Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Photography Books to Inspire



During an interview today with photographer, Brian Mattiash, we touched on the importance of photography books in developing one's eye for good photographs. We weren't talking about instructional books, but rather monographs, collections of images that represent bodies of work.
For myself, it was these books that provided me the most important part of my photo education. During college at Berkeley, I would make weekly journeys to Moe's Bookstore and others searching for deals on the photographers that truly inspired my imagination including Robert Frank, Mary Ellen Mark, Garry Winogrand, Gordon Parks, William Albert Allard, William Eggleston and many others. 

I did and continue to spend time opening those books and just taking in those images, lingering on them in   a way that rarely happens when viewing images on the computer screen. Today, we have conditioned ourselves to view images for just a few seconds with the only expenditure of energy being the clicking the mouse to indicate a "like" or a "+1" or some equivalent. 

In my opinion, this robs a photographer of the best and greatest opportunity to learn and understand what makes a good image. Looking at a print or a monograph allows you to view great photographs at a more leisurely and relaxed pace. For myself, it allowed me to absorb  and recognize a great photograph. It helped inform how I saw the world when I ventured out with  my own camera. 

It's with that in mind that I thought I would recommend some books and photographers that I feel are worth the investment in one of their titles. Though some of my favorite books are no longer in-print (thankfully I have my copies already), there are some close equivalents that I think are worth of a look. 

Mary Ellen Mark


I own several of her early monographs including her early documentary work including Streetwise, Ward 81 and Falkland Road. Though she is likely better known for her portraiture, all of her work is influenced by an abiding respect and affection for her subjects. Her simple, straight-forward approach, primarily in black and white provides me a clear example of how beautiful and poignant a portrait can be. You look at her subjects and you immediately want to learn more about them. That's is a powerful thing that few photographers are capable of achieving. 

William Albert Allard


If any photographer influenced me most, especially with respect to how I see and use color and light, it's Bill Allard. A National Geographic photographer who used Kodachrome in ways that many other photographers would think impossible, he was able to produce images that were stunning and engaging. The fact that his image could be beautiful but still meet the demands of the story is something that still amazes me. I had the pleasure to interview him several years ago and it was easily one of the highlights of my podcast career. His recent retrospective book, Five Decades provides a wonderful way to discover or discover his work and includes his personal writings on his work and career. 

Gordon Parks
This man was a photographer, a writer, a composer, a director, a poet and so much more. It seemed like there was nothing that he couldn't and or didn't do. From humble and challenging beginnings in Kansas, he became one of the legendary photographers of the Farm Security Administration and Life Magazine. He also went on to direct the classic, Shaft and produce several memoirs of his amazing life. It was a life that he fictionalized in the nove, The Learning Tree, which he would eventually translate to the screen as the movie's director. He was prolific even til the end of his life and this book provide a glimpse into the endless talent that was Gordon Parks. Another title of his that I would heartily recommend is A Choice of Weapons, his classic first biography, which provide a glimpse into the man who redefined what is possible in a single life. 

Sam Abell

Sam Abell is the second National Geographic photographer in this list. And though he worked along with Allard at National Geographic, the look of his images are uniquely his own. Inspired by his father's love for photography, he developed an approach that allows him to see and build photographs in a way that encourages truly seeing a subject and a scene. There is no "spray and pray" approach to be found here, but a practice of careful observation. This book is one that I re-read regularly and from which I derive a new bit of wisdom. He other title A Photographic Life is more autobiographical but provides just as much food for the eyes as this does. You can't go wrong

Bruce Davidson


A member of the Magnum Collective, Bruce Davidson is a photographer who combines the social consicous of the great documentary tradition with the instincts of a street photographer. From his work with streets gang in Brooklyn to the subway of Gotham, his work has consistently delivered. His book Subway was a marvel to me when I first picked up a copies over twenty five years ago. He revealed the underground world with an eye of beauty that most people, especially the subway's daily commuters would not have recognized. Recently re-released with additional images, Subway is a shining example of the personal project and the commitment one has to make to creating a body of work. A retrospective of his work Outside - Inside is also available, and though a bit pricey, is well worth it.

There are many other titles that I could recommend, but I'll save that for another post. If you do consider purchasing one of these books, please note that if you purchase them through by Amazon affiliate links, the show will receive a small percentage of your purchase. It provides you a great way to support the show.

But even if you choose to support your local bookstore, I hope that you find these or more of these titles helpful to your photography education. 

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