Why Photographs Work; 52 Great Images: Who Made Them, What Makes Them Special and Why
By George Barr, published by rockynook
I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like…or more accurately, what I don’t like. Photo books tend to be created either around a theme, or to showcase the work of a particular photographer; as such, you often end up with some so-so photos to round out the book. In Why Photographs Work, George Barr sets out to show photos with one simple criteria: each one must be a work of art.
The format of the book is simple. Each section starts with a photograph that the author considers to be particularly beautiful; it’s followed by Barr’s analysis of the photo, then by the photographer’s perspective, and finally by a photographer biography and brief technical notes.
While the notes are interesting (and the point of the book is to learn what makes a photo work so as to improve your own photography), this also stands on its own as simply a nice picture book. Rather than get too much into detail, let me point out a few of photos from the beginning of the book that stood out to me.
The second photo is a simple straight-on shot of a woman in Kenya, shot by Phil Borges; the photo is in black and white, except for her skin. The photo doesn’t look staged; it’s simply a strong woman, unselfconsciously pausing to allow the photo.
The second photo is also a head-on shot, but of a very different type: an elephant drinking, by Nick Brandt. As the shot was not done with a telephoto lens – the photographer actually got up close and personal with the elephant – he was able to capture a perspective not normally seen with these giant creatures.
Finally, photo #5 is an outdoors scene by Dan Burkholder that actually looks to me like a painting and immediately caught my attention. I was surprised to find that the photograph was actually a panorama done entirely on an iPhone. I’ve never had a particularly high opinion of phone cameras, but I have to admit that someone who knows what he’s doing can use them to produce some beautiful work! This photo also has a few blurry areas, which normally would annoy me, but as a whole the picture simply works; in fact, this is probably my favorite photo in the entire book.
Hopefully you’re getting the idea: this book has a variety of shots by a variety of photographers, with the one common denominator that all of the photographers are very good at what they do. Even the ones that are in styles I don’t care for (and there are quite a few), I generally can still recognize that they took significant talent to create. I’ve only read the descriptions for the photos in the first half of the book; while I’m hoping this book will help me to compose better pictures, for now, I’m quite content to accept it as simply a beautiful book.