Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Beauty in Photography by Robert Adams & Image Makers Image Takers

In perhaps a desperate attempt to stave off having to actually start writing my assignment 4 essay I have been doing a substantial amount of reading recently.  This also coincided with the end of a futile attempt to make  reading enjoyable by sneaking a couple of novels into my life.  Bad Student!!!!  Seriously, though, a key element of my development as a photographic student has been reading about the philosophy and history of photography.  These texts help me to contextualize my own work and see how what I do builds upon the myriads of photographers since the birth of photography in the early 19th century.

I have mixed my reading, varying between classics and contemporary discussion, I also include a little "how-to" alongside the "what", but ultimately I am trying to expand my understanding in two distinct directions, why do we create photographs and what do we photograph.  The two are very much interlinked, the former addresses the personal element, whilst the latter tends to address the cultural position of the medium.

The 2 most recent books I have read are written very much from the perspective of the practitioner and each addresses the questions of why and what, with very differing degrees of success.  Beauty in Photography by Robert Adams attempts to convey this celebrated photographers personal philosophy and starts with the claim that this book asks many questions student photographers should be asking.  Perhaps, however, the answers or at least the dialog contained did not live up to the promise.  I found this a rather rambling discussion of a number of key questions, without really getting a sense of what the authors own position was.  The language was very opaque.  This disappointed me, I was expecting something very much more forth-write from Robert Adams.  Perhaps my mind was in the wrong place when I read the book, a re-read in the future is possibly called for.

The one quote I took away and which resonated with me is the following:
"And I am worried by the amount of time spent by photographers in trying to revive nineteenth century photographic technology.  There are conceivably interesting uses to be made of almost any photographic method, but so many contemporary enthusiasts for old ways seem to place their faith simply in the value of doing the antique once more.  The results can be momentarily charming but they are often finally sad, a footnote to history, arcane and a little saccharine"
My reason for dwelling on this has been my own internal debate about using film, should I invest in a film camera, most likely Medium Format, or continue with my Digital practice.  The current craze for everything Lomo, even to the extent of recreating the "Lomo" effect in digital, seems to reflect Adams' comment above.  Given that digital technology is the present and future, why step back to old technology simply because of a sense of nostalgia or a desire to do some "real photography"?  If there is a genuine technical or artisitic reason for embracing film, fine, but only if it really adds something, I do not buy into the mysteries of film, the not knowing until the film is developed.

I mentioned two books, my second and very recently completed is Image Makers Image Takers by Anne-Celine Jaeger.  This is a truly excellent book, vastly different in size, scope, and most importantly impact to Adams' book.  The volume consists of 22 interviews with current photographers and 11 with people involved in the business such as curators or editors.  The interviews are candid, the views expressed are those of the practitioners, there is no editorializing.

Image Makers, Image Takers: The Essential Guide to Photography by Those in the Know

Philosophy is central to this book, the key question always becomes why, however, the the answers are engaging, they make you want to know more.  To some degree the book is too varied, so many different viewpoints can become a cacophony; conversely this wide range of views serves to underline a single and very simple point.  There is no single philosophy of photography, no single truth, each and every photographer is driven by individual impulses, however much influenced by the world around.  For the successful, it is their own personal vision that matters.

My take away from reading both books is that broad based philosophies of photography are about as valuable as the paper they are written on, it is personal vision and individual ambition that leads to successful photography.  An understanding of popular culture is useful if you want to sell something, but Sontag, Barthes, and Benjamin are not having much influence outside the class room.

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