#1014. Books that Have Helped Me Grow as a Photographer

By Frank Field | How-To

Jun 11

In retirement, my avocation is landscape photography, particularly of the unmatched North Coast of California. As I’ve sought to transform myself from a high tech R&D leader to a photographer, I have accumulated about 200 volumes of monographs, collected works, histories, biographies and instructional works. Pascal’s call in DearSusan #995 for an index to influential work provided motivation to sift through my archive and select those works that have been most influential on my understanding of photography.

Growing My Craft of Photography

Beyond the Snapshot

As I sought to move beyond the well exposed, in-focus snapshot, I found the writing of George Barr to be helpful. When he wrote, he was a practicing medical doctor in Calgary, AB, and an accomplished amateur photographer. Barr published three books with Rocky Nook circa 2010. The two I found most helpful are:

George Barr, Take Your Photography to the Next Level, Rocky Nook, 2008
George Barr, Why Photographs Work, Rocky Nook, 2011

A More Expressive Approach

The British landscape photographer David Ward opened my eyes to a more thoughtful and expressive approach to photography in the landscape. His writing introduced me to the notion of the “intimate landscape.”

David Ward, Landscape Beyond, Argentum, 2008

Photographers Influencing My Understanding of Photography

Early- & Mid-20th Century Greats

Ansel Adams

I have never forgotten my reaction on first seeing original Ansel Adams prints at the Friends of Photography gallery in San Francisco in the early 1990s. I had never seen such brilliant prints and never prints with both the deepest blacks and whitest whites. The world of photography books overflows with Ansel’s work. If one were to select two volumes to study and own, I would recommend:

Ansel Adams, The Portfolios of Ansel Adams, NY Graphic Society, 1977
James Alinder & John Szarkowski, Ansel Adams: Classic Images, NY Graphic Society, 1985

Dorothea Lange
I am far too much an introvert to photograph people, at least not strangers. Dorothea is best known for the work she did for the Farm Security Administration (and its successors) during the Depression and War years. Another FSA photographer, Walker Evans, received more contemporaneous recognition for his FSA-work than did Dorothea. In my opinion, Evans’ images show us what the United States looked like during the Great Depression. Lange showed us what the Depression felt like. It is an enormous skill to impart the level of feeling that Lange’s work conveys. Oh, that I could aspire to even a fraction of her skill. I’ve learned a lot from:

Linda Gordon, Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits, Norton, 2009
Olivia Maria Rubio, curator, Dorothea Lange: The Crucial Years 1930 – 1946, LaFabrica, Madrid, in conjunction with PhotoEspaña2009.

Edward Weston

I admire Weston’s life-long devotion to the art of photography. Weston was a pioneer. A half-generation, or more, older than the other “Group f.64” photographers, Weston had a leading role in developing straight photography. Edward worked with the most basic of tools: a single 8×10 view camera with a three-way convertible lens. (His portrait work was done with a hand-held Graflex 4×5 camera.) In the dark room, he used an ordinary incandescent light bulb to expose his contact prints. Yet, so many of his images are imprinted on the history of photography. I am unaware of any monographs published in his lifetime. A good survey monograph of his work is:

Beaumont Newhall, Supreme Instants: The Photography of Edward Weston, NY Graphic Society, 1986.

To understand how he devoted his life to his art, consider:

Nancy Newhall, editor, The Day Books of Edward Weston, Volume I: Mexico, Aperture, 1973.
Nancy Newhall, editor, The Day Books of Edward Weston, Volume II: California, Aperture, 1973.
Charis Wilson & Wendy Madar, Through Another Lens: My Years with Edward Weston, North Point Press, 1998. (Wilson was his partner and wife from the mid-1930s through much of World War II.)

While a pioneer, Edward learned much working alongside Tina Modotti. Study the images and watch the dates carefully in:

Sarah Lowe, Tina Modotti & Edward Weston: The Mexico Years, Merrell, 2004.

Brett Weston

Edward’s second son followed his father’s footsteps. Brett’s work stands on the shoulders of the pioneering work of Edward and gains from improved gear and materials available in his lifetime. I think Brett’s images are in many ways stronger. His career retrospective monograph is page after page of wonderful images.

