater puppies paddle frantically toward the camera, wide-eyed and extra wet-nosed. As young as six weeks and as old as six months, the young pooches follow Casteel’s rubber toys.
Tranquil Scenes Of Life Off-The-Grid
Since 2010, French photographer Antoine Bruy has been traveling throughout Europe, documenting life off the grid for rural farmers, many of whom had left urban lives to subvert the dominant paradigm. Bruy found his subjects through World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), a network of organizations that helps people to volunteer on organic farms in exchange for food and accommodation. His series “Scrublands” began in 2010, when Bruy started “WWOOFing,” as it’s known, on an Australian farm.
Tokyo’s Outrageous Street Style
Tokyo is known for its legendary street style, where fashion tribes, from Yamanba to cosplay to Lolita, don elaborate outfits. New York City-based photographer Thomas Card spent the spring of 2012 in Tokyo shooting the capital’s street fashion. More than 130 of his photos were published in a glorious book called Tokyo Adorned.
Metal Heads And Their Cats
“Metal” might not be the first adjective that comes to mind when you think of cats. But that might change after you see the images from photographer Alexandra Crockett’s book, Metal Cats, published by powerHouse Books. It chronicles the deep, dark bonds between fans of heavy, guitar-laden music and their feline companions.
Inside The Offices Of 12 Psychoanalysts
Sometimes an office is just an office. But if you’re a psychoanalyst, the presentation of your work space has to be impeccably thought out, designed to foster a sense of sanctuary and privacy. Since Sigmund Freud’s Victorian consulting room, with its oriental rug-draped couch, analysts have learned to use interior design as a therapeutic tool. In his ongoing series “In the Shadow of Freud’s Couch,” Mark Gerald, who’s both a photographer and a psychoanalyst, offers a look inside the offices of analysts all over the world.
Photos Merge New Hampshire’s Finest Cultural Fixtures: Covered Bridges And Drag Queens
Andre Rosa’s Kickstarter-funded project merges the two things that he feels have the most cultural currency in New Hampshire: covered bridges and drag queens. The software engineer turned calendar publisher, who’s based in Manchester, joked about his light bulb moment last summer to a friend, then realized he was onto something. He decided to create a monthly calendar featuring centerfolds of drag queens in front of covered bridges.
New York’s Changing Storefronts, In Photos
In the early 2000s, photographers James and Karla Murray embarked on a journey to capture the mom-and-pop stores of New York City. Their book, Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York, showed a city that’s quickly fading into memory: one full of local delis, beloved bars, and shops devoted entirely to hosiery. A decade later, they returned to capture what those stores have become in a new project, Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York—10 Years Later. The answer: Subways, Chase bank branches, and Verizon stores.
Surreal Photographs Mix Wes Anderson And Salvador Dali
Photographer Todd Baxter doesn’t try to capture real life in his photos. He’s a narrative artist whose medium happens to be photography. “I have these ideas for a scene—like two kids looking into a glowing hole at night in the woods (“Owl Scouts”) or the aftermath of a burglary with a couple tied up in their living room (“Bound and Gagged”),” he says, “and I try to make them happen.” His photography isn’t photorealistic: It’s staged, slightly off-kilter, and just a bit surreal. He uses a camera, but his work is less photojournalistic than it is painterly.
The Deeply Weird World Of Extreme Dog Grooming
The world of creative canine coiffure is a truly, deeply weird one. Last year, New York City-based photographer Paul Nathan traveled to New Jersey’s Intergroom, a high-profile grooming competition, because of course those exist, and took portraits of pooches clipped and dyed to look like flamingoes, clowns, leopards, and parrots, among other un-dogly things. These freakish glamour shots are compiled in a book, Groomed, from Pelluceo Publishing.
The Biker Chicks Of Marrakesh
You’ve probably never seen a biker gang quite like this. In photographer Hassan Hajjaj’s series “Kesh Angels,” the lady motorcyclists of Marrakesh, Morocco, wear polka-dot abaya and Nike-branded djellaba, posing on their bikes against brightly painted walls. The juxtaposition of traditional Islamic dress with biker-tough posturing and Western branding upends stereotypes of Muslim women as anti-modern and ultra-conservative.
What It’s Like To Be A Ruin-Porn Photographer
Andre Govia describes himself as “addicted to decay.” The U.K.-based urban explorer’s book of photography, Abandoned Planet, is an extensive tribute to that addiction, which has taken Govia and his camera to more than 22 countries over the past 15 years. Govia, who mainly makes his living as a freelance cinematographer for television, elicits a certain ethereal drama from the remains of old manor houses, decrepit prisons, hospitals, and mental institutions, and even indoor swimming complexes far past their prime.
