Let me be clear at the beginning. I love this book. It does not take long to read. The images are wonderful. And I know I will come back to it often.
But not perhaps for the reasons you may assume.
“Creating Photographs”, by Albert Watson
Published by Laurence King Publishing, 2021
review by W. Scott Olsen
I am skeptical of nearly every how-to book. A great many of them are aimed at beginners (“shutter speed” means how long the sensor is exposed to light) or get so engrossed with gear and technology that the purpose of the endeavor becomes lost. Yes, both kinds of books are helpful to their target audiences. But, for the majority of us, they are useless.
Many how-to books simply don’t apply to anything I seem to want to be doing.
Photography, like dance and writing and cooking and football and playing the violin, and just about everything else, is improved by experience. We take a picture and it’s almost good. The almost part bothers us, so we go out and do it again. The almost part is a little smaller. Then we do it again and again. Sometimes we do turn to the instructions. We can be first-day beginners throughout our careers as we change projects. (For example, I would have no idea – none whatsoever – about how to set up studio lights.)
But, if we are wise or lucky, we turn to each other for stories.
We learn by stories. Something about the way details are embedded in narrative is hard-wired into our heads. When we share experience, trial and failure or trial and success, the technical information is put into context that gives it sense. Imagine a small group of photographers gathering in a coffee shop after a concert. They each had to work with the flashing and color-changing lights of the show. As they share images, they tell stories. All of them learn from the experience of others.
Story-telling and, through that, mentoring, is the first genius of this book. Every brief chapter is filled with anecdote and story. And every story is well-chosen to illuminate a point. That’s the second genius. This is not a book that paints dance-steps on the floor and says step here. This is a book that fills the air with jazz. It’s about motivation and determination and pluck. And yet it’s all about how to dance as well.
The book begins with a brief chapter called “Learning from the Journey: My circuitous route to photography.” Like many of us, Watson did not come directly to taking pictures, and the chapter is a wonderful bit of context setting. Watson becomes a character in his own book, someone to identify with throughout the rest. His voice, in writing, is a good bit like the friends we most enjoy.
After the opening, the chapters have titles like, “Be bold,” “Consider the individual,” “Capture the geography of the Face,” “See the beauty and charisma of objects,” and “Look for memorability.” Every one of them does indeed hold solid advice. But the advice rarely involves the machine. Watson celebrates preparation as well as serendipity.
For example, in the chapter “Capture the face of the landscape,” he writes—
While a lot of landscape photography is grand and dramatic, it doesn’t have to be. You can look at simple things. Fairly early on, I noticed this beautiful reflection in one of the lochs on Skye, and just as I was about to take the picture, from nowhere, a wind came across, and I completely lost the reflection. But as the wind came, I hit the shutter. I looked at the image in my digital camera, and I said, ‘Wait a minute, there’s something here.’ I realized I could spend a day here without moving the camera and just focus on the surface of the water. And as the light changes, which it does all the time, as the day goes on and the light becomes warmer, if I’m lucky, I could get this wonderful mixture of almost abstract expressionist art by not even moving. The environment was doing all the work for me. So, I stayed in that spot for two days, twelve hours a day, just photographing the wind on the surface of the water. I was delighted with that, and these are some of my favourite pictures that I did on Skye.
This is quite different than bullet points about patience and being aware.
Creating Photographs is an inspiring book. Not melodramatic or overdone at all, the book is a collection of experiences that say, “Here is what I did. You can do it too. Keep going.” It’s filled with advice, but it’s not didactic. These are end of the day stories with a friend, the kind of stories you carry to bed and to sleep, which then work their way into your work the next morning.
Albert Watson has shot more than 100 covers for Vogue magazine and his work is held in the permanent collections of the National Portrait Gallery in London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and many others. Creating Photographs is part of the Masters of Photography series.
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