Book Title: Why Photographs Work: 52 Great Images Who Made Them, What Makes Them Special and Why
Author: George Barr
Style: Coffee Table Book
Target Audience: Adult
Genres: Non-Fiction, Photography
Page Count: 228
Format: Paperback (library)
Reading time: 3 hours
Date Finished: 2/01/17
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My impressions: Yawn. I truly feel bad that I found Why Photographs Work so dull, but it’s clearly written for an audience that appreciates photography as a form of fine art, and while the title suggests a more instructional approach, the book appears to have been written to juxtapose the perspective of an appreciative colleague commenting on the artistry of the photographs with the point of view of the photographer who captured the image.
While that could be very interesting with photographs that are capturing extremely dramatic moments in history, in human interest or in wildlife, here it’s just a collection of 52 photographs that the author really likes due to their technical prowess but which I largely found uninspiring as actual works of photography. Many of them use things as subjects rather than people; quite a few are heavily engineered with lighting effects and post-processing; some are so abstract that they’re inaccessible to a casual fan of photography like myself. I don’t doubt the skill of the people who took the pictures or the expertise of George Barr (a physician who’s also a fine arts photographer); I just don’t see a lot of utility in this book and eventually started skimming because so much of the writing didn’t interest me.
I suspect the author’s intention was to create a collection of photographs that he and many like-minded photographers could agree were excellent and then to show the reading audience how much thought and detail goes into not just creating these photos, but also interacting with them as a viewer. I get that, and if that was his purpose, mission accomplished.
At the same time, I’m very much of the school of thought that truly great art transcends its technical sophistication and can be enjoyed by any audience. Art is ultimately about expressing an idea in a manner that makes people feel something, and when that feeling is, for a casual observer, that things are too technical or sophisticated to be easily appreciated, the art becomes off-putting and focused on a narrow (and often condescending) audience. This is true in music; it’s true in drama; it’s true in poetry and prose; it’s most certainly true in the visual arts.
For me, finding photography I like and appreciate isn’t hard; there are so many sources brimming with excellent photographs that I could spend the rest of my life focused on viewing photography and be quite satisfied. Many of the photographers in this book might even be contributors to those sources (since many are widely published and well-known in the photographic world). But I can also happily put this book behind me; it just wasn’t for me.