Although they're different for each of us, I would guess that everybody has those dreaded "photographers you're supposed to like." You know, famous photographers whom everybody admires but who for some reason just don't grab you. I can think of a few who are that way for me. No names, now—let's be polite: there's no point in slagging off someone by name whose work someone else might love.
But then we have the opposite: guilty pleasures. Stuff you just lap up happily whenever you come across it and that just hits the spot for you.
I visited a bookstore far from home the other day and came across a new book that I just had to peruse, even though I ought to have been in browsing mode. The book has a lot of problems. It's called A Year in Photography: Magnum Archive.
A year? I assumed that meant they were surveying the best photography of a certain year. Which year? It doesn't say on the cover. Which bugged me. So I picked it up. And the first photograph I flipped to was dated 1978.
And the second one, 1954.
What the hell?
It actually took the small brain a while to figure out the concept the publishers were going for. The clue: there are 365 pictures in the book. Yeah—really—it's one of those calendar books, like the ones that give you an inspiring hokey fortune-cookie quotation to help you face every new morning, or a different cat cartoon to start each day off with a smile. (Who buys crap like that? Whoops, I said no slagging off.) Each picture is associated with a day of the year.
Pointless. It's just an excuse for publishing a stack of pictures.
Magnum, as in Champagne
But ahhh, what pictures. Magnum is the photographer's photo agency, started by photographers, for photographers. And named for the famous jumbo size of Champagne bottle. Yes, it was (and is) intended to make money, but its members had (and have) unprecedented freedom to follow their own stories and shoot the kinds of pictures they like, in the style that comes most naturally to them. Here, in somewhat plainspoken semi-matte one-picture-per-page reproduction that democratizes each picture relative to the others (and that I like quite a bit), are 365 great Magnum photographs. Many great masterpieces you will recognize, but many very fine pictures you will not. Verticals are not shortchanged, because the book is square; and there's not a single picture disfigured by being spilled across the gutter (good thing, too, because in a book this thick the gutter gets pretty prominent).
And here we come to the second conceptual shortcoming. Books of Magnum "greatest hits" really don't make a lot of sense, because one of the stated principles of Magnum from the beginning was to allow the photographers control of the context in which the pictures were presented; no more slash-and-burn by editors willing to cut out the visual heart of a picture story or disorder its flow, no more cropping ruthlessly and crippling a composition to fit a layout or a page. Not that Magnum was ever really able to insist on such lofty objectives consistently. But still...here we get pictures pulled completely out of their original contexts, presented without story or background. I happen to know the stories behind a lot of these pictures, and they're important. They amplify the meaning and the impact of the photographs. But they're just not here. It's not just that this isn't the best way to see photographs...it's that it's specifically contrary to the spirit of Magnum. You don't even get simple captions except in the back of the book.
So...these are just pictures. One after the other, without emphasis, with no context or rhyme or reason.
So the book shouldn't even be recommendable, let alone so entrancingly pleasing. Because, really, this is a fair sampling of simply the best that the medium of photography has to offer. Bon bons they may be, plucked thus out of context and divorced from explication. But if you simply like looking at photographs (which I very much do), then this book actually is what all such books claim or pretend to be: a treasury. I literally had to sit down and take three quarters of an hour to slowly look at every page.
"So okay," as David Vestal is wont to say: not recommended.
...And yet recommended, as a guilty pleasure, if your guilty pleasures bear any resemblance to mine.
P.S. This title goes into much the same category as Photographers A–Z or Photo:Box (the links are to our reviews)—educational rather than original—albeit with the above caveats about the absence of commentary.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Roger Overall: "I'm currently working my way through this book. Every day, I study that day's photograph to see what I can learn from it. If the photographer is unknown to me, I research them. Gradually, in 15-minute blocks at bedtime, my knowledge of photography is growing.
"You've highlighted one of the things I dislike about the book. The photographs are presented without context. I think that diminishes them. In some cases, I struggle to see any merit in them at all. Sacrilege, I know, but a good few of the selected photographs are empty of story or artistic intent. As a book that makes forces you to learn by using your own initiative to find out more about the photographs and their creators, it works. It stimulates. As a standalone work that encapsulates all the reader needs between its covers, it fails."
Featured Comment by Stefan: "Speaking about Magnum photographs, I have been spending the last few evenings reading through Magnum Contact Sheets. Absolutely magnificent and surely a fitting complement to A Year in Photography: Magnum Archive.