The Art of Photography
Author: Bruce Barnbaum
Amazon Rating: 4.5/5 (55 Reviews)
Family Friendly: True
The Art of Photography: An Approach to Personal Expression was originally written around 20 years ago, but has recently been updated to take account of the shift to digital media over the past 15 or so years. The author is Bruce Barnhaum, who has been a photographer since the 1960’s.
"The author of this book is Bruce Barnhaum, who has been a photographer since the 1960’s…."
The Art of Photography is a lengthy tome of 352 pages in its current print form (7th reprint, 2014, original copyright 2010) and, for a photography book, is relatively text dense, spanning over 18 chapters and two short appendices.
My first impression of this book might be somewhat surprising in that I felt the title of the book is a bit misleading – certainly in terms of why I personally bought it – in particular, the “an approach to personal expression” subtitle.
This is not to say, of course, that the title is incorrect but the content of the book is perhaps a bit more unexpected in than one might otherwise believe. My interpretation of “personal expression” tends along the line of Michael Freeman’s The Photographer’s Vision and its ilk, which has a leaning toward the expression of photography as a visual art, and such methods and lines of thinking as lead the image reader to interpret such expression.
The Art of Photography takes what I feel is a more practical approach and puts such discourse slightly to one side to show how the actual process of producing a photograph contributes to expression; the emphasis is quite less directed toward the metaphysical. This is most evident in Chapter 10: The Print, which makes up nearly 15% of the total content. This chapter is not in any way related to obtaining a print from digital media, but is entirely devoted to film methods.
Whilst this should probably not be surprising, given the author’s specialty and the tools he has used for the majority of his photographic career, and the appropriateness of discussing film methods in the original publication, this should be taken with some degree of caution. ‘Caution’, in that, whilst a fascinating subject in and of itself – from exposing film on location to final workup and retouching in the darkroom – the main bias of the second half of this book is very clearly toward film techniques.
It would not be fair, purely on this basis, to dismiss this book as a digital photographer might well then be tempted to. I don’t, yet I can’t envision the circumstances where I will ever work in any serious sense in anything other than the digital darkroom (Lightroom and Photoshop, in my case). The origin of many of the functions of such software is actually from film techniques – dodging, burning, masking, unsharp masking, toning, split toning, etc – and their application, despite the complete disparity of actual method, offers a great deal to any reader, regardless of their preference in photographic medium.
So my note of caution is actually that [film] method does take up a lot of the content of this book, which for the digital photographer – ultimately, the great majority of likely readers – is only of academic interest; not particularly the extent of the content per se (which, as I say, is quite fascinating) but that there is little comparison of these techniques with their digital equivalents.
Some might say “So what?” to this, but my feeling is that this is because digital image manipulation is unfairly seen as far easier than the process of image development from film-based media. My answer would be that this might be so in terms of physical effort, but not so otherwise. Anyone who has done a full digital workup will be able to tell you that the process is every bit as challenging – it’s just a different method.
From that point of view I would very much have liked to see much more contrast between digital and film methods, particularly because this reprint was supposedly for the purpose of updating the original to take account of advances in digital methods. That said, there is one chapter entirely devoted to the digital method, which takes up about 8% of the book content, but I do wonder if this material would have been better presented alongside the descriptions of film techniques and, further, expanded on. As it stands, the separation of the two through chapters might encourage the purely digital photographer to potentially – and mistakenly – skip large sections of the book, and thus not benefit from understanding why one might apply such techniques in the pursuit and advancement of their personal vision.
This criticism aside, the first third of The Art of Photography is devoted to the principles of photography that are common to both digital and film methods. It is stacked out with information as to how one can advance their own camera technique, both as an expression of the artform of photography itself and, importantly, practical ways of actually doing so. Many photography books I’ve read end at a description of these techniques, but offer no examples and no practical methods of implementation. This, to me, somewhat defeats the very purpose it attempts to address as it often leads to as much confusion going forward as enlightenment and is consequently incomplete and superficial as a teaching method.
Not so with The Art of Photography. The methods are discussed, evaluated and dissected by Barnbaum in a clear, precise and highly competent manner, which are further backed up and expanded on by an insight that is clearly the result of many, many years behind a viewfinder. On this basis, I can’t recommend this book more highly, my one (very minor) caveat being that much of the material is, understandably, presented in terms of the landscape genre; however, the translation to other genres is perfectly obvious and straightforward.
I should, of course, mention that whilst this book is consequently quite text heavy, the teaching material is illustrated by the most stunning photographs, many of which are dissected in great detail in terms of their intent and the techniques of how that was achieved in order to further the text. The photographs are, simply put, quite exquisite, and a masterclass in imagery and inspiration in their own right. The subtlety is at times breathtaking, and it becomes quite clear just from looking at them as to why Barnbaum went to such effort to describe the physical techniques needed to produce them. This is one reason, I feel, that a more comparative description with digital methods would have been beneficial to the general audience a book of this ilk might nominally be expected to attract.
The last quarter of this book is common reading for all photographers, dealing as it does in detail with aspects of the art of photography. It takes a more introspective than technique-based look at photography and is more along the lines I would have normally expected a book with this title and subtitle to be. I would point the reader to the sections on artistic integrity, creativity, developing a personal photographic style and self-critique.
This is particularly true of the latter two subjects, as the advice here is considerably better than one generally sees, i.e., the you-must-develop-a-personal-style-from-the-outset-type approach that is frankly completely unhelpful. I’ve been a photographer for over nine years and I still have trouble pointing to a definite personal style, possibly because I still maintain an interest across a range of photographic genres. In The Art of Photography, Barnbaum suggests that by pursuing issues that you favour, you will pretty much put your own personal stamp on your images purely on the basis that they are an expression of your passions.
A style will come to you, in other words, rather than you having to explicitly find it. Certainly, even if you don’t agree with this, you do yourself a disservice if you put yourself under a self-critical pressure to develop it immediately. Either way, read this section, and take it to heart.
An excellent book on both actual technique and the art of photography itself. Beautifully illustrated and expertly described, the teaching material is of high quality and of use to photographers at all levels. One caveat is a relatively lean description of digital techniques that are presented in such a way to encourage dropping certain other chapters, to the detriment of the reader’s education.
I can only mark this book down slightly as a reaction to this latter issue; it is otherwise highly recommended all round.
All the best,
Chasing Rays Photography.