The Elements of Photography

Author: Angela Faris Belt

Publisher: Focal Press (Elsevier)

Review by Conrad J. Obregon

Here is a book that may be highly useful for one kind of reader but perhaps useless for another kind of reader.

The author offers just four topics in her book: frames, borders and multiple frames; apertures, lenses and depth of field; shutter speeds; and materials and processes. Each of the topics offers some discussion including some rather generalized exercises; a portfolio of pictures that Belt says illustrate the discussion; and tutorials on the subject.

I might have guessed I could have been a reader who found the book useless. I think I’m accurate when I say that like most serious photographers, I’m what Ansel Adams called a straight photographer. Among other things, straight photographers try to duplicate reality, at least as they perceive it. (Don’t put too fine a point on this; I know about vision and Photoshop.) I’m not certain that a single name has evolved for the practitioners at the other end of the scale but I’ll use interpretive photographers (even though every photographer is offering an interpretation.) From the early pictorialists to many of the post-modernists, these photographers try to alter their image, either by blurring the focus, or creating movement in the image, or by collage, or other methods. As far as I can see, straight photographers believe that if you lead the viewer to the image, he will explore it and get the message. Interpretive photographers believe that the picture must be manipulated to help the viewer get the message.

I don’t want to start a flame war, but I suspect that straight photographers, including myself, take the kind of pictures they do because of their personalities. I also suspect that if straight photographers could adopt some of the tricks of interpretive photographers they might find new pleasures and even some more interesting pictures. So if you are a straight photographer who is still able to adopt to something different this may be an ideal book. Whether interpretive photographers will benefit I can’t say as a straight photographer, but at least the portfolios included may provide some inspiration.

All of that being said, this is not a perfect book. For example, anyone trying to construct a pinhole attachment for their SLR from the instructions in the book will be disappointed because at least one vital step has been omitted. I also felt that the author was sometimes on shaky philosophical ground, as when one of her tutorials suggested a way to use Photoshop to make a straight photograph look like it was taken with a cheap Holga plastic camera. If there is a value in taking pictures that look like they were taken with a Holga, it is not just because of the way the images look, but it is the fact that they were taken with a Holga! I also wonder if the exercises in the book will be of much use without the supervision of someone to provide critique and guidance concerning the results.

As I read this book, I was alternately pleased and disappointed, particularly since I wondered if I could ever adopt some of its suggestions. And that’s probably a good thing.