Better technique and appropriate gear can help you take better photos, but that will only take you so far. To reach the next level in this pursuit you need to become a student of photography.
A student of photography is somebody who dives into the pool of photo history, soaks in the images of the masters, and seeks out the best work and wisdom of his or her contemporaries. A good student realizes that observing the work of others is crucial to one’s own development as an artist, not to copy those he or she studies, but to discover his or her own eye. I’m a ruthless tech geek, soaking in as much info as I can about reciprocity failure, signal to noise ratios, circles of confusion and the like. But I spend just as much time pouring over photo books from the great photographers. The kind of books I’m talking about don’t have exposure metadata listed with the pictures. That isn’t important – only the emotional impact of the image counts. A good photo makes you wonder about the subject, not the exposure settings.
With this in mind, I want to recommend four wildly differing books I’ve read in the last year that really helped my thinking about photography and how I can best find my own eye. A lot of our readers know me as a wildlife aficionado, so you might be surprised that three of the four books have no critter pics in them. The point is a good photo is good no matter what the subject, the techniques applied or the gear used. Good photography cuts through all that BS, grabs you by the collar and shakes some sense into you. Good photography inspires you and makes you want to become better. These books all helped me improve and all for different reasons. I suggest you check them out.
Vivian Maier – Out of The Shadows by Richard Cahan and Michael Williams
Vivian Maier’s story is odd, mysterious, and a bit creepy all at the same time. A nanny during the day, a street photographer during the day. Hang on, does that make sense? Only with Maier. So would often take her young charges into the city while she pursued her photos. I see a lot of street photography that attempts to grab your attention with gritty portraits of the down and out. Snoresville – show me something new. Maier seemingly shot anybody and everybody and she wasn’t doing it to grab attention. She was private, mysterious and often portrayed as cold and harsh. She shot for herself and only herself, never sharing her work with anyone. Her life was devoted to the process of photography, not the end result. When Maier died she left scores of rolls of 2-1/4” film she had shot, but never developed. Her work wasn’t discovered until it was found at an estate auction after her death by someone who recognized how amazing her eye was. Otherwise it might have ended up in the dump. When Maier’s images hit the internet she quickly became a celebrity, though posthumously.
While the whole story behind her photo career is pretty weird, what’s really amazing is how good her photos are. I’m not a fan of street photography but I’m a fan of Vivian Maier’s photography. Go to vivianmaier.com for a few examples. Her compositions are spot on, her sense of lighting and timing terrific. Technically she was outstanding, but so are a lot of photographers. What sets her apart is her ability to capture a moment in time and make her viewers wonder what the back story is to each shot. Maier’s shots show her as one of the keenest observers of the world around her. There’s a some bizarre undercover surveillance pathos going on. Did that make sense? Probably not. Which is why you should pick this book up and check it out for yourself.
Road to Seeing by Dan Winters
I have a confession to make. I’d never heard of Dan Winters before I cracked this terrific tome open. Flipping through the pages of “Road to Seeing” I recognized many photos and was embarrassed that I didn’t connect Winters byline to the images. He’s perhaps best known for his slightly grunged-out celebrity studio portraits seen in Time, New York Times Magazine, Wired, Fortune, Esquire and other mags. He’s shot the likes of Will Farrell, Tupac Shakur, Glenn Close, Michael Jordan, Christopher Walken, Laura Dern, even President Obama and Mr. Rogers. But like a diamond, Winters has many more facets than that. He can step out of the studio and shoot hard-hitting photo essays for Texas Monthly about neo-Nazis, the Mexican Mafia or unsolved murders. He can shoot honeybees or the space shuttle. Go to danwintersphoto.com – do it now. His images will transfix your eye.
