1. JUST KIDS – PATTI SMITH
Mapplethorpe needed photographs for his collages but never aspired to be a photographer, he didn’t dream of it, he only knew he was an artist. He lacked the patience for developing and printing the images. This all changed when Smith gave him a Polaroid SX-70 in 1971 because she insisted that it would be better than cutting out photographs from magazines that would have his critical approval, to be used in his collages. There was no need to develop pictures in a darkroom. Press the shutter and just wait sixty seconds. “The immediacy of the process suited his temperament,” as Patti Smith put it. Film was pricy though ($3 dollars for 10 pictures), so Mapplethorpe couldn’t experiment as much as he’d liked. That was the start for his love of photography, and we have Patti Smith to thank for that.
In 1972 Mapplethorpe was introduced to John McKendry, at the time a curator of prints and photographs at The Met. They would discuss about photography as an art form. Mapplethorpe was convinced photography should be as highly regarded as paintings and sculptures. Although McKendry agreed, it was not his place to reform the nations opinion. He did manage to land Mapplethorpe a grant from Polaroid, giving him unlimited access to al the film he wanted. This was a big step in Mapplethorpe’s photography career. In 1973 he had his first solo exhibition (“Polaroids”) at the Light Gallery in New York City.
A Polaroid camera is obviously very limited in its abilities. A basic point and shoot camera, with no interchangeable lenses. It’s difficult to exactly get the result that you want. Once Mapplethorpe came in possession of a Hasselblad, through his friend Sam Wagstaff, there was no holding him back.
Mapplethorpe photographed many portraits of his partner Patti Smith. What struck me about how they would go about that is that Mapplethorpe always used natural light and never asked Smith to strike a specific pose. Mapplethorpe only was interested in the light for his portrait, while Smith would assume the pose that she knew Mapplethorpe would like. There was a silent and telepathic understanding while shooting the portraits. In the book it becomes clear that both contributed to the beautiful portraits Mapplethorpe took of Smith.
Just Kids is an entertaining book that gives insight in how one of the most revered photographers of the 20th century found his calling in a rather accidental way.
2. INTERACTION OF COLOR – JOSEF ALBERS
Josef Albers wasn’t just an academic, a theorist, no he was also a poet, photographer, designer and painter, he was a true artist. His ‘Homage to a Square’, is a series of paintings that’s considered his signature series in which he explores the visual effects of colors and spatial relationships.
Albers developed a theory on colors that goes beyond traditional theories on color and how colors are perceived and used in art. Interaction of Colors was unprecedented and generated a lot of controversy and negative criticism, at the time of its release, but ultimately the work became a bestseller and was and is highly praised.
What Albers demonstrated in a clear way in his book, was that color is very relative. Albers says:
In visual perception a color is almost never seen as it really is — as it physically is. This fact makes color the most relative medium in art.
In order to use color effectively it is necessary to recognize that color deceives continually.
The book consists of 26 chapters, all with a theoretical premise, in, again, very clear language, and all premises are accompanied by so called ‘plates and commentary’ sections, to explain visually, through colorful illustrations and examples, what the premise entails.
I’ve included a few scans of the book to give you an idea.
Hopefully you can get a good impression of what this book entails but whether you’re a color photographer, a black and white photographer or a visual designer, this book has resulted in quite a few new insights that I applied in my color and black and white photographs.
3. CAMERA LUCIDA – ROLAND BARTHES
The most interesting, rather theoretical, explorations in Camera Lucida are about two concepts that Barthes introduced as Punctum and Studium.
Studium is a concept that describes what creates interest in a photograph. Barthes elaborates that the idea or intention of the artist will have a photographic result that the observer needs to interpret to get to the message behind the photograph and that often this idea or intention is culturally, linguistically and politically determined. A photograph with a studium will be liked but not so much loved. A photograph will also be loved if the photograph not only contains a clear studium but also a punctum. A punctum is described by Barthes as an object in the photograph, often a small detail, that jumps out to the viewer as by accident. Something that ‘pricks’ the viewer and disturbs the studium and has an aberrant quality. But this aberration should be unnamable. If it can be named it’s not a punctum and it cannot ‘prick’ the viewer. Barthes explains these concepts by analysing various photographs in the book in a clear way.
But of course this book isn’t only on Studium and Punctum, there’s far more to it. To conclude this short report I would like to present a quote from Barthes that explains in a beautiful and profound way why black and white photography has his preference.
“Perhaps it is because I am delighted (or depressed) to know that the thing of the past, by its immediate radiations (its luminances), has really touched the surface which in its turn my gaze will touch, that I am not very found of color. (…) I always feel (…) color is a coating applied later on to the original truth of the black-and-white-photograph. For me color is an artifice, a cosmetic (…). What matters to me is not the photograph’s life (a purely ideological notion) but the certainty that the photographed body touches me with its own rays and not with superadded light. (Hence the Winter Garden Photograph, however pale, is for me the treasury of rays which emanated from my mother as a child, from her hair, her skin, her dress, her gaze, on that day.) (…).”
4. ON PHOTOGRAPHY – SUSAN SONTAG
The book starts with her most famous essay ‘In Plato’s cave’. And the following quote is the start of an analysis of the nature of a photograph and how it is generally conceived:
What is written about a person or an event is frankly an interpretation, as are handmade visual statements, like paintings and drawings. Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire.
