Review: THE ART OF PHOTOGRAPHY: An Approach to Personal Expression

I always enjoy receiving a review copy of any book from Rocky Nook Press because I know two things about it in advance: (1) the book itself will be printed on Acid-Free paper, and will still show its illustrations with brilliance and clarity for years to come, and (2) the book will be bound in such a manner that it will behave itself and lie open beside my computer without the necessity of putting weights on each side of the open volume in order to make it lie down quietly and allow me to enjoy the content rather than having to fight the pages as though they were reluctant to allow me to read. Actually there’s a third thing I can count on as well; the book design will never be written so far into the gutter that I have to break the book’s spine to read all of the page contents.

With the preliminaries out of the way, let’s look at Bruce Barnbaum’s approach to examining the techniques of finding personal expression with the camera. In my classes I have found that there is no “one size fits all” in the approach to release a student’s creativity. It takes as many approaches as there are students because of the individuality of the students’ backgrounds. So, I am always interested in anyone’s approach to the liberating process; thus, I eagerly opened myself to Bruce Barnbaum’s approach as he has been well-known in the photography field since THE ART OF PHOTOGRAPHY was first published in 1994 and was in print continuously until 2002.

Known for his black and white photography and his expertise in printing Bruce’s material is as valid today for the film photographer as ever. In an age when digital photography has become the norm, the principles which Bruce Barnbaum explains regarding the lens and f-stops and shutter speeds and the principles of design are as valid as ever and are often missed or skipped by the budding photographer when they pick up their first digital camera.

I heard an expression so long ago that I can no longer credit the author, but that author described “successful photography” (that is anything beyond the random snapshot level) as being “mind-guided photography” and he went on to elaborate that the more creative and perceptive the mind, the greather was the photography‚greater the assumption was that the craftsmanship of the photographic process was already mastered and a given; it was the way the content of the photograph was envisioned and captured that made the photograph a “statement” by the photographer rather than a random capture. Thus, he defined the Art of photography.

I would like to apply that concept here. Mastery of a process alone is not art. A carpenter may be a master of wood, but until they build something from their creative envisioning, they have not yet created art. The first two-thirds of THE ART OF PHOTOGRAPHY is about mastering process; the last third is about mastering the self and the creative process and this is where I find the book fascinating. How do we find art within ourselves? How do we get beyond mere documentation and find Art?

The film photographer can benefit by the careful and precise chapters of information given regarding composition, and the film and camera process, and all photograpers whether film or digital should pay attention to the discussions which begin with PHOTOGRAPHY AS A FINE ART (and looks at Photographic realism, abstraction, and art), continues through THE STRENGTH OF ABSTRACTION. It is the INWARDLY AND OUTWARDLY DIRECTED QUESTIONS which allow the photographer to pursue self-analysis. THE POWER OF PHOTOGRAPHY directs us to the way that photography effects our thought processes whether in news, advertising, or aesthetics. Bruce Barnbaum examines THE OBSTACLES TO CREATIVITY that face every camera carrier who seeks to make enduring statements with their camera. PREREQUISITES TO CREATIVITY give us a firm basis for examining the process of creativity as it occurs. PRODUCING SOMETHING NEW—ITS REAL IMPORTANCE allows us the first glimpse of what happens inside ourselves when the creative process begins to gel, and BE PREPARED FOR IMAGINATION gives us insight about what happens when the photographer has moved beyond the point of being a skilled craftsman and enters the truly creative world.

What is creativity, and where does it come from? Bruce Barnbaum poses that creativity comes from a combination of Desire, Thought, Experience, Experimentation and Inner Conviction. It is the combination of these elements that allows the photographic artist to see parts of the world in a new light (no pun intended) and produces a view that the Western artists think of as creative. The Eastern artist may simply find repetition and refinement of style to be creative, where the Western artist wants something new.

The obstacles to creativity are myriad. The first of these is the difficulty of the photographer to actually try something new; this is followed by insufficient time to really experiment and to reject failures.. Facing the public and the critics who reject new approaches until those approaches become more widely accepted is equally daunting to the photographer. Instead, relying on “safe” subjects and approaches avoids the rocks and shoals of the critic.

Art in photography, and indeed in other visual fields as well, captures the feeling of a place or moment but not necessarily the literal view of that place or moment. It is the interpretation of light and dark that captures or recreates mood. It is the manipulation of the image that translates it from a literal documentary photograph to a potential work of art. When successful, the artistic photograph raises questions from the viewer as he or she attempts to relate to their feelings of the image. Those feelings must go far beyond the “where is it?” “what is it?” “how was it made?” as the viewer becomes involved in the image. Like an ink-block or clouds viewed as children, what does our own background bring to the interpretation of the image?

Creativity is an intuitive thing that we tend to lose as life impresses us with constraints pressed upon us by education, peer pressure, and society. Intuition is the process by which our minds make almost instant decisions by combining all that we previously know (and feel) into a (to us) understandable context. But intuition also has room for us to experiment and reject less than successful answers; in short intuition feels its way towards success. Bruce Barnbaum gives us this admonition: “Don’t run away from your strongest intuitive notions: They’re likely to be valid. You’ve got to be bold enough to take the risk.”

The reader, whether a beginning film photographer, a digital photographer, or an advanced photographer who has begun the intense analysis of their work in their attempt to move from technical competence to truly artistic vision, will find something of value in this volume. I found it a seriously interesting read with parts I kept returning to after some thought on the processes discussed.

Bruce Barnbaum
THE ART OF PHOTOGRAPHY: An Approach to Personal Expresssion
Rocky Nook Press
ISBN: 978-1-933952-68-0
paperback, 351 pages
US $44.95, CAN $55.95

Comments

  1. Charles Nix says:

    Glad to see Rocky Nook books getting support. I’ve just beome aware of them through “Mastering the Nikon D7000″by Darrell Young. One point you missed, however. I expect Rocky Nook books to stay together. I have books that I still consult that are molting pages.