The photography market is bombarded by “how-to” books that aim to help photographers wrestle with their camera settings, create effective HDR exposures, or cook their images in Photoshop. However, there are few books out there that help readers see, understand and appreciate photographs from an artistic and historical viewpoint.
“The Photographer’s Vision: Understanding and Appreciating Great Photography” by Michael Freeman is not a typical “how-to” book. Freeman’s well-researched effort exposes the reader to the thinking of artistic giants of the last 100 years. He combines historic images with the work of the best contemporary photographers to provide a context for what makes a great photo.
For amateur photographers, this could be the first time they’ve seen names like Eugene Atget, Minor White or Elliot Erwitt — which in itself is tragic. This book seeks to fill that hole in today’s photographic body of knowledge and offers insights into how to read and understand a well-crafted image.
The book discusses all genres, from landscape photography to documentary photojournalism, and offers insight into the most notable images in each style.
Freeman begins by acknowledging that in today’s world everyone is a photographer. He contends that the deluge of images being made tends to “confuse any judgment of excellence, and the internet is awash with imagery.” He then goes on to offer his very thoughtful “Qualities of a good photograph”— a must read for anyone seriously interested in photography. Equally useful is his discussion on “Reading a photograph: Ten questions to ask yourself.” I would argue that if photo schools covered only these two areas, it would be worth the price of tuition and increase the visual literacy of young photographers.
Indeed, the book has the feel of a college photo history course. Like many art history books, there are a lot of words here, in addition to over 100 photographs. However, this is not a dull, dusty textbook. The author’s efforts go beyond a recitation of history and bring to life the stories behind significant images: what the photographer was thinking, obstacles overcome and the opinions of editors and critics on whether it was all worth it. The reader may find some of these stories familiar, but most will be eye-opening.
For example, he recalls Robert Capa’s description of his famous photo of American troops landing on Omaha Beach on D-Day 1944: “The water was cold, and the beach still more than a hundred yards away. The bullets tore holes in the water around me, and I made for the nearest steel obstacle.” Freeman details Capa’s beach landing, his struggle to avoid getting killed by German gunfire and the subsequent lab error that created Capa’s dramatically blurred and remarkable image that ran in Life magazine.
“The Photographer’s Vision” has a power that grows the more you read and re-read it.” The stories of great photographers and their images are engrossing. My only quibble is that Freeman’s writing style can be a little dense in some places.
I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in seeing and understanding great photos or for those who want to improve their photographic eye.