William Albert Allard
Summer, at least in the northern hemisphere, is nearly over, but it’s never to late to start a summer reading list.
Photography books don’t usually end up in the “going to the beach bag” and if these books don’t make your summer reading list, they’re perfect for those nights when you stay in. These are a few of the photography books I consider essential. They absolutely reflect my interest in photojournalism and street photography. There are no academic discussions on the merits of photography, like Susan Sontag’s “On Photography.” Nor are there picture books of cats, dogs or unicorns. My selection of photography books reflects the reality of the world around us.
Most of these books are available at Amazon but I am going to ask you, if you decide you’d like to spend time with one of them, rather than buy from Amazon scour your local used bookstores (most of them are out of print) or speciality book stores before you shop at Amazon.
Almost anything by William Albert Allard. Allard has been a National Geographic photographer for almost 50 years. He’s also a gifted writer. At one time or another, I’ve had most of his books but two I especially recommend are “The Photographic Essay” and “Portraits of America.” Portraits of America is a collection of his pictures made in America. There’s a timeless quality to the photos. The Photographic Essay is the only how-to book on the list, but it’s not so much a how to as it is an exploration of the thought process that goes into a photo essay.
Dancing on Fire by Maggie Steber. Documents her time covering the situation in Haiti in the 1980s. This pictures reflect a view of Haiti that’s not often seen. The brutality of the time is here but so is a Haiti of incredible spirituality and beauty. The pictures in this book will put you in Port au Prince circa 1986.
Telex Iran by Gilles Peress. All of the books on this list are a product of their time. But Telex Iran especially reflects the late 1970s. Iran was in a state of revolution, the Shah had fled and Ayatollah Khomeini was remaking Iran. This book is full of beautiful, sometimes jarring, black and white photos.
It also has the telegrams and telexes between Peress, his editors and magazines he was working for. His contact sheets, with editing notes are in here.
Now when we think of multimedia, we think of audio, video, maybe recordings of Skype calls or emails. But in 1979 none of that was possible. Telex Iran was the multimedia of its time, before multimedia was a thing.
This is also the most expensive book on this list. Used copies of Telex Iran go for about $140 (US). New copies for up to $850 and “collectible” copies (I don’t know how collectible differs from new) for an eye popping $2,800. If you stumble upon a copy of Telex Iran in your explorations of local bookstores snap it up.
Tim Page rocketed to fame for his coverage of the wars in Indochina.
He worked his way through mainland Asia (not as a photographer) and ended up in Laos where he started photographing the then “secret war.” After making an exclusive series of photos of an attempted coup in Vientiane, Laos, he was hired by United Press International, transferred to Saigon and, barely out of his teens, produced some of the most iconic photography of the war years.
This is the most straight forward photojournalism book on this list.
There aren’t many books on this list that can be credited with restarting a travel industry, but Cuba, by David Alan Harvey can. Harvey had virtually unlimited access to Cuba for a while in the late 1990s and created this masterpiece for National Geographic.
Americans are barred from freely traveling to Cuba because of a US imposed travel embargo (technically, travel to Cuba is not prohibited but spending money there is, it’s enforced through the Trading With The Enemy Act. “Trading with the Enemy” is another excellent non photographic book about Cuba) and this book whetted the appetites of thousands of Americans who wanted to experience the forbidden country 90 miles south of Key West. It started the trend of photo workshops in Cuba, led by Harvey, Allard, Steber and other photographers and was the only way many Americans could travel to Cuba without breaking the law (because educational and cultural trips were permitted under the terms of the embargo).
This is a very short list of the photo books that I most enjoy. If you see one of them in your local bookstore, pick it up, enjoy and be inspired.
Gesture will always reveal narrative, which light and color alone find it difficult to do. Gesture can tell a story. ~ Jay Maisel
The goal of most photographers is to make pictures that say something about a subject we feel is important. We do this in any number of ways, one of which is using gesture. Gesture is basically body language and in many cases, it is universal. That is why it can be very powerful when used effectively in a photograph.
This is an image I made as part of my night market series. It is one of my favourite images from that series. Because of two important gestures within the frame, this picture evokes emotions through implied sound and it tells a story about what it is like to be at the market. The first gesture is the woman to the left of the frame who is calling out to people to try the BBQ squid. The market is a lively place where people are in friendly competition to sell food to hungry visitors. That is an important part of this market and indeed many markets you see around the world. Often sales are made only by engaging with buyers and gesture is necessary to catch their attention especially when there are language barriers. The second gesture is subtler. It is the woman the right of the frame looking at the squid on the grill with her finger at the corner of her mouth. This gesture indicates she is thinking about making a purchase, which effectively completes the narrative within this picture.
Gesture is usually captured in one of two ways: by accident or with a whole of patience. Much of the gesture I see in street photography is often by accident and the narrative is applied only after the picture has been made. If you want to be a good photographer, you cannot rely on this method to create a meaningful narrative. Putting content into your photographs requires understanding what you want to say so that you can recognize it when you see it (or you can create it yourself when you choose to pose people). This picture at the market was made towards the end of my two-year project photographing there. I spent almost every weekend during the summer months getting to know the people who worked at the booths. In this case, Lucy who owned the booth allowed me into her space to photograph from that perspective. I studied how she would go about selling her BBQ squid and we would talk about her competition five stalls down, how a location closer to the entrance would increase sales, and next year she would find a way to be in a better booth and maybe sell other items. I spent weeks making pictures at her stall with her niece who is the one in the picture. After I made this picture, I stopped because I knew I had the one that said everything I wanted to say about her stall.
