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Tuesday, 05 March 2019


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"I would recommend that his hypothetical friend not bother."
I was beginning to think it was just me.
I agree that "Why Photographs Work" would be a better choice.
Sometimes I think when people give their opinion of a photo, they are just scratching around looking for something to say.

As Forrest Gump said: I think maybe it’s both

I just bought Karr's and Maisel's. Had to. Please avoid this kind of posts in the future, for your readers' pockets sake!

Don't beat yourself up on it Mike! It's not as if Moose was arguing one point for the whole of the first part and then refuted entirely it in the later half.

Main comment: I find myself somewhere between the poles on "Looking at Photographs by John Szarkowski". Many, if not most of the pictures are of historic significance only, and would have been largely forgotten if they did not appear in books like this one written by people with disproportionate degrees of influence at the time. However, I like Szarkowski's writing, (could that be a major source of Mike's appreciation as well?), and think of this book as very much a 'keeper' in my modest collection.

On Moose's recommendations: I own, or think I may own, "The Practice of Contemplative Photography". But I could well have thrown it out, as I remember being intrigued by the title and ordering it, but when it arrived, I found it irritating and shallow. The picture on the cover about sums it up. (I'll have to see if I still have it, and if it still has the same effect.) If you want to see excellent introspective colour photographs, and understand more about how to improve your visual sense, then I suggest any of the books by Freeman Patterson. Moose's recommendation of George Barr's book, "Why Photographs Work" I heartily second. It's a great learning source. Whatever your tastes you can't go wrong with that one. His other recommendations, I don't know and I will need to check them out, but I think I will need to see them before ordering. (Moose is only batting 500 here 😉.)

On the topic of what one book your hypothetical friend of the vast empty bookshelf must buy, I would recommend "The Black Trilogy", by Ralph Gibson – Different, original, thought provoking. And I have to agree with the suggestion from others for "Here Far Away", by Pentti Sammallahti. How did he ever 'see' those pictures?!!

I agree with Moose. It is time to move on with photography. We can't live/exist in the past; but I am not sure of the future. I'm afraid that photography as we have known it won't exist much longer.

Years ago I took a Miksang photo workshop which included receiving a copy of “The Practice of Contemplative Photography.” While the intention of the philosophy is peaceful enough, its visual interpretation via photography results in decorative, graphic design images that border on being high end stock work. Unfortunately the illustrations (photos) in the book do little to suggest a more complex view is possible.

Having worked in photography in the 1940s, and returning to it in the 1990s, I still prefer the style of the earlier period. I don't have a cellular phone (it's not long ago that we got a cordless phone), and I still use a black and white film camera. Living a simpler life is less complicated and more enjoyable.

For what it's worth I take pictures in black and white, even in the modern world, because sometimes, to me, they look better that way.

I don't do this out of some false sense of artistic exceptionalism or anything. Usually it's just because I'm too lazy to fight the white balance.

Just kidding. Usually it's because I find some particular piece of form and light interesting and color has nothing to do with to, so I take it away.

Another vote for Karr and Maisel. Awaiting delivery with bated breath! Mike, I hope you get the (small) commission from a sale on the Amazon UK site as well.

TOP isn’t optimised for mobile devices! TOP needs an update to work in the modern world.

Lets talk anout music. AOR didn’t stop the Ramones from doing shot songes. Dylan didn’t repeat himself. Rondstadt went from rock to country to big-band, without breaking stride. Art is about inventing the future, not repeating the past. If this was’t true we would be listening to Scott Joplin.

In 2018, the Texas Photographic Society sponsored a student exhibition. The show was juried by Kenda North, Professor of Photography at the University of Texas, Arlington. The works shown covered quite the spectrum of aesthetics, media, and genre; but were generally very compelling and interesting. I was struck by Ms. North’s remarks. I quote them here, as I could not have “said it better myself”:

“The work submitted to this competition proves that the definition of ‘photography’ has broadened considerably in contemporary use. There is a tremendous diversity of technique and materials as well as stylistic applications. My selections are intended to honor this diversity. There are examples of straight photographic representation, both analogue and digital, as well as creative uses of montage, abstraction, staged images and technology. …”

' "If colour film had been invented first, would anybody even contemplate photographing in black and white?" ' (R. Miller)


I spent time in Secondary (High) School at a technical drawing board with pencils in hand. My eye is always caught by monochrome art, especially work in pencil or pen & ink.

And a grandparent that I never knew (he predeceased my arrival in the world) was a graphic artist before colour in print and in photography were known.

Must be in my genes ....


I dug out my copy of the Szarkowski book to see what the fuss is about.

Seems to me the Erwitt pic clearly falls into Szarkowski's 'humorist' category. Especially given Erwitt's penchant for lighthearted photographs - jumping dogs for example.

I guess some folk can't see the joke. Or maybe they take photographs too seriously?

I think Mr. Moose has completely missed the point if he thinks the Elliott Erwitt photo has the same intent or is anywhere in the same category as his with frames and the moon reflection, in the case of the former the graphic composition is merely supporting the picture and making it intriguing for the viewer but it is only in combination with its ability to communicate the common association of a specific place does it become meaningful whereas his is just form without substance.

