The books that teach experienced photographers are, for the most part, books of images, images that teach by example. There are only a handful of technical and "how-to" books that are really going to benefit experienced photographers. Most educate the beginner and cover the basics.
There are, of course, outstanding exceptions. I grew up with David Vestal, Ansel Adams and the Leica Manual. Here are two relatively recent publications that have been very useful.
The Permanence and Care of Color Photographs by Henry Wilhelm (Preservation Publishing, PO Box 567, Grinnell, Iowa 50112) actually covers the material selection, processing and storage of black-and-white, color, still, motion and digital images. If the name seems familiar, Henry was: (1) one of the early civil rights photographers, (2) developed the first "archival" print and film washers, and then (3) as one of the few doing extensive research into archiving, became a consultant advising a range of clients from museums to film directors--who had just discovered that a project that had taken several years of their lives would start to fade in about ten years. To anybody who would like a few of their prints and negatives to last, this is the bible.
Camera Technology, The Dark Side of the Lens by Norman Goldberg (Academic Press, 1250 Sixth Ave., San Diego, CA 92101). When the author was working, he designed specialized equipment for big people like the government, and little people like you and me. He built the first motors for the Leica, and put beamsplitters into SLRs so they could run at higher than normal motor speeds. Just for the joy of it, he would adjust cameras to 00 tolerance; that is he removed those tolerances that were acceptable to manufacturers and adjusted the camera within the limitations of the measuring devices. Camera manufacturers and their spokesmen are going to release limited and naturally self-serving information on their products. If you want to understand the tools of your trade, how they really work, and how to use them more intelligently, this is the book.
But a more subtle, and probably more important form of learning comes from looking at images, going to museums (yes, paintings and sculpture count too), visiting galleries, and spending a lot of time staring at good photo books. Here are some of the ones that have taught me and that I recommend to others.
Homecoming by Don McCullin (St. Martin's Press, Inc., 175 Fifth Ave., NY, NY 10010). Almost anyone who has photographed war is going to be best known for his war photographs. The subject has an inherent power, and the experience is going to shape the photographer. The photographer is inevitably going to ask, what am I going to do when I go home? Some never answer the question successfully. Every possible subject seems watered down. In a series of informal portraits, unconventional landscapes and street shots, McCullin proves that if you are good enough, peace time is plenty powerful. That seems pretty obvious, but it isn't to someone whose brain has been rattled by bang-bang. Donald was the best of the bang-bang photographers. The rest will listen to him.
This is not to say that this is a self-help book for photo burn-outs. It is one of the best collections of documentary photography published. While the pictures in Homecoming are considerably different from the war pictures that may be better known, they are just as powerful and sometimes a lot harder to come by.
Homecoming was first published in America in 1975, however, it will be hard to find a decent copy. Just published, and easier to come by, is The Shipping Forecast by Mark Power (published by Zelda Cheatle Press, 8 Cecil Court, London WC2N 4HE, England and Network Photographers, 3-4 Kirby St., London EC1N 8TS, England). First published in 1996, it went into a second edition in 1997--that already makes it important in a world where a lot of good photo books crash and burn after the first printing, much less make it into a second edition. It is nothing more than a series of photographs taken at the sites listed in the BBC shipping reports. If you think this means a pictorial collection of coastlines as landscapes--wrong. There are people on the beach; seascapes; a man with StarTrek characters on his necktie, a cricket game, the interior of a grocery store, a man with a stuffed bear, a child on a swing, a funeral procession, and 35 geographic excuses to go somewhere and look.
It is an example of the fact that good photographs come more from good photographers, given the time to do a good job, rather than important subjects. Movie stars, politicians, sports figures, scenic splendors, fire/flood/famine--think how many pictures you see of them, think how few good ones. Not a bad lesson for all of us who spend our time efficiently documenting the important.
Five books by Elliott Erwitt sit on my shelf: Son of a Bitch (Viking Press, 1974), Recent Developments (Simon and Schuster, 1978), Personal Exposures (Norton, 1988), To the Dogs (D.A.P./Scalo,1992) and Between the Sexes (Norton, 1994). I also recommend On the Beach to anyone who comes across a copy.
Too many lessons in these books, some nice, some not so nice. The big lesson is what we really photograph, or at least, what we really should photograph: our lives. Our autobiography is written in our contact sheets, and our opinion of the world in our selects.
Some of these pictures were taken on assignment, others were sold commercially after the fact. But, the great majority came about because the photographer went out looking for pictures. To produce this huge volume of good pictures, you have to be talented, and you have to work like a son of bitch.
If your pictures are funny (and a lot of people think every picture Elliott Erwitt took is a real hoot), you probably won't receive the accolades a lesser photographer receives for a serious subject. I don't think Erwitt has ever won World Press. But, I don't think Erwitt is a real hoot. I think most of the time he is a comic as defined by the theatrical terms comedy and tragedy. I think, like all good actors, he can also pull off an occasional tragedy. By the way, Sir Laurence Olivier once said playing a comic was much more difficult than playing a tragedian. You can't fake comedy.
The editorial board of Modern Library just drew up a list of the 100 best novels. In no particular order, here are 60 photo books. I tried to hold it down to 50 and limit each photographer to only one book, but some photographers have turned out books so different from each other, that I couldn't do it. Apologies to all the writers who contributed to these books and are not mentioned. Greater apologies to the many photographers who have contributed to superb books that weren't the ones on the shelves closest to my computer.
- I, Will McBride (Konemann)
For those of you who disagree (and I already
disagree with my own list),
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