Author: Michael Freeman
Publisher: Focal Press
Review by Conrad J. Obregon
In the introduction to “The Photographer’s Mind: Creative Thinking for Better Digital Photos”, Michael Freeman notes that art criticism, photography or otherwise, seldom addresses itself to the practitioners of the particular art, photography or otherwise. He sets himself the ambitious goal of explaining how technique can be used to make a photograph “good” (whatever that means). Although he does not say so, if he could accomplish that task his book would be highly useful not only to photographers, but to viewers of photographs who want to increase their understanding of the art.
He begins his exploration by considering a question that has engaged aestheticians since the time of Plato, “What is beauty?” From this jumping-off point he explores ideas like cliché, and techniques like the reveal, which slowly makes the viewer aware of the subject of a photograph. Fortunately the language he uses is far more accessible than that of, say, Immanuel Kant. Next he moves on to the question of style, which consists of the package of tools a particular photographer uses repeatedly to express his or her vision. He does this by discussing concepts of composition that experienced photographers will be familiar with, like the rule of thirds, but his exploration examines why these concepts work, rather than just describing the concept. This work seems to follow up on the ideas presented in his earlier work, “The Photographer’s Eye” but a prior encounter with that book is not necessary to understand this book. Generally he focuses on techniques that draw the viewer’s attention to the subject of the image. He does discuss styles that vary from the traditional, like what he calls “low graphic style”, and others that characterize the more avant-garde photography of our time. In the final chapter of the book he describes what many photographers call “working the subject”, that is capturing successive images of the subject, each one hoping to improve on the last, or at least, varying the composition from the prior capture. He also examines “the look” of images, concentrating on approaches that have been made easier through digital processing, like hyper-realistic and luminous images.
Ultimately he fails to clarify what makes a photograph “good” and I am not surprised because this seems an almost impossible task. What he does do is to heighten a photographer’s sensitivity to techniques, many of which a photographer may already use. This heightened sensitivity can help the image-smith make an even “better” photograph.
At the risk of criticizing Freeman for not writing the book I would have wished, I think he failed to capitalize on the controversial work of many modern art photographers, like Andreas Gursky or Jeff Wall. It seems to me some further discussion of what makes this kind of work “good”, at least in the eyes of some viewers, might have illuminated the techniques that Freeman discusses, even for those readers who find contemporary art photography unattractive.
Reviews seldom comment on the bibliography of a book that is essentially about technique, but if one pursued the books referenced by Freeman, one could make a significant beginning into applying a more intellectual approach to making photographs. Freeman’s book is certainly a step in that direction.
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