Author: Stephen Shore

Publisher: Phaidon Press

Review by Conrad J. Obregon

There are a few books about photography that are so fundamental that every serious photographer should read them. These include books that discuss the underlying assumptions of photography that many photographers just take for granted. The Nature of Photographs: A Primer by Stephen Shore is such a book.

The book is deceptively simple. Shore sets out to describe “the physical and formal attributes of a photographic print” (although, it seemed to me, the work applied equally to an image on a monitor) “that form the tools a photographer uses to define and interpret…content.” For example he suggests that at the depictive level there are four separate ways the camera transforms the world into a photograph: flatness, frame, time and focus. Each of the discussion points is supported by great images from photographic history, taken by photographers as diverse as Timothy O’Sullivan and Paul Caponigro.

The text is short, capable of being read in less than an hour. However a useful reading requires a lingering over the photographs presented. For example, in commenting upon a picture of a clear-cut hillside, Shore says that photographer Robert Adams could frame a picture so that a railroad track appearing in a corner could enhance the meaning of the image. When I first glanced at the picture, I looked for an obvious railroad right-of-way, but closer examination showed a single railroad track just appearing in the bottom corner. One might have thought it was unavoidably included, a mere accident. But realizing that Adams was not so casual gave a whole new level of meaning to the photograph. Moreover it suggested to me that important elements of a photograph need not be obviously highlighted, and that, just as creating a good photograph requires more time and thought than a hasty click of the shutter, exploring a photograph might require more than the usual three seconds of looking committed by the average viewer.

Shore himself is a great photographer, appearing in the seminal 1997 “New Topographics” show, but the photographs he uses to illustrate his thesis cover the entire range of imagery. The book was originally published in 1998, but Phaidon has issued reprints regularly since 2007, and the book is now available in paper-back for an almost ridiculously low price, considering the value of the content.

I’m certain many photographers will say “I know what a photograph is, and how it works.” I challenge this assumption. Examine this book, its text and its images. If you can say it added nothing to your understanding of photographs, my hat is off to you.

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