One of my favourite images that demonstrates effective storytelling through gesture is from William Albert Allard. It is this picture from his Peru collection on his website, which can also be found in his book Five Decades: A Retrospective on page 104. Again there are a couple of gestures here, the first is of the man putting on his hat but it is that second gesture that makes this picture priceless. The man in the middle of the picture is looking at a thread on the cape being carried by the other man. That attention to detail is part of the show that is bullfighting. The elaborate costumes they wear are decorative while at the same time, they must allow the matadors to move with ease. And if I’m not mistaken, this may be where the expression “dressed to kill” originated.
While gesture is usually attributed to humans or animals, it can also be found in landscape photography. Body language can only be implied in nature but what is the same for us as photographers is the intention of conveying an emotion or feeling through some kind of motion. We see it in the wind blowing through a field of rye or the light rays bursting through the clouds at sunrise or even the way branches on a willow tree reach out and gently touch the grass.
Want to learn how to make stronger pictures using gesture? Sign up for one of our private workshops and we can show you how.
No matter which way we look at it, photography is an expensive endeavour. We might have started out making a minimal investment with our point and shoot cameras but once we’ve been bitten by the bug, we find all sorts of lenses and accessories we absolutely must have. Just the quest to find the perfect camera bag alone can set us back hundreds of dollars and create a storage issue as we accumulate camera bags that don’t quite work for us. It doesn’t help either that we are subjected to constant marketing about the latest products with promises to help us make better pictures. Is there a way to determine how much and where to invest in our photography? I have a very simple formula that has worked for me and that is to invest more in myself than in my gear. Here’s what that looks like.
From the very beginning of my love affair with photography, I bought books. At first I purchased classics like Bryan Peterson’s Understanding Exposure. This book is now in its third edition and is probably one of the best selling photography books ever. It breaks down exposure in very simple terms (including the exposure triangle) and then goes on to explain how to use exposure in creative ways. Bryan is an excellent teacher and a great writer and this is a book I have given to others who are just starting out in photography. I also recommend Freeman Patterson’s Photography and the Art of Seeing (4th Edition) and Photographing the World Around You (2nd Edition). These books are an excellent complement to the technical aspects of exposure as they discuss not only the elements but also the principles of visual design. Today I buy very few books on the craft of photography and spend most of my budget on photography books. My absolute favourite is William Albert Allard’s Five Decades: A Retrospective. I’ve read this book several times and spent countless hours with the photographs and I learn something new each time. It can be overwhelming to decide which photography books to buy so just start with pictures that you love or are curious about and the photographers who made them. As you progress in your photography, buy books that stretch you, ones that you might not love but will challenge your thinking about what good photography is.
This category can be split in two main areas: classes and workshops. We all learn differently but studies have shown that when learning takes place individually and in groups, the knowledge becomes much more permanent. My first photography class was a beginners class at a local photography school, not unlike the Bangkok Photo School class starting at the end of May. I had an enthusiastic teacher who made learning fun and once that class was over, I was hooked. I continued to take classes online and occasionally in person and I paced myself based on my progress and where I wanted to be photographically. My next step was to take a workshop. It was a big step both financially and mentally. Workshops are expensive and I learnt very quickly how to make the most of my investment. Look for workshop leaders who have a good record. Don’t rely too much on testimonials because often participants are not as forthcoming about their experiences. Instead look at the results of those workshops. What do the photographs look like? Are they just pale imitations of the workshop leader or do they show something more? Never take a workshop where the leader is making pictures for themselves. You are paying to learn from them, not to fund their latest trip or book. I have reached a point in my photography where I don’t often take workshops anymore. In my opinion, if you are progressing as a photographer you will outgrow workshops and you will want to spend your money in other ways. These days instead of workshops, I travel with friends who are also photographers. We learn as much or more from each other as we can from a professional photographer leading a workshop to some exotic location.
I am a big advocate of personal mentoring. Mentoring can be pricey but in some cases, it is cheaper than a workshop and it more sustained and focused. I believe anyone can benefit from mentoring but the trick is to find the right mentor and that is much more difficult than it seems. Referrals can help but sometimes it will come down to a trial run with someone you are considering as a mentor. I have actually been in a mentoring arrangement for a number of years now and while it has changed over this time, the goals and objectives have fundamentally remained the same: to improve my photography. It takes work (mostly on your part) and a mentor who is focused on you and your needs. Some of the areas of photography I have worked on with my mentor include finding my visual voice, identifying possible personal projects, and where to go next. (As an aside, we seldom talk about gear.)
The return on investing in yourself will always be bigger than investing in camera gear. Notwithstanding the exceptions, each time a new camera body or lens comes out, your current gear devalues. On the other hand, spending money on improving your thinking around making photographs will pay dividends long into the future. I guarantee it.