The debate / argument about whether photography is / can be an art, is as old as photography itself. No doubt, curators have had a hand in promoting the work of a few as "art" but, leaving that aside, after giving this matter quite some thought recently, I think I have a possible answer to the question "When is photography an art?".
The answer is - when viewers responds to the work as art, it is art; when they don't, it isn't.
Another possible answer might be that all photography is art, but there is good art and bad art ( just as there is in all other forms of art). And which is which is just a matter of opinion.
Books? Walker Evans' "First and Last" made a great impression on me.

I spent hours poring over Why Photographs Work, especially the ones I didn't 'get', trying understand why and how a photograph I might not like was a 'good' photograph. I got it from the library and probably should have bought it.

“The Practice of Contemplative Photography: Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes” is a good choice, I found it an interesting alternative way of looking at photography. I would say I gained some fresh ideas from this unusual offbeat book.

A bit off topic but the best book about “composition” remains for me the “Principles of Composition In Photography” by Andreas Feininger, long out of print but available SH from Amazon.

Lots of popular “rules” like leading lines and S curves are demolished in this book. The “rule of thirds” gets hammered too.

“The Pleasures of Good Photographs” by Gerry Badger is another book I enjoyed,even if I did not “get” some of his choices.

Erwitt's photo is more than an exploration of shapes. Not seeing it makes me question some of the other judgements expressed in this article. I think good pictures tell more than one story.

I would love to move on, but I haven't seen enough convincing new photobooks compared to the classics. That might be an interesting thread, to have people share photobooks they think are worth buying that have been produced with photos from the last ten years, digital or film.

Current photography seems more about pattern, color and shape over content. I'm very much inclined toward abstraction in all forms, however, I can't overlook the lack of content in so much of the photography I see today. When I look at the work of some of the more popular photographers these days, I'm unimpressed. Seems many feel that the ultimate great photograph is of an anonymous individual staring into the lens while standing in front of a house/car/motorcycle/business/whatever, doing nothing. Of course it's done in color with a large format camera with a semi-wide lens and it is technically perfect. There was a recent, highly praised photo book comprised largely of just these types of pictures all done within a fixed area of reference. Great concept, poor execution I think. I find such photography to be decoration, soulless and superficial.

I haven't looked at Szarkowski's book in a few years and I don't remember exactly his comments on it but the Elliott Erwitt photo above is, of course, a series of recurrent shapes but it can also be considered a witty comment on the state of what is considered art---in this case frames without paintings lined up in an exhibition of nothing. That's why Erwitt's photo pushes all the right buttons for me while Moose's photo doesn't speak to me beyond the level of decoration.

But I'm of the generation of photographers who came to the art during the 1970's. My aesthetic is different and possibly outdated by current standards. To quote Kurt Vonnegut, "So it goes." And another guy who says "Just sayin'."

Two books in the vein of "The Practice of Contemplative Photography" but, in my opinion, better are by two of Minor White's students: Zen Camera by Prof. David Ulrich and The Zen of Creativity by John Daido Loori.

I’ll cast a second vote for the books by George Barr and Freeman Patterson. My last reccomendation isn’t a book per se but I’d reccomend a Lenswork subscription with the monographs and Seeing in Sixes as a must have for your “friend”. Not everything is something I love, but even the stuff I don’t gets me thinking.

I’ve been in the hospital since Jan 28th and wouldn’t be released until March 18th at the earlyist. My only contact with the ouside world is my . iPhone XS. TOP doesn’t play nice with phones, which may be a good thing.This is forcing me to find other things to occupy my time. I’m now using iAWriter to make article and story notes.

[If you double-tap on the center section it will expand to fit the width of your phone. That should make it easier to scroll. I considered a redesign to an officially mobile-friendly format, but people talked me out of it. --Mike]

Repeating my comment here from the previous posting because I think it's still relevant after reading Moose's entire article:

This book never especially resonated with me, despite picking it up on Mike's recommendation, although I do enjoy thumbing through it from time to time. I tend to find the pictures refreshing for their lack of technical perfection, and I enjoy reading the commentaries on photos that I would have perhaps passed over in a different context.

In this particular instance, I think that Szarkowski wasn't saying that there were 3 ways of seeing the physical world, but that people who only trusted what they saw (and not, for example, the interpretation of a certain curator) could be divided into 3 types.

He then asserts his interpretation that with this photograph Erwitt was saying that the true function of museums is not to display pictures but to house treasures.

And he concludes that if the reader disagrees with this interpretation of the photograph, the reader must believe only what his or her eyes see, and is thus one of the 3 types of people he identified in the opening.

At least, that's my reading of the essay.

Just saw this in the Washington Post yesterday, and it has a link for the book, which I intend to get. Striking photos.


Reminds me some of W. Eugene Smith, especially Pittsburgh, Minamata, including the semi-staging involved. The tonality reminds me of much of Roy DeCarava (which always gets reproduced online too light because he couldn't have meant it to be so dark...? Yes, he did!)