Why I recommend this book is not because Winter’s photos and skills are outstanding. They are. But rather because this is a book about being a student of photography and when to comes to that Winters graduated summa cum laude. This isn’t some egocentric babble about how Winters became commercially successful, but a look at the influences on his career, whether they be other artists or editors or something else entirely. This book features not just Winter’s work, but the work of many others that inspired Winters. You’ll be exposed to Eugene Atget, Alfred Steiglitz, Andre Kertesz, Paul Strand, Henri-Cartier Bresson, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Eddie Adams, Gary Winograd, William Wegman, Gregory Heisler and many other photography greats. But equally important are the photos he includes from lesser known photographers as well as those from “photographer unknown”. That Winters studies the works of the great as well as the works of the unknown shows he’s a true student of photography. Good work is good work whether the artist is known or not. Beyond the photographs are the stories told. You’ll learn why Eddie Adams regrets the photo that won him the Pulitzer and how Margaret Bourke-White had her focusing cloths made out the same fabric as her custom-tailored dresses. You realize because Winters knows the images and knows the stories, that that contributed hugely to his own success. That is the power of being a student of photography. And now that I’ve studied Winters work, I’ll be a better photographer and student as well.
Capture The Magic – Train Your Eye, Improve Your Photographic Composition by Jack Dykinga
Sometimes I wonder why Arizona Highways doesn’t just save ink by declaring “all photos in this issue by Jack Dykinga unless otherwise noted.” Dykinga has been a mainstay of American landscape photography for decades. In the book 100 Greatest Photographs to ever appear in Arizona Highways magazine, 12 of the images were Dykinga’s. Ansel Adams? Only three. Check dykinga.com for a taste.
One could easily mistake Capture The Magic as a coffee table book. Heck, I don’t speak or read Swahili, but if this book were only available in Swahili I’d still get it just to look at the inspiring landscape photos. What I like about Dykinga’s images is that despite how gorgeous the final result is I still feel like I’m viewing a photo taken on the same planet I live on. I can’t say as much for many of today’s landscape photographers who seem more intent on flexing their Photoshop muscles than on revealing nature’s truth and beauty.
While the subtitle “train your eye, improve your composition” may make you think this is just a how-to book, it is much, much more. Sure there’s a ton of practical advice in it’s pages, but what I dig is while it’s a lot about how to do photography, it’s just as much about how to think about photography. This is not about exposure triangles, color wheels, and the Golden Mean; it’s about the process beyond that – light, composition, timing, perseverance, feeling. I’ve already read it cover-to-cover twice. If the book in the product shot looks a bit worn it should – I keep my copy in my van and whenever I’m out on a shoot and feel my composition is getting stale, I’ll thumb through it for inspiration or maybe a specific tip or two to get me out of my rut.
Genesis by Sebastiao Salgado
I can still remember the first Sebastiao Salgado photo I saw – it was a huge open pit gold mine with long rickety wood ladders emerging from its depths. What looked like armies of ants cling to the sides of the pit were hundreds of half-clothed workers hauling sacks of dirt and rocks up the ladders. The conditions looked abominable and though there were hundreds of workers in the photo, you had to wonder what story was behind each and every individual. What cancer of the human condition could result in such a barbaric enterprise at this stage in history? How bad could life be that so many men toiled under these conditions? Such is the power of superior photojournalism.
With Genesis, Salgado steps aside from his usual subjects – embattled and disadvantage populations – and turns his camera toward our planet as it was before the dawn of “civilization”. His stark high contrast black-and-white images feature landscapes and wildlife in a way to show Earth as it was before humans screwed it all up. It also features a number of indigenous tribes yet to be modernized, but already slipping away from mankind’s hunter-gatherer roots by slashing and burning the rainforest to make way for agriculture – the first step on the slippery slope to where we have taken our planet.
Genesis is a huge book on a huge subject. As I stated above, Salgado’s eye can suck you in with a single image. This book is full of stunning photography, perhaps too much. Trying to view it in one sitting would be like trying to eat an entire cow at one meal. While Salgado’s photos may make you want to become a better photographer, more importantly they make you want to become a better person. Can there be any higher praise? Expose yourself to Salgado at www.amazonasimages.com.
Contents ©John Sherman