What You’ll Look Like At 100
In our heavily Botoxed culture, it’s rare to see images that present aged skin as beautiful. That’s part of what makes Missouri-based photographer Anastasia Pottinger’s black-and-white photos of people over the age 100, “Centenarians,” so powerful.
Meals Re-Created From 9 Famous Books
When described right, food in literature can be as memorable and enchanting as the characters themselves. For Fictitious Dishes: An Album of Literature’s Most Memorable Meals, designer and writer Dinah Fried re-created 50 famous novelistic feasts and beautifully photographed them.
Danny Lyon’s Unseen Photos Of NYC Subway Riders In The ’60s
In 1966, photographer Danny Lyon returned to his hometown of New York City after spending years documenting the Civil Rights movement in the South and motorcycle gangs in Chicago. Once back in the city, Lyon took his mother’s advice: “If you’re bored, just talk to someone on the subway.” Using a Rolleiflex camera and Kodak color transparency film, he started taking photographs of New York’s commuters and the city’s dingy, fluorescent-lit train stations. Eight of Lyon’s large-scale subway photographs are on view for the first time in Underground: 1966, a show hosted by MTA Arts & Design, at the Atlantic Avenue-Barclays Center station in Brooklyn.
Artist Wants To Map Every Single Human Skin Tone On Earth
In April 2012, artist Angelica Dass started a project, called Humanae, to map every human skin tone and match it with a corresponding Pantone color. Dass samples a small pixel from a portrait subject’s skin—usually from the well-lit cheek area—and then matches it to a Pantone hue, which is used as the backdrop. Her photographs for Humanae now number around 2,000, and collectively, they create a stunning spectrum of pink, brown, honey, and taupe (the list goes on)—hues that correspond to all possible skin pigmentations.
Can You Spot The Snipers Hiding In These Photos?
Do you pride yourself on having a good eye? Do you think you notice details others don’t? Well, test yourself by finding the sniper hiding in these deceptively tranquil-looking landscapes. Even for those with a keen eye, spotting snipers is close to impossible, as this photo series by German artist Simon Menner proves. Covered in moss, hiding behind trees, or buried under twigs and branches, these stealth sharpshooters are as good as invisible even when they’re circled in red. The photos are a chilling glimpse into the world of modern warfare: In the military, design is often used not to please the human eye but to deceive it.
14 Portraits Of College Grads Living At Home
Thanks to rising student debts and the weak economy of post-recession America, it’s no longer shameful to move back home after college–it’s a common reality. But that doesn’t make it any easier for young adults to live under their parents’ watch once again. Photographer Damon Casarez captures such adulthoods-on-hold in Boomerang Kids a photographic collection of college grads who moved home. “This project started out of my own struggle to find work and support myself after graduating college with over $100,000 in student loans,” Casarez tells Co.Design. Casarez spent two months traveling to eight states and 16 cities to photograph his subjects.
50 Behind-The-Scenes Photos From Star Wars
These candid backset shots of Return of the Jedi (1983) in production reveal the work and play that went into creating everyone’s favorite galaxy far, far away. It’s a view of Tatooine, Bespin, Endor, and Dagobah from behind the camera.
Intimate Photos Of How People Eat In New York City
Miho Aikawa’s series of intimate photos reveals how, as New Yorkers and Tokyoites sit down for their evening meal, tradition is evolving to fit into the chaos of contemporary life. “Having dinner isn’t just about eating food, or even about nutrition,” Aikawa says. “It reveals so many aspects of our lives, much more than lunch or even breakfast would. And because dinnertime is usually private, it uniquely reveals a part of a person’s lifestyle.”
Photos Of San Francisco Before The Dotcoms Invaded
Before San Francisco was overrun by tech bros, the city was an idyllic, if gritty, melting pot, as photographer Janet Delaney reveals in her book South of the Market. The roots of the tension between blue-collar Bay Area residents and Silicon Valleyites go back decades, though: After moving to San Francisco’s South of Market (SoMa) district in 1978, Delaney witnessed firsthand as her eclectic neighborhood gave way to the then-new Moscone Convention Center (which now hosts Apple and Google events). From 1980 to 1982, she photographed her streets almost every week–until rent grew too high, and she relocated to the Mission District.
Photo Essay Explores The Inner World Of A Trailer Park
San Francisco-based photographer David Waldorf portrays the close-knit community of a Sonoma Valley trailer park. Some residents are migrant workers who harvest grapes in the nearby Sonoma Valley, while others are fixed-income retirees or former drug addicts. Waldorf was careful to develop trust and friendship with his subjects: “I hung out there for years, and people at the park really seemed to love the photos I took,” he says. “One guy even blew his up to the size of a poster to hang on his wall.”
For more excellent photo essays, check out Co.Design’s Exposure series.
