Some Useful Books for Fine Art Photographers

November 02, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

Successful Fine Art Photography is one of the most difficult genres to master. Having put in the mandatory 10,000 hours of practice, new tools come along, throwing up new challenges and opportunities and upsetting well-rutted apple-carts. Then there's post-processing and printing to master. It's as if, to use a musical analogy, a vistuoso violinist is supposed to learn several additional instruments and to write the music, book the concert hall, engineer the recording and then press the CD. So scrap that 10,000 hours: the best fine art photographers have spent a lot more time on learning all the processes involved.

And with the rate of technological change, the power of camera manufacturers' marketing and the shininess of the toys, it is all too easy to get trapped in the 'gearhead' phase of the process and not to place enough emphasis on one's philosophical approach and on the development of a critical infrastructure that informs the development of one's own aesthetic and in turn of one's practice. Add to this the prevalance of some really quite constraining norms in the genre and it can be hard to plough an individual furrow rather than get stuck in a generic creative rut.

Some of these issues were covered in my piece What is Fine Art Photography and, despite a limited angry reaction, 90% of the feedback to that somewhat controversial piece was very positive and a number of people asked for suggestions as to what reading material might help broaden their creative perspectives. So here goes.

Firstly, I want to say that there is nothing wrong, limited or second-rate about wanting to be a straight photographer: it is a complex, and honourable practice and it can be extremely satisfying to the photographer and his/her audience. But many photographers crave the additional kudos (and the attendant sales) of the Fine Art label. This piece is for those people.

It is my contention that to be creatively original, you need either egregious levels of natural talent or you need to work at it, and hard. The following process might help.

  • Learn to enjoy and 'read' art in general - be an educated aesthetic consumer, one who can tell the difference between 'pretty and attractive' and 'artistically accomplished and significant'. Unless you want to be a punk artist, philosophically opposed to the processes of art itself, this necessarily involves accruing some working knowledge of the history of art, and not just Western art.
  • Read about what happened when photography was invented (starting with the Rennaisance use of the Camera Obscura and how it impacted depictions of reality via accurate perspective) and how artists and non-artists perceived its potential, its threat and its meaning.
  • Learn your equipment and your technique inside out: the more you can do, the fewer boundaries there are to the imagination. But don't let technique and equipment swamp the development of your creative vision.
  • Look at the work of others in the genre. Think about what they were trying to achieve on both aesthetic and intellectual levels and on where that fits in with the culture in which they worked. It's almost a definition of art that it is something that should not be taken at face value: you have to deconstruct.
  • Think about what you want to say with your own work. In addition to how it looks, think about its cultural, ethical and intellectual roots and ambitions.

The books I have chosen below will, if taken together, cover most of the above bases efficiently, effectively and enjoyably. This is not a commercial site, I neither earn nor seek any revenues from it, but since my readers come from (at the last count) over 140 countries, I have provided links to these books on Amazon as the most global supplier.


On Photography by Susan Sontag

An incredibly ambitious and influential book, with no photographs in it at all. You know you're in for an intellectual workout from the first line:

"Humankind lingers unregeneratedly in Plato's cave, still revelling, its age-old habit, in images of the truth,"

and then, remarking that the sheer volume and range of photographic imagery available changes the 'terms of confinement' in the cave, she goes on to the simple but apparently profound "To collect photographs is to collect the world." I say 'apparently' because there's a lot in this book that might be considered profound or trite, depending on one's sympathies.

Regardless, there are a lot of interesting and original thoughts. "Movies and television programs light up walls, flicker and go out; but with still photographs, the image is also an object,' she says, though, having been written before the digital revolution, that is no longer true - and this highlights one problem with the book: for an analysis that squares itself up to the task of generating eternal truths, it sometimes feels rather dated - and Sontag's slightly haughty approach to the detailed understanding of technology sometimes lets her down.

What follows is a rollicking if demanding read in which she draws freely on the history not just of art and photography but also of the world, embedding her analysis in fact, myth, culture, politics, fashion and style. Neither is she always serious: famously critical of Arbus, she at one point dismissively summarises her oeuvre  as an "extremely private obsession... a thing (she) had for the Halloween crowd." 

Now that made me laugh. As did the phrase "much of modern art is devoted to lowering the threshold of what is terrible."

She is so smart, contentious, densely argued, learned, reverent and irreverent that any attempt at summarising this series of essays falls straight into the reductionist pit. Sontag takes photography by the balls, swings it round until it is giddy, then leaves it stumbling off into the history of the world somewhat unsure of its place but knowing at least that it has one. You may not agree with her thinking but as an example of how to think about photography, this book is pretty much without parallel; and it does not shy from the question of beauty, and whether it has any value beyond its own surface appeal. But a warning: if the approach of a pundit on record as having said "the white race is the cancer of human history," with the later addition that the statement had "slandered cancer patients" offends you, do not read this book. It is very East Coast Intellectual, but it takes no prisoners.

One last word: I would love her to have lived long enough to get her teeth thoroughly into Crewdson. Here's a hint of the direction she might have taken...

"Since photography cut lose from the Whitmanesque affirmation -  since it ceased to understand how photographs could aim to be literate, authoritative, transcendent - (it) has given itself over the the consolations of Surrealism.... Surrealism is a bourgeois disaffection; that its militants thought it universal is only one of the signs that it is typically bourgeois."


