[A note from Mike: I have it on good authority that Bruce Davidson's Outside Inside, which Geoff mentions at the top of this post, is slated to be reprinted by Stiedl sometime soon. So please don't buy it at the inflated prices it's been commanding since it went out of print. Just be patient. I'll try to let you as soon as it's available again. —MJ]
Reviewed by Geoff Wittig
Bruce Davidson's wonderful three-volume collection is tough to top, but there were a number of other excellent books that came out last year that might be worth your attention. In this post and my next one, I'll discuss four of them.
The Art of Photography: An Approach to Personal Expression (Rocky Nook, November 2010) (U.K. link)
Mike has pointed out that instructional books on photography are helpful when you're just starting out, but quickly reach a point of diminishing returns as you achieve a measure of skill. Past that point, you’ll learn more from taking your own photographs and from studying monographs. This book may be an exception to that rule. Bruce Barnbaum is an accomplished traditional large format landscape photographer who has taught workshops for many years. He is also known for discovering Antelope Canyon as a photographic venue. He has some very strong opinions about expressive photography, and published the first edition of this book laying out his views in 1994. It went though several self-published iterations, all emphasizing traditional film and darkroom work as a means of artistic expression. This new edition is entirely rewritten, and it’s vastly better in every way, from production values to technical scope and the clarity of the text. The quality of the reproductions of Barnbaum’s photographs illustrating the text are very good; most are beautifully rendered black and white images on semi-matte paper, and the color photographs are also well done.
The author is a lucid writer, and he makes a strong case for his view of photography as an artistic medium. The opening chapter articulates a deceptively simple but persuasive model of photographic expression. Barnbaum argues that what interests you—what you're enthusiastic and passionate about—is the natural subject for your photography. You see it differently from anyone else, and consequently (with appropriate mastery of the process) you can express something about it photographically that may enable others to see it in a new way. Subsequent introductory chapters discuss the perceptual and compositional aspects of photography as the tools needed to define and express what you have to say about your subject.
The middle portion of the book goes into great detail about the technical side of traditional optical/chemical photography, with an extensive discussion of metering, exposure, development and printing within the framework of the Zone System. At every step, the author emphasizes that the primary goal is not to meet numerical targets, but to producing a negative—and subsequently a print—that achieves one’s æsthetic and expressive goals for the image. A striking high contrast print may be eye-catching, but if your intent is to express the serene experience of standing in a misty forest, then your technique defeats your goal. I found Barnbaum’s relentlessly logical approach to maximizing image quality in the darkroom fascinating, though my own darkroom experience is minimal. Included is also a fairly complete discussion of color darkroom work, as the author is an experienced Ilfochrome printer.
The Zone System to the histogram
New to this edition is a remarkably sound and lucid discussion of digital imaging, raw processing, and Photoshop editing. Barnbaum demonstrates the conceptual continuity between traditional Zone System exposure techniques and the histogram. What your digital sensor and raw processor are actually doing "under the hood" is explained in some depth, articulating the logic of "exposing to the right" to maximize potential image quality. Extended dynamic range techniques receive special attention; the author notes that black-and-white film can potentially record up to 15 stops of information with careful exposure and development; by comparison, the 7-stop range of digital capture imposes a significant constraint. (Of course, if, like me you came to digital from slide film, you probably found the additional stop or two liberating!) Intelligent use of extended dynamic range can provide a way out of the straightjacket. Photoshop’s automated HDR function is discussed, as are two simple and very effective layer-based methods of manually blending exposures, followed by a brief discussion of Photomatix. Be forewarned that this is a text discussion, with no diagrams or illustrations; even so it’s quite easy to follow. Barnbaum never panders or condescends. At every step, he emphasizes that he's trying to give you the tools to express your own vision. What you do with them is up to you.
The final section of the book is more personal. The author lays out his views on the nature of creativity, realism versus abstraction, artistic integrity, and more. It’s refreshing to see an intelligent and clearly expressed exploration of these concepts on the page. He occasionally contradicts himself, and some sections are a bit murky. You won’t agree with everything he writes. But he surely makes you think about serious æsthetic questions, and that's very worthwhile—surely a better use of your time than spending hours obsessing over MTF charts!
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.