Writing about Steve McCurry's new book The Unguarded Moment the other day and thinking about how well it "goes with" his earlier book Looking East reminded me that for some while now I've been meaning to write a post about books in pairs. I have a quirky tendency to shelve books next to other books that I sense they fit with. Sontag sits next to Barthes, Tom Wolfe's The Painted Word is shelved next to John Berger's Ways of Seeing. Why? I guess sometimes the pairings are obvious; sometimes it's because the two books nurture or amplify each other, sometimes it's because I feel they balance each other out or contradict. I guess it has no real meaning...it's just a personal idiosyncrasy. I'm still not sure I'm ever going to inflict that particular essay on you.
But as I was thinking about it again I was poking around on Amazon seeing what's in print and what's not, and I came across David Pye's lovely little book The Nature and Art of Workmanship again. This rare little gem hasn't always been easy to get in the 41 years since it was published, so I thought I'd just throw out another recommendation for it for whatever it's worth. Pye was Professor of Furniture Design at The Royal College of Art in London from 1948 to 1974, and this book pertains mostly to furniture...on the surface. The book is really about the philosophy of craftsmanship, however. Read it with a flexible and open mind, and you can apply many of his ideas to many other fields, to many arts and most crafts. It can be easily seen as pertaining to the "crafting" of photographs (fine art prints, at the very least) and in some ways, I think, even cameras(!). I know that ever since I first read it I've found it helpful to think of his concepts of "the workmanship of risk" and "the workmanship of certainty" with regard to photographing—in a way it's what Garry Winogrand was talking about in that marvelous and thought-provoking little video we linked to a while back.
Right now, here, today, I'm not going to jump into the deep sea of talking about photography's relationship to craft, either historically or the way it's been changing again lately. It's a big subject. In any event, this is not a book that's directly about photography. But it's one of those rare books in which someone who's been thinking for a lifetime about a subject he knows deeply makes an attempt to share his hard-gained wisdom with others. In that way it's the opposite of much of the cookie-cutter, research-and-regurgitate, processed, pasteurized book product that passes for being publishable all too often these days. I certainly enjoyed it when I read it, and I treasure it on my shelves now, and I recommend it to you with feeling if it sounds like it might appeal.
ADDENDUM: Well for Pete's sake, I forgot the U.K. link. And Prof. Pye was a Londoner, too. Sorry.
Featured Comment by Dale: "Just for perspective, I keep my copy of Nietzsche's The Use and Abuse of History next to my Gary Larson collection."
Featured Comment by Calvin Amari: "Sontag next to Barthes, eh? Something tells me this is a charged statement.
"Might it be that when you see statements, for example, like this in Sontag's On Photography: 'For politicians the three-quarter gaze is more common than [a frontal view]: a gaze that soars rather than confronts, suggesting instead of the relation to the viewer, to the present, the more ennobling abstract relation to the future.'
"...and this from Barthes' 'Photography and Electoral Appeal' written decades earlier: 'A three-quarter face photograph, which is more common than [a frontal view], suggests the tyranny of an ideal: the gaze is lost in the future, it does not confront, it soars and fertilizes some other domain, which is chastely left undefined.'
"...placing one volume in close physical proximity to the other is your symbolic editorial correction for the fact that Sontag didn't have the courtesy of even crediting the original with a footnote in this and similar examples? Just wondering."
Mike replies: Ah, that ill-defined line between "influence" and plagiarism. (Which brings to mind the question, how does one reproduce a Sherrie Levine in a book?) Your comparison of these quotes raises one ugly specter: that I might have found Barthes so difficult merely because his language (in translation) is less clear....
Anyway, there's that, and that they seemed to have had such a mutual admiration society going, and that their writings and all the related fuss were roughly contemporaneous, and that the books are roughly the same size and thickness...regarding that last, I'm not proud—I didn't say this habit of mine strictly made any sense.
Featured Comment by Glenn Gordon: "Here's a bad PDF of a piece I wrote in 1996 for Woodwork magazine on David Pye’s The Nature and Art of Workmanship. It was good to see your mention of the book—it was seminal for many craftsman that I know.
"Speaking of pairing books, I’ve always shelved Pye's next to Soetsu Yanagi's The Unknown Craftsman (or at least I did until some unknown borrower failed to return the Yanagi; it’s one of those books I keep having to replace, lending it too often to people who disappear.)"