Tomes of beauty
If a picture is, indeed, worth a thousand words, then the one above should already tip you off to where I’m going with this post. But don’t leave just yet. First, let me tell you about some of the books pictured above.
I have collected photography books for nearly four decades — at least when I could afford them. And so I have a pretty decent library of all things photographic, covering everything from the arcane technical details of Ansel Adams’ Zone System, Y.O.B exposure procedures, archival printing and preservation, print restoration, to the kind of coffee table picture books piled high in the leading illustration.
This pile grew a lot higher, last week, when a dear old friend dropped by to donate his extraordinary collection to my already overflowing bookshelves. So much for the purge I’d attempted before my recent move! But I was very happy to accept this wonderful gift. Coming from the man who gave me my first “real” gallery show (in Vancouver, in 1984) it was especially meaningful.
Those decades ago, Gerry Duncan and I were both singularly obsessed with the art of photography, and its most influential practitioners. We ate up any source of news and information — magazines, journals and books —that might illuminate the lives and work of our favourite luminaries.
Gerry ran a specialty black and white lab, with an upstairs gallery, on Vancouver’s West 4th Avenue. I produced advertising photography from a small studio, not far away. Between busy schedules, Gerry and I would wander around the city with our Mamiya medium format cameras, inspired by the master documentary photographers we so admired.
Recommended photography books (A short list)
André Kertész: A Lifetime of Perception, Key Porter Books, 1982 | Ansel Adams, Barry Pritzker, Crescent Books, 1991 | Bernice Abbott American Photographer, Hank O’Neil, McGraw-Hill, 1982 | Brassaï: The Secret Paris of the 30’s, Richard Miller (translator), Pantheon, 1976 | Canadian Photography 1839-1920, Ralph Greenhill/Andrew Birell, Coach House Press, 1979 | Dorothea Lange: Photographs of a Lifetime, Aperture, 1982 | Faces of Canada, J. Marc Coté Pouliot, Urban Photographic Projects, Inc., 1992 | Faking Death: Canadian Art Photography and the Canadian Imagination, Penny Cousineau-Levine, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004 | Immediate Family: Sally Man, Aperture, 1992 | In the American West, Richard Avedon, Abrams, 1985 | L’Amour Fou: Photography & Surrealism, Krauss/Livingston, Cross River Press, 1985 | Joel-Peter Witkin: A Retrospective, Germano Celant, Scalo, 1995 | Julia Margaret Cameron: Her Life and Photographic Work, Helmut Gernsheim, Aperture, 1975 | On the Art of Fixing a Shadow: One Hundred and Fifty Years of Photography, National Gallery of Art, 1989 | Paris Mon Amour, Jean Claude Gautrand, Taschen, 2004 | The Daybooks of Edward Weston/Edward Weston: Fifty Years, Aperture, 1973 | Worlds in a Small Room, Irving Penn, Grossman/Penguin, 1974 | Steichen: The Master Prints 1895-1914, The Symbolist Period, The Museum of Modern Art, 1978
A screen is just a screen
The Internet has opened up the world of photography as much any other interest. We can view the work of our peers and our heroes like never before. This is a good thing.
But, even though Instagram and Facebook have become the default way to share photos socially, and digital photography the number one method of reproduction, looking at photographs on a computer screen can never, in my opinion, compete with making and viewing photographic prints.
There is a whole other discussion on the “best” venue for photographs, which I’ve covered elsewhere, so I will confine this essay to the assertion that, to my mind, the photographic print is the ultimate expression of the photographic process, and a neglected objective today.
That is a long way (not quite a thousand words) to say that poring over the works of great photographers in quality, well-printed books is a great way to inspire your creativity. I encourage you to visit the library, or, if you can afford it, a good bookshop. In my experience, used book stores can be a gold mine … which is where my recent windfall would have ended up, had I refused Gerry’s generosity.
Sharon & Renée, (Jacques-Henri Lartigue show) 1985
The proof is in the print
But nothing can compare with an original print.
If you are lucky enough to have access to a gallery showing fine art photography, do not miss a chance to see what a good print looks like. My first “master classes” in printmaking came from simply standing in awe before the works of such artists as Manuel Alvares Bravo, Ansel Adams, and Imogen Cunningham. I learned more examining such works than a million words could have ever conveyed.
Then it was back to the technical manuals, to develop the skills required to realize something approaching the virtuosity I had seen … and, most importantly, to develop my own personal vision.
The following list is by no means conclusive, when it comes to icons of photography. But it does contain, unarguably, some of the most groundbreaking practitioners of this relatively young craft. Certainly, I have benefitted greatly, if only in my appreciation for the craft, from studying their works. Google them.
Do you have a favourite photographer? Let us know in the comments below.
Berenice Abbot | Ansel Adams | Robert Adams | Diane Arbus | Eugène Atget | Richard Avedon | David Bailey | Hippolyte Bayard | Bill Brandt | Brassaï | Wynn Bullock | Julia Margaret Cameron | Édouard Boubat | Henri Cartier-Bresson | Lucien Clergue | Chuck Close | Alvin Langdon Coburn | Imogen Cunningham | Louis Daguerre | Robert Doisneau | Brian Duffy | Elliott Erwitt | Walker Evans | Andreas Feininger | Robert Frank | Lee Friedlander | Lewis Hine | Horst P. Horst | William Henry Jackson | Dorothea Lange | Yousuf Karsh | André Kertész | Jacques-Henri Lartigue | Danny Lyon | Robert Mapplethorpe | Dora Maar | Lee Miller | Duane Michaels | Lázlö Maholy Nagy | Beaumont Newhall | Tod Papageorge | Irving Penn | Gilles Peress | Eliot Porter | Nina Raginsky | Man Ray | Bettina Rheims | Marc Ribaud | Willy Ronis | August Sander | W. Eugene Smith | Edward Steichen | Alfred Stieglitz | Paul Strand | William Henry Fox Talbot | Roman Vishniac | Weegee | Edward Weston | Minor White | Garry Winogrand
Follow your own vision
Of course, studying alone will not advance your own portfolio. Reading books or awaiting the mercy of the muse is no substitute for picking up the camera and searching out your own magic moment through the lens.