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What’s Ryan Been Reading?

February 14th, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Well, I’m glad you asked. 🙂

I’ve been reading a number of photo books lately, and have some comments, good and bad.  So here are my reviews for anyone who might be interested:

Understanding Exposure by Brian Peterson, 3rd Edition

After reading a number of reviews and recommendations for this book — the photography hobbyists of the Internet simply gush about this book — I have to say I had pretty high hopes that this book would have that “aha” spark of wisdom that would make my photos pop.  Unfortunately, I seem to have fallen into the ever-present fallacy that buying just one more “how-to” book will make you better.  It’s the hobbyist’s curse, I think.  This book does not contain ancient Zen secrets of perfect photos.

But that’s not to say that the book was all bad.  I did revise my opinions on a few tricks — like pushing all the way out to f/22 when the situation calls for it — and Peterson’s discussion on the concept of the “creatively correct” exposure solidified and put into words something I’ve been grappling with for a while.  But sadly it doesn’t go much further than that.

All in all the book would be very good for someone that hasn’t studied the technical side of photography extensively and would like to understand how to move beyond the camera’s automatic camera modes.  The pictures are generally pretty good illustrations of the point that is being made, but at the same time I don’t feel like I’m being beat over the head by the concept.  Peterson likes to present two (or more) images that would all be pretty good, and it takes a bit of critical thinking to see why one might be better than the other.  The examples, while numerous and colorful, are also arranged such that they don’t completely overpower the narrative’s flow.  That’s a good thing for me, as I get very distracted when books throw thousands of pictures in my face.  (I’m looking at you, DK Publishing!)

One nagging detail I found is that there are several places where example photos are out of order and math details are incorrect (f/32 is two stops from f/64, not one) but these can generally be overlooked unless you’re a stickler like myself.

Overall a good guide, but very little here is earth shattering.  More of a good retelling of things that have been said elsewhere.

I’d recommend borrowing this from the library or a friend.

The Photographer’s Eye by John Szarkowski

An interesting review of black and white photography since its inception by one of the big names in photography.  (Szarkowski was the Director of Photography at the MoMA for many years.)  The introduction essay is pretty good (if a bit lofty) and gives a nice historical overview of the concepts presented.  (I recommend taking it in chunks that correspond to the different chapters.)  The photos chosen come from a wide background and several will probably be familiar to anyone who has done a lot of looking at famous black and white photographers.

Overall I’d say that this book offers a good overview of the art, but is a little too broad in its sweep.  A number of the pictures seem like they would be better interpreted in the context of the particular artist’s body of work, as opposed to standing by themselves.

I would rent this from the library, but wouldn’t buy it again.

William Eggleston’s Guide by John Szarkowski and William Eggleston

I can’t praise this book enough.  Simply wonderful.  This is the type of photography that I aspire to do.  Eggleston’s photographs are simple, unrestrained, and utterly effortless, while at the same time obviously executed by a master.  Flipping through the pages of this book is almost like looking at a family photo album, except that every single print is perfect.  There just aren’t any times where I look at a photo and say, “I would change this” or “I would move that.”  They’re all just right, just how they are.

The color reproductions are also very nicely done (which is good, considering that Eggleston is one of the first major color photographers).  If you haven’t seen good, subtle color reproductions in a book before you’re in for a real treat.

As if that weren’t enough, I thought that Szarkowski’s introduction was right on the money, and was a really good read without being too “artsy.”

Highly recommended.

Uncommon Places by Stephen Shore

In a similar vein to Eggleston’s work, Shore’s photographs are quiet and colorful, but the colors are realistic, as opposed to the over-saturated, in-your-face colors that are so prevalent today.  Unlike Eggleston’s work, however, I found that Shore’s work took a lot longer to appreciate.  The length of the book is really necessary to get to understand these photographs and the mindset behind them.  But that is a pleasure in itself, as the immense detail captured by Shore’s 8×10 camera (yup… the negatives were 8″x10″!) makes for images that you can really explore.  Despite its larger size, the book holds well and is a pleasure to leaf through propped open on a lap or table.  The paper is nice and thick and the color reproductions very well printed.

Unfortunately the introduction essay for this book is terrible.  It’s full of bombastic, pretentious art-speak that is painful to wade through and does little for framing the viewer’s understanding of the work.  I get the distinct impression that the author doesn’t understand Shore’s work well enough, and because of that is unable to communicate with the audience.  That’s sad, because a good introduction essay can really help to guide you through the central themes of a body of work.  Here I felt more or less on my own.  And with photos this enigmatic that will lose a lot of viewers.

But on the whole, even if you aren’t into “artsy” photos, Uncommon Places is a gorgeous cross-section of 70’s America, and as such should please most audiences as a coffee table book.

Highly recommended, well worth the price.

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  1. Mom
    February 14th, 2011 at 23:25 | #1

    Hey, I sure hope that the book you RAVED about was one of the ones I bought you for Christmas !! If not, no hard feelings. By the way, how would you like the LIBRARY you left at home when you left ! I know you said that I should get rid of most of them, but there are COLLECTIONS in there. I need a little more help. Next Christmas ?! Is it OUR TURN for you guys to be up here in Montana in 2011? Need I say more, need I say more ?

  2. February 15th, 2011 at 23:42 | #2

    Any chance I can borrow one or more of these? Sounds like they’re worth a read.

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