I read a lot, and every year I read two or three photography books. This year I read more than usual, so I thought I’d give a year-end synopsis of the list. Yes, you can read photography books, they aren’t just filled with pictures, and some have hardly any photos at all. Many of the more photo-based books can offer a “behind the scenes” look at the images, or you might get into the head of the photographer with a story behind the image and its artistic process. Following is a list of books that I found interesting and instructive:
On Composition and Improvisation by Larry Fink (2014 Aperture Foundation)
Stellar situational and portrait photographer Larry Fink lets you into his head while viewing his photos, and gives behind the scenes knowledge and compositional advice. Just pretend you’re about to take a workshop from a genius, and then sit back and learn.
The Nature of Photographs by Steven Shore (2007 Phaidon Press Limited)
Photographer and photo historian Steven Shore selects and reviews photos that have shaped and influenced him over the years. His reviews of images within this book begins with what makes up a photograph and we proceed from there. At first the descriptions sound obvious, but then you begin to consider and think more deeply about the photograph. By the end, you’re looking at images in a new way.
Pax Americana by Christian Heeb (2019 Edition Panorama GmbH)
Those highway pull-offs that Steven Shore made famous with his photography are the areas Christian Heeb revisits and photographs 50 years later. These places no longer ring with American muscle, vigorous growth and expansion; but are rundown and abandoned vacant lots filled with weeds. In these un-romanticized views, Heeb pulls back the curtain of America’s vitality to show a country on the decline.
The New American Pastoral: Landscape Photography in the Age of Questioning by Robert A. Sobieszek (1990 Whitney Museum of American Art)
More of a pamphlet to go with an exhibition than it is a book, The New American Pastoral focuses on Man vs Nature landscape photographs (with nature on the losing side). Critics point out that to show pristine nature in today’s age of man’s alteration to the landscape is disingenuous, these images show a world with warts and all.
The Ongoing Moment by Geoff Dyer (2005 Vintage Books)
This is perhaps the best book on photography I’ve ever read, and Geoff Dyer is not even a photographer but an essayist. Dyer ties together generations of photographers through common themes and threads of their images. Whether it’s photographing the blind, benches, or hats, every photographer is influenced by those who came before. As Dyer writes, “All the great photographers are capable of metamorphosing themselves, if only occasionally or accidentally, into other photographers.” He has ample proof to confirm this point. Now as I read about other photographers, I’m fascinated with their influences and how I can draw parallels to others.
Landmark: The Fields of Landscape Photography by William A. Ewing (2014 Thames & Hudson Ltd.)
Ewing explores the various forms of landscape photography throughout this book with intellect and humor. He flashes a dark sense of wit to move the narrative along and to make a point. The images throughout are spectacular, with numerous works of pure art from many of today’s greatest landscape photographers. These are images that show the hand of man in this Anthropocene age.
Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings by Sarah Greenough & Sarah Kennel (2018 National Gallery of Art and the Peabody Essex Museum)
This outstanding book is a companion piece to the Sally Mann retrospective exhibition touring the cities of Los Angeles, Houston, Paris, and Atlanta and makes a wonderful compliment to Sally Mann’s autobiography Hold Still. Whereas in her autobiography you learn more of her life, family, friends, and influences; the scholarly writing of A Thousand Crossings looks at the inner workings of Sally Mann the artist: her thoughts, processes, and influences. Mann is a southern artist who uses the literary works of Faulkner, O’Conner, and even Lincoln to help the imperfections of her collodion processing craft create metaphors in her work. When Lincoln referred to the battle of Cold Harbor that the “heavens are hung in black,” Mann’s battlefield landscapes are processes as dark, black, and sinister. The land has changed because of the death that took place there. She doesn’t use a hundred-year old process to capture an “old-timey” feel, but instead uses its imperfections to create art. Ideas of vulnerability and mortality exist throughout much of her art. Moving images of her children, landscapes, battlefields, southern churches, the location of Emmett Till’s murder, and others all embrace the perfection of imperfection with what the Japanese might call wabi-sabi.
Era of Exploration: The Rise of Landscape Photography in the American West 1860-1885 by Weston J. Naef & James N. Wood (1975 Albright-Knox Art Gallery and The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
This book covers the early history of landscape photography in the American west and features biographies on the best-known photographers of that age. What struck me as interesting is how early comp-stomping began as Weed, Muybridge, and Watkins all photographed from similar vantage points. It seems like Weed (the lesser photographer) was great at finding locations, and then the greater photographers like Muybridge and Watkins would follow in his footsteps to create better images from the same location. A fascinating romp through the history of U.S. landscape photography.
Photography Changes Everything by Marvin Heiferman (2012 Aperture Foundation/Smithsonian Institution)
Ask someone what photography is and you’ll get a different answer from each person you ask. Last year over a billion photographs were uploaded to Facebook, and each of those people would give you a different answer too about the nature of photography. A person photographing from a spacecraft would say photography was this, a soldier photographing from a drone would say that, and a teenager taking a selfie would describe photography differently. Art historian Geoffrey Batchen describes photography as, “A sprawling cultural phenomenon inhabiting virtually every aspect of modern life.”
An extension of the Smithsonian Institution’s online project, this book tries to explain photography in our lives and how it changes every aspect of it, and that change will continue as the technical aspects of photography change. For me, the first section was the most interesting as it dealt with the reality of photography and the history of composites in photography.
Which photography books did you read and enjoy this year? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
Location: Mosier, Oregon
As a long-distance hiker, I have sharpened my photographic perspective over the years on the Pacific Crest Trail, the Continental Divide, the Canadian Divide and most recently walking across Iceland. My goal is to capture the wonders I see in nature for the enjoyment of all those with an eye for the extraordinary.