Why Photographs Work
by George Barr
Why this book, why now, and perhaps most importantly why me? Who is (and who isn’t) the book designed for? How did I select the images and is there a strategy to the book?
I wrote this book for me, as if I could go back in time to when I was starting out as a serious photographer. This is the book I wish had been available then, to explain great photographs, to point out what works and how these images are planned and composed, how tones should be printed, how subjects explored. Not coincidentally, these are the same issues that help someone who already enjoys photographs learn to appreciate them more, and to open themselves to more genres of photography.
Looking At Photographs by John Sarkowski was an important book in my self-education. It is still available and still very worthwhile to read. It does, however, have a couple of shortcomings. It has no color photography, and as a curator and historian of photography, Sarkowski brings to the book a bias toward talking about processes as much as images—useful perhaps for a student of photography, and even a collector, but not as important to someone who simply wants to make or enjoy photographs.
With digital imaging vastly expanding the interest in photography, more people than ever are taking photography seriously. While much of the book is in color, there is still a need to show the power, the subtlety, and the beauty of black-and-white photography to a new crowd whose cameras shoot color by default. There are many ‘how-to’ books and even ‘how I did it’ books. But there are not many books available that discuss why photographs work from a practical rather than theoretical or philosophical point of view.
I’m the one writing the book both because I can and because I feel the need. I can because of the success of my previous two books—the publisher is willing to run with this idea. I can because I have experience writing about photography in clear, relaxed, and comfortable terms—terms that the average person can relate to. I won’t claim there is no art-speak in this book, but I do assure you that you won’t need an art degree to understand, appreciate, and take advantage of it.
This book is for any photographer who wants to make beautiful photographs. And it is for anyone—photographer or viewer—who wants to understand why some photographs stand out from all the others. It can certainly be of value to students of photography, but probably not by those specifically studying photography criticism, where art theory and history, philosophy and culture become more important than whether the photograph is beautiful or powerful or meaningful.
In choosing photographs for this book I used as my own source books (I have more than 100 books of photographs in my personal collection), magazines (hundreds of issues of those magazines which celebrate wonderful images), the internet, and my own life experiences meeting other photographers and hearing their suggestions of still more photographers to consider. As such, it is unashamedly biased toward Canadian and North American photographers simply because I am more familiar with them.
I have tried to push past my own comfort zone in photographic subject and style, being inherently a photographer of fairly conservative tastes. After all, I am a middle aged white guy from Canada. We’re known for our niceness, not our pushing the envelop of modern tastes (OK, we wear weird hats called touques, but I don’t think that counts). I want to open readers to new ideas of photographs that are not ‘traditional’ or ‘straight’.
My own tastes are firmly based in the highest image quality; that concept does not trump craftsmanship; that being radical is not an end in itself but rather a tool to express ideas that are difficult to express in more traditional techniques. I’m an experienced photographer, with high standards for both my own images and the photographs of others. I have had some success being published and in selling my photographs and it is with this background I chose the images for the book.
This book is about great photographs rather than great photographers. Some of the images I have chosen are by relatively unknown or even less experienced photographers. Some of the photographers are famous, others are not. Some of the photographers have literally thousands of strong images and many books to their names, while others have only made a handful of great images but are poised to make many more.
I have made an effort to search out international photographers and there are some, but not as many as I would like. Women photographers are not equally represented simply because I know fewer women photographers. Some of the photographers were completely new to me, and discovering their work has been a delight, while others are long time friends of mine.
The book is about photography as art. Many common genres of photography are either sparsely represented or entirely absent. You will find no sports photography, no wildlife, and almost nothing of reportage. Each of those subjects has certainly been responsible for many great photographs, but in those images, the subject and the story predominate over the image as art, and quite frankly I don’t feel qualified to comment on them.
Enjoy this book as a collection of 51 wonderful photographs. Some you may well know already, but I trust there are enough new images to surprise and delight you. Feel free to flip through the book to simply enjoy the images, but sooner or later, do read about each image, about what I think makes each work, about what the photographer was thinking in making the image, about who the photographer is and how they came to see the way they see.
George Barr, Calgary, July, 2010