In December 1951, LIFE published one of the most extraordinary photo essays ever to appear in the magazine. Across a dozen pages, and featuring more than 20 of the great W. Eugene Smith' pictures, the story of a tireless South Carolina nurse and midwife named Maude Callen opened a window on a world that, surely, countless LIFE readers had never seen — and, perhaps, had never even imagined. Working in the rural South in the 1950s, in "an area of some 400 square miles veined with muddy roads," as LIFE put it, Callen served as "doctor, dietician, psychologist, bail-goer and friend" to thousands of poor (most of them desperately poor) patients — only two percent of whom were white.
Calling Maude Callen a heroic figure — especially today, when the word "hero" is thrown around like confetti — might strike some as problematic. She was, after all, not really risking her life in her daily and nightly rounds. But how else should we characterize a woman who saved so many others through her work, and who firmly, compassionately delivered into the world so many children who, without her intervention, might well have died at or shortly after birth? What else do we call someone who dedicated seemingly every waking moment to helping others — in a time and place where pain and want were the rule, rather than the exception?
The article in LIFE, titled simply "Nurse Midwife," that chronicled Callen's work and her unique role in her community is a companion piece, of sorts, to Smith's 1948 essay, "Country Doctor." Spending time with the two essays, one gets the sense that Maude Callen and Dr. Ernest Ceriani of Kremmling, Colorado — while physically separated by thousands of miles, as well as by the even broader, thornier barrier of race -— would not only understand one another, on an elemental level, but that each would recognize something utterly familiar in the other. Their lives and the landscapes they navigated might have been as different, in critical ways, as one can possibly imagine; but in the essentials, they were kindred spirits. They were healers.
Here, LIFE.com presents "Nurse Midwife" in its entirety, as well as images that Smith shot for the story but that were never published in LIFE.
The story in LIFE began this way, setting the stage for what one reader called, echoing the numerous awe-struck letters to the editor published in a later issue, "one of the greatest pieces of photojournalism I have seen in years":
Some weeks ago in the South Carolina village of Pineville, in Berkeley County on the edge of Hell Hole Swamp, the time arrived for Alice Cooper to have a baby and she sent fr the midwife. At first it seemed that everything was all right, but soon the midwife noticed signs of trouble. Hastily she sent for a woman name Maude Callen to come and take over.
After Maude Callen arrived at 6 p.m., Alie Cooper's labor grew more severe. It lasted through the night until dawn. But at the end she was safely delivered of a healthy son. The new midwife had succeeded in a situation where the fast-disappearing "granny" midwife of the South, armed with superstition and a pair of rusty scissors, might have killed both mother and child.
Maude Callen is a member of a unique group, the nurse midwife. Although there are perhaps 20,000 common midwives practicing, trained nurse midwives are rare. There are only nine in South Carolina, 300 in the nation. Their education includes the full course required of all registered nurses, training in public heath and at least six months' classes in obstetrics.
Maude Callen has delivered countless babies in her career, but obstetrics is only part of her work... To those who think that a middle-aged Negro [sic] without a medical degree has no business meddling in affairs such as these, Dr. William Fishburne, director of the Berkeley County health department, has a ready answer. When he was asked whether he thought Maude Callen could be spared to do some teaching for the state board of health, he replied, "If you have to take her, I can only ask you to join me in prayer for the people left here."
For W. Eugene Smith, work mattered. Throughout his legendary career, he sought out and chronicled the lives and the labor of people who knew their craft. Whether he was photographing a world figure like Dr. Albert Schweitzer in Africa or anonymous Welsh coal miners; a doctor in the Rockies or a midwife in South Carolina; Smith saw something noble in hard work, and something profoundly admirable in men and women who cared enough to do their work well.
But one would be hard-pressed to find anyone who ever appeared in LIFE's pages whose humble and necessary work merited more admiration than that of the unforgettable, unbreakable nurse midwife of Smith's 1951 photo essay. After the piece was published, LIFE subscribers from all over the country sent donations, large and small, to help Mrs. Callen in what one reader called "her magnificent endeavor." Thousands of dollars poured in — sometimes in pennies and nickels, sometimes more — until, as LIFE later reported, she was overwhelmed by the response.
"Halfway through a recent day's mail, [Mrs. Callen] said to her husband: 'I'm too tired and happy to read more tonight. I just want to sit here and be thankful.'"
Eventually, more than $20,000 in donations helped to build a clinic in Pineville, where Mrs. Callen worked until her retirement in 1971.
In later years, Maude Callen was still (rightfully) being celebrated for her life's work. She was honored with the Alexis de Tocqueville Society Award in 1984 for six decades of service to her community, and in 1989 the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) awarded her an honorary degree, while the MUSC College of Nursing created a scholarship in her name.
Maude Callen died in 1990 at the age of 91 in Pineville, South Carolina, where she had lived, and served, for seven decades.
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.