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On Looking at Photographs (Book Review)

On looking at Photographs by David Hurn & Bill Jay

In a world saturated in images of every quality, taste and intention there is one skill that needs to be refined – how to look at photographs. This is as important to the general populace of consumer as it is for the aspiring or skilled photographer. On Looking at Photographs: A Practical Guide by Magnum photographer David Hurn in conversation with Bill Jay is about setting you along that path and, while I’m not sold that it’s as cut and dry as photography versus art, it was an insightful read.

They are concerned with the difference between what a photograph is OF as opposed to what it is ABOUT. These are two entirely different things. A photograph of a ship could be about a holiday brochure shot, the ship your family immigrated aboard or a study of large metal industrial behemoths. And the question arises within the photographer of what to show and what to exclude; itself, a manipulation of the photographer’s message. Hurn and Jay are interested in what makes a good photograph – the photographer’s intent, how well it’s been realised and whether it was worth the effort.

Because photographs are never definitive statements about anything. They are open to interpretation as much by the culture, beliefs and socio-economic standing of the viewer as from any accompanying text by the photographer. Photographs mean different things when you see them in different venues – for example, a photograph of a working man in the union trades hall may be an entirely different take on that same photograph on a widow’s mantle-piece. Rich versus poor, nationality, level of education, sophistication and political persuasion all come to the photograph through the viewer independent of the photographer’s wish to push their own agenda.

I particularly agree with a statement they made about style in photography because I see so many photographer’s trying to invent a Photoshopped signature in images that might be about consistency but not about their style. They write that style is not like a filter…

A unique style emerges in photography by ignoring it, concentrating on the subject, and allowing care, passion and knowledge to bubble to the surface through a lot of hard work over a long period of time.

A photographer’s style will become evident in hindsight by looking back at the work and noting the patterns and qualities of what their work produced.

This book covers a lot of ground and to balance it out I’d suggest you also read John Szarkowski’s Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art. Each book comes from their individual perspective and it’s just as important to understand the photojournalistic idea of a good photograph as it is to appreciate the work of art that hangs on a gallery wall with a hefty price tag.

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About the Author

Steven Clark Steven Clark - the stand up guy on this site

My name is Steven Clark (aka nortypig) and I live in Southern Tasmania. I have an MBA (Specialisation) and a Bachelor of Computing from the University of Tasmania. I'm a photographer making pictures with film. A web developer for money. A business consultant for fun. A journalist on paper. Dreams of owning the World. Idea champion. Paradox. Life partner to Megan.

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