She then takes us through beautifully written contemplations to the conclusion, and I concur with her, that photographs, not only as a practice, but also in the way we think about it as an art form, are always interpretations, at best isolated objectivity. You can’t photograph the whole universe or even part of a world in one single photograph; the moment you choose a frame and choose to exclude the rest, it is already destined to be an interpretation.
Although there is a sense in which the camera does indeed capture reality, not just interpret it, photographs are as much an interpretation of the world as paintings and drawings are.
Another topic she touches on, is surprisingly very much up to date and it starts with her saying:
Recently, photography has become almost as widely practiced an amusement as sex and dancing—which means that, like every mass art form, photography is not practiced by most people as an art. It is mainly a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power.
And elaborating on this I particularly like the following phrases:
It seems positively unnatural to travel for pleasure without taking a camera along. Photographs will offer indisputable evidence that the trip was made, that the program was carried out, that fun was had. […] Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter. Unsure of other responses, they take a picture. This gives shape to experience: stop, take a photograph, and move on. […] Photography has become one of the principal devices for experiencing something, for giving an appearance of participation.
This is what Sontag wrote in 1977, and if one would think that back then, that this prophetic observation was a bit exaggerated, then in today’s world of social media, there’s no doubt about that observation anymore.
5. THE ARTIST’S REALITY – PHILOSOPHIES OF ART – MARK ROTHKO
Rothko brings up several theories for the qualities that evoke emotional exaltation when perceiving their beauty, that all great works of art have in common. He describes a psychological theory, a functional theory and he brings up the Platonic definition of beauty. He doesn’t reject any of them, but he rejects a more recent, scientific attempt to describe the qualities of beauty:
[…] Recently there has been an attempt to define, more scientifically, the parameters and mechanisms of this abstraction by applying dynamic symmetry, which is the mathematical study of spatial placement in works of art. Here it has been demonstrated that the satisfaction—which we call balance—in a picture conforms in all works of art to a proportion of arrangement based upon geometric progression of masses. […] They help demonstrate only the existence of an abstraction of relationships whose achievement can produce the exaltation of beauty. They are useless because neither the world of mathematics nor the world of words and sounds is interchangeable with the plastic elements through which beauty is achieved. […]
In other words, rules of composition like the rule of thirds, the Golden Ratio, are useless in Rothko’s view as they are based on ‘mathematical study of spatial placement’. Rothko, of course, discusses various interesting aspects of beauty that makes you reconsider the beauty we try to create in fine art photographs, but I want to highlight one last thought on what according to Rothko, beauty is, or not is, when he makes a distinction between illusory and tactile (or ‘plastic’) beauty, of which illusory beauty is rejected and tactile beauty is the true beauty of a work of art. He starts with an example of illusory beauty:
[…] Now if this painting is, let us say, of a woman, our sense of beauty would be satisfied if the woman in the picture were beautiful. In other words, what we enjoy in the picture is the notion of a beautiful woman. […] In other words, the beauty of the picture is dependent upon the beauty of what it represents. […] The point of reference here, then, is outside of the picture itself. […]
Then Rothko brings on tactile beauty (note that the term plastic is a technical term in this context):
[…] The tactile plasticist, however, wants the picture in itself to be beautiful. In other words, the picture in itself is his object—that is where beauty resides—whereas the object of the other artist is to paint a picture of something that is beautiful. To this end, the tactile artist’s plastic components must so interact with one another that the manifest relationship will in itself provide that exaltation. […] Therefore, the tactile painter, in painting a portrait, would want you to be moved by the actuality, the tactile sensation of the image. The sensation here is one of actual life—not to be confused at all with real life. In other words, a new being has been created in the terms of plastic invention. […]
In other words, if the beauty of your picture is dependent upon the object, like a model for instance, and everything else in that picture contributes to the beauty of that model only, then that is illusory beauty. But if on the other hand what you created as a whole, the model or object you depict, its surrounding, the canvas, the paint and even the frame, all contribute to the beauty of the picture, then that’s a tactile beauty. One that Rothko approves of.
You can read more on this and other relevant ideas that make you reconsider your ideas on what a beautiful photograph should be and what it should communicate, in this book that I can highly recommend.
Photography, the first moment it appeared in the 1800s had a profound impact on the way we see the world and think about it. And it still does. Understanding this and understanding the nature of a photograph will make you a better photographer. Not just learning new technical skills. We all want to be better photographers, we all want to make meaningful photographs. You can’t do that if you don’t know what a photograph actually is. These photography books, and of course there are more, will help you understand what photography is. Additionally, art is on another level. Photography can be part of the elusive dimension where art resides. Decisive in that is the authenticity of the vision behind the photograph. An authentic vision, or the authentic artistic intention, is not just the result of looking at other photographs, and at other art. That will only result in an effective visual style. An authentic intention however is formed, can only be formed, by thinking about it in a critical way. And for that, looking at other photographs and acquiring technical skills only won’t suffice. You need the thoughts of other critical minds to be able to do that.
A few more books I didn’t include in this list but are worth reading as well:
- The agony and the ecstasy – Irving Stone. A very enjoyable book on Michelangelo’s life and passions. His obsessions. If you want to learn how one of the most famous artist’s of all time came to his creations and what it means to be obsessed when creating something an artists believes in, then this book will give you insight and inspiration.
- Understanding a photograph – John Berger. A collection of essays on the same level and just as insightful as Camera Lucida by Barthes and On Photography by Sontag.
- And of course, and last but not least, I can highly recommend the eBook From Basics to Fine-art that I wrote in collaboration with co-author Julia Anna Gospodarou and includes both technical-practical and theoretical information.