The Genius of Photography by Gerry Badger

Gerry's name may not be familiar to you (it wasn't to me) but having seen the BBC TV series (available on DVD) that accompanies this book, I wanted to refer back to some of the images and ideas that I had seen on screen. The book has become my first recommendation to students who want to see their work in its proper historical and aesthetic context. Its stated aim, a "quest to understand what makes a truly great photograph," is ambitious and while the book lacks the depth of philosophical ambition to take on a definition of terms in the way Sontag does, it is far less authoritarian, far more readable and, yes, it has a lot of great pictures. 

For someone who wants a real tour d'horizon but without giving up an analytical infrastructure, this is the best I have seen. It is intellectually strongly grounded but with great narrative pace and ease of use. It covers pretty much every important photographer, showing where they came from and where they led others, a very useful exercise. Take, for example, the way Badger ties Stephen Shore's Merced River, Yosemite National Park, 1979 to the work of Ansel Adams: 

"Whereas Adams tried to make believe that Yosemite remained an unsullied wilderness, Shore photographs a family picnicking  by the Merced river. He has accepted that where nature is, man is also, but that does not prevent him from making his own version of the American Sublime..."

Then back to Adams:

"His Western Landscapes... (present) the land as we want it to be rather than as it is."

So there's little surplus of high-falutin' critical vocabulary here, no criticism of Adams for mis-representing the truth in search of the merely pictorial. The book doesn't allow itself to get bogged down in all that. It notes that Adams' work was a meditation on a timeless Eden but does not criticise him for failing to meditate on the fact that this Eden was already lost: it just moves on. But in its desire to move on, it doesn't miss out anything of significance either and in this, it might be preferred to the Sontag book, which strays too far into semiotics for the tastes of some. 

By the end of the book, anyone who wants to take the meaning of their photography more seriously will have the tools to start the journey. You can't say better than that.

Another book in the same vein is Art and Photography by David Campany. In a way it combines many of the best features of both the above mentioned books and might be characterised as a more comprehensive but less accessible version of the Genius of Photography. It is, however, let down by the very worst kind of 'form over function' typography which, in my opinion, makes it close to unreadable. If you can bear that, it's great.

Magnum Contact Sheets edited by Kristen Lubben

This 'coffee table' book is almost the size of a coffee table, and almost the same weight. But it is a marvel. If you want to see the political and social ambition of documentary photography executed with the aesthetic of the Fine Art practitioner, this is the place. 

The USP of the book is the way in which it shows you the contact sheets from which some of the world's most famous and enduring images were selected. It shows all images on the roll, with red pencil rings around the candidate frames and then the final select, which is shown full-sized and with a commentary, often by the photographer. 

Ansel Adams said that "A photograph is not an accident - it is a concept. The 'machine-gun' approach to photography - by which many negatives are made with the hope that one will be good - is fatal to serious results." Sontag, who rather more pragmatically observes that there is an element of luck in most great pictures, is closer to the truth on this one: documentary, in particular, often makes its shift from the sublunary to the sublime by getting the famed 'decisive moment' right and for many great photographers this takes more than one frame. There is no better example of this than the series of images surrounding the final select for Werner Bischof's Courtyard of the Meiji Templein which the compositional elements move into place such that many of the frames would have been very good but only one, which could not necessarily have been predicted, is great. So this book shows how multi-frame shooting isn't just another way of saying 'don't let the best be the enemy of the good.' Rather,  it's a way of ensuring that the photographer achieves both.

Naturally drawn, as I am, to the fine art end of the photographic spectrum I tended to gravitate towards those sorts of images when exploring the book, such as Mark Power's Dalmation and Chris Steele-Perkins' Mount Fuji, either of which would look very comfortable hanging in a fine art show.

Whether its pictorialism you're after, or documentary, from Mother Theresa through the KKK to the Vietnam War and Bloody Sunday, from the Beatles to Muhammad Ali and Margaret Thatcher, the very best of photographically recorded history is here, rich and deep and very well edited and presented. Take a look at Thomas Hoepker's 9/11, for example. It quite simply defines one of the most significant events in the history of the world, and it looks great too. There's nothing else like this book and every serious photographer will enjoy it.

Photo Wisdom edited by Lewis Blackwell

This is a good old-fashioned book with lots of nice pictures by lots of top-ranked photographers. I add it because, unlike the above three books, it features purely contemporary work so, rather than delving yet again into the classics, it is a fair shot at a "who's who" in current practice. There are any number of similar books but I like this one for its clean style, good reproduction, simple formula and great choice of images. I discovered some photographers of whom I had not previously heard, such as Fulvio Bonavia (half-Sugimoto, half-Gursky, all good) and Loretta Lux, whose highly stylised portraits of children (more Grant Wood than Sally Mann) are very original. But there are some more established favourites too, such as Massimo Vitali, Nadav Kander and Elliott Erwitt.

Each photographer is given space to write interestingly about his or her practice, and this is often done in a way of very specific interest to other photographers. It is, for me, a great balance of words and pictures, of personal insights shared, and of discovery and re-discovery. A treat.


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