I've made a promise to myself to read one book about photography every month. Some months I succeed, other months I don't. It's a convenient excuse really; an excuse to buy photo books and books about photography. This can be an expensive proposition; good photobooks aren't cheap. On the other hand books about photographic design and criticism are few and far between.
I've been fortunate though to find a good source in Calgary. Besides "Fairs Fair", a used bookstore, there's HomeSense. HomeSense is like an upscale Liquidation World and from time to time gets surplus photo books from sources unknown. These books are all in good nick and seldom cost more than 10 to15 bucks. The only problem is that the selection is pretty hit and miss and sometimes months go by without a photo book appearing.
Although I'm not a huge fan of Ansel Adams, "Unseen Ansel Adams: Photographs from the Fiat Lux Collection" was a suprise to find in HomeSense. The Fiat Lux Collection was the result of a three year project for the Centennial of the University of California resulting in apecial centennial book, "Fiat Lux: The University of California". To quote from the UC Berkely Bancroft Libray's Fiat Lux web page:
"Fiat Lux was intended not as a document of the university as it was, but rather a portrait of the university as it would be. Kerr [University President at the time) asked the artists to project through words and photographs, as far as possible, “the next hundred years”— impossible, of course, but a provocative invitation that the artists embraced. The Fiat Lux project was a massive endeavor, producing 605 fine prints and over 6,700 negatives, far more than the 1,000 images stipulated in Adams’s contract. After Adams’s lifetime devotion to Yosemite, Fiat Lux was probably the biggest single project of his life."
"Unseen" is an extract of that collection. Some commentards on Amazon slag this book; I have to disagree with them. This was a commercial documentary project and often (as I've found working on the Heritage Park 50 Project) you can't put all of your art and soul into all the images. You have to shoot x, y and z and unfortunately x and y leave you cold while z shows some artistic possibilities. As a pro you give x and y your best effort to try to impart some artistic sensibilities to it but in the end it ends up as just another image.
Having said that, I enjoy this book much more than many of the other Adams collections that Adams Inc. have been pushing out the door. As I indicated above, I'm not a huge fan of Adams; perhaps I've been saturated by his Yosemite photos. I do find the work that everybody goes ga-ga over, while technical tour-de-forces from an exposure and printing perspective, lacking something. To me they fail to capture the visceral nature of his subjects and sit cold and lifeless on the page staring back at me as I ask them the question "What are you trying to tell me?"; the answer is stoney silence. (Perhaps, as well, I'm still narked by that line in his autobiography that the Canadian Rockies where boring and didn't present any true photographic possibilities)
The images in this book, while exhibiting the same technical prowess that is a hallmark of all of Adams' work are much more pleasurable for me. I look at them and try to deconstruct, to actually read the image. Some of the images have an impishness to them while others show a sense of wonder of the natural and the man-made world. The aerial work is stunning and the documentary photos showing the work of the University tells the story clearly and draws you in, studying with the students and the professors trying to understand what they are thinking.
If you find this book, take the time to read the images. I've learnt some things about telling stories in one image and I'm applying it to my street-work.
There are two books that are giving me no end of difficulty keeping to that promise: Sontag's "On Photography" and Barthes "Camera Lucida". Everytime I start one of these I end up like Sisyphus rolling this huge intellectual boulder up hill only to get interrupted and have it come crashing back down with me, running like Indiana Jones, trying to get the heck out of the way. I've been trying for 4 months now and I still haven't been able to swipe the idol from the temple (to horribly mangle the metaphor)
Both of these books require, for my marginal intellectual abilities at least, uninterrupted time sitting somewhere quiet. Of the two, Barthes presents the toughest sledding, not the least because it is a translation from the French. As well, he has a quirky writing style filled with asides, diversions and convolutions. The combination can leave my mind twisted into some unknown Wonderlandian topological construct.
Sontag presents only a slightly lighter intellectual boulder to push up the hill. A much more direct writer she covers similar ground but from an American perspective. Neither Barthes nor Sontag are photographers, (in fact Barthes claims never to even taken a snapshot) but instead are philosophers. As such they are able to separate the mechanics (compositional theory, exposure, etc.) from the ideas presented by photography. Barthes begins by asking "What is a Photograph", Sontag begins by looking at the act of "taking a photograph". Again, following some of her arguments leaves me in bit of mental pretzel.
I will persevere and finish both these books as the ideas Barthes and Sontag present are worth trying to understand. Part of this journey to find my photographic vision and voice is to wrestle with ideas presented by people such as these and by understanding them (or not) grow in an understanding of this art form.
It's going to be an interesting Christmas break.