Why Photographs Work: George Barr

This book works for several different types of reader. Primarily though it is of most value for the photographer, at whatever stage of her development, to help consider how to make pictures that work.

George Barr’s approach is to take 52 images from photographers both well- and less well-known. For each one he provides his own analysis of why and how they work. He then invites the photographers themselves to add their perspective, Some of the images have some biographical notes for the photographer, and some have some technical details.

This is not a technical book. At least, not a book you would use to learn how to twiddle knobs on your camera. Perhaps the best way to illustrate the value of the book is to offer an extract:

In rendering the subject in soft, flared, mostly blurred tones, everything surplus to the message has been eliminated. We see a person nearing the end of their journey across the bridge. There is only enough information to identify it as a bridge and a person and no more. The subject could be anyone; the bridge located anywhere.

George Barr on Susan Burnstine’s image: Bridge to Nowhere

For this image Barr offers us one way of describing what we see, and asks questions about it. The cumulative effect after reading through 51 other image analyses is to come away with an armoury of potential approaches to reviewing our own or other peoples’ photography.

Of equal interest are the photographers’ comments. Variously they describe how they took their images, what inspired them, how they composed them, the cameras they used. The variation in the different levels of comfort with disclosure is as interesting as the disclosures themselves.

There are not that many books out there that take this route. Its much easier to write a technical handbook than it is to curate a collection of images and write up an analysis of each one in terms that are understandable and applicable to one’s own work. This book does this latter admirably.


Other reviews

Don’t just look. See!

“Seeing Things” by Joel Meyerowitz was conceived as a “Kid’s Guide to Looking at Photographs”, but it works for older kids too. And why is this just a kids’ book? If you can get past the sub title on the cover page, this is a well written introduction to photographs that might just trigger a few of your own brain cells into action.

Continue Reading Don’t just look. See!

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