Anyway, holy sh*t!

Although it's tangential to the main point of this piece I can testify to the fact that sentiment expressed in the Russell Miller quotation is wrong: I teach college students, all of whom have grown up in a world in which color photography was invented first as far as they're concerned — it's the original, default way of shooting for anyone raised on digital — and making good monochrome photographs is always one of the most popular topics.

Wow! I did buy Here Far Away when you recommended it. If I ever do sell it (unlikely) I'll try to remember to bump my Patreon amount for a month.

I think the first photo book I ever bought was the big and affordable "The Photo Book" from Phaidon. It is a compendium of photographers listed in alphabetical order. It offers one image and a brief description of the photographer and their work and has cross references to other photographers in the book, who make related work. I spent hours combing through that book and using it as a starting point to find more images from specific artists. So while I am not sure it could be the only book in someone's one should ever own, I would definitely say it is a good first.

Loved Neil Young growing up, but I remember being at a party with On The Beach playing- everyone slumped over and deathly quiet in their respective chairs. Took it off, slapped on the Stones- like helium in a balloon, people immediately stood, and commenced to party.

Famous artists (like Degas and Van Gogh, and for that matter, almost all of them before the mid-20th century) produced quite a bit of black-and-white art (pencil drawings, engravings, etc.) that they offered for sale, and that is now hung in museums, even though they had access to (and routinely used) more colors than you'll find in color photography. Black-and-white isn't old-fashioned, it's something completely different. The problem with Szarkowski was that he got himself wrapped up in theory that tended to suggest that there was a 'good" and a "bad" photography. I once met an elderly woman who lived in a shack in Minnesota and had one picture pinned to her wall: a genuine full-color photograph of Jesus Christ and his Bleeding Heart (and it was a photo, not a painting.) I think it probably meant more to her than almost any art means to the rest of us, with our analytical minds.

As for my one book, it would be James Nachtwey's "Inferno." An undeniable masterpiece, in my opinion, and one of very few photo books from our time that will be looked at in the deep future.

To me, this is one of the most absurd and reductive comments on photography I've ever read:

"Why would anyone want to photograph an indisputably colourful world in monochrome? If colour film had been invented first, would anybody even contemplate photographing in black and white?"

—Russell Miller

To me it equates directly with criticising artists for representing the world in pencil or charcoal drawings, or for criticising the very many artists who paint abstractly or even representatively with a greatly reduced or even monotone palette.

It equates with a complete lack of understanding of what B&W photography can bring to our appreciation of our world through abandoning colour and keeping only to a rich tonality of shades of light and dark, line and form, and texture and pattern.

The comparison of the two 'similar' photographs by Erwitt and Moose seems to me to be a good case in point. Erwitt's excellent photograph reduces the image to an austere tonality of light and dark with hard lines and harsh reflections of light, also forming a structural pattern and subtle textures, which we can at the same time see both as a 'gallery of frames', and as more abstract patterns, creating dissonance and strangeness, but also easy familiarity. The advantage of B&W only is that it can clear the way to see patterns, textures and the subtle affects of light that though we MAY register subconsciously (or not) we might miss when colour is added.

This need not diminish colour photography at all, but it can raise the question of why we want to 'reproduce' a world in photographs exactly as it is (unless, of course, it is motivated by pure documentation - a noble reason). A question I often ask myself when looking at so many colour photographs is: why take it?

The exceptions would be those photographs that provoke us to see the familiar world in a new way, and then, of course, we would be looking at colour photographs for how they can provoke that - the same way we look at B&W photograaphs.

The last part of the article spoils it. It was better without the samples. Not that the those books are bad, but the shown photographs are much more generic an not in the same league as the ones in Szarkowski’s book.

Somehow this topic reminds me of the discussion in the Jazz world. Time has moved on, the music developed further, but even though we now have more musicians who above that are even better skilled and even though we have incredible audio technique, the music that was created in the Fifties and Sixties still remains the most important reference.

Szarkowski is also such a reference and his name on a book means you can expect first class work. Although most of the times I have problems not to fall asleep while reading his texts, just as I have with that of most other curators, art historians, philosophers, essayist et cetera. That show off that most publishers think they need to pimp up their books. It is so much more interesting to read what the artist themselves have to say about their work.

Reading more of the quote by Russell Miller in Magnum: Fifty years at the Front Line of History seems to give me a different meaning.

". . . mostly with images in black and white, which is the preferred medium for those who consider themselves to be serious about photography. (It is also an enigma for ordinary folk: why would anyone want to photograph an indisputably colourful world in monochrome? If colour film had been invented first, why would anybody even contemplate photographing in black and white?)"

I think Miller is remarking (to ordinary folk) that there's more to black and white than just an adherence to tradition.

Years ago I randomly picked up a Taschen paperback collection of Gibson photos called Deus Ex Machina that includes the pictures from the trilogy, but in a smaller form factor.

I never thought much about it until I read the extra comment here. Apparently it is also out of print and hard to find and expensive.


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