Brett Weston, Master Photographer, Photography West Graphics, 1989

Contemporary Photographers

Robert Adams

The 1970s brought the exhibition New Topographics: Man-Altered Landscape at the George Eastman House in Rochester. The show featured the work of ten then young photographers who were choosing to capture landscape as it is used and abused by man rather than the idyllic views of Ansel Adams. One of those photographers has strongly influenced my thinking about photography: Robert Adams. A university English professor turned photographer, Adams has written extensively about his philosophy of photography. Two monographs I highly recommend are:

Robert Adams, Beauty in Photography, Aperture, 1981
Robert Adams, Why People Photograph, Aperture, 1994

Adams’ images demand close attention. Carefully composed, many impart a sense of mystery that is part of his message but may be missed by the casual viewer. Few of his individual images are “greatest hits” images destined for the wall over the sofa. The strength of Adams’ work is the juxtaposition of a series of images that tell a convincing story. Steidl has republished some of Adams’ work that originally appeared in monographs in the 1970s and 1980s. With advances in printing, these newer reproductions are almost certainly better than the original printings.

Robert Adams, Gone? Colorado in the 1980s, Steidl, 2010
Robert Adams, The New West, Steidl, 2015
Robert Adams, Cottonwoods, Steidl, 2017

Christopher Burkett

Christopher has spent a lifetime seeking to capture the beauty of a world filled with light and peace and to convey that sense of wonderful light in large format Cibachrome prints. Some have called Christopher the Ansel Adams of color printing. I know that when I first saw his prints, I reacted with the same awe I felt when I first viewed Ansel Adams’ original prints. With his wife and large format (8” x 10”) cameras, he travels the U.S. for a few weeks a year, chasing the images that will best convey that sense of peace and light. Most of his year is spent in the Portland, OR, area printing. While Cibachrome was discontinued in 2012, Burkett bought a large supply of paper and chemicals which he stores in a commercial freezer, hopefully to last while he is able to continue printing.

Christopher has published two monographs. Both do justice to his Cibachrome prints. If selecting just one, I would pick:

Christopher Burkett, Intimations of Paradise, West Wind Arts, 1999.

Joe Cornish

Several contemporary British landscape photographers convinced me that the “in-your-face grand vistas of the American West” are not a requirement for fine landscape images. Among those photographers, I most admire the work of Joe Cornish. Almost uniformly, his images convey a sense of peaceful quietness that I hope to convey in my landscapes.

Joe has authored or co-authored several fine books on landscape photography. Many are intended to grow the photographer’s skills in the craft of photography. A more recent monograph is a thirty-year retrospective of Joe’s fine work.

Joe Cornish & Roly Smith, This Land, Frances Lincoln Ltd, 2016

Michael Kenna

Michael is a master at simplifying a composition and further removing distracting elements through long-duration exposures. No longer accepting commercial commissions, Michael travels the world with his cameras, seeking quiet, elegant, frequently texture-rich landscapes. Some photographers seek to emulate Michael’s work by strapping 10-stop and 14-stop neutral density filters over their lenses. Such derivative attempts frequently miss the point of first simplifying the composition. Kenna seems to continue publishing at least once per year; there a many Kenna monographs available. If you were to select just two, I recommend his two published retrospectives:

Michael Kenna, A Twenty Year Retrospective, Nazraeli Press, 1994
Michael Kenna, Retrospective Two, Nazraeli Press, 2004

Sally Mann

Mann is a world-class photographer who has built a career away from the great metropolises that many believe the epicenters of all that is interesting in photography. With degrees in creative writing, Mann is a largely self-taught photographer. Her first work, documenting the life of her three young children at home in rural Virginia, conveyed a strong sense of what it is like to be a child growing into adolescence. She turned to photographing the southern landscapes as only a daughter of the American South could do. Her more recent work explores the legacy of slavery that continues to weigh on the American experience.

I recommend two volumes:

Sally Mann, Hold Still, Little Brown, 2015. This is her autobiography. Read this first and you will have a stronger appreciation for her images.
Sarah Greenough & Sarah Kennel, editors, A Thousand Crossings, Abrams Books, 2018. This monograph was released in conjunction with the recently concluded (near-career retrospective) exhibition of Mann’s work that opened at the National Gallery of Art and travelled to several cities in the U.S. and France.

Kent Reno

Who? That’s the point. Kent was a career pilot for one of the charter airlines. His avocation was street and travel photography. Kent traveled the world. His crew rest days in foreign cities provided the opportunity to find and capture wonderful images of the people of the world.

Kent Reno, Ground Time, Custom & Limited Editions, 1999.

Sources

It is too easy to simply feed the a*.com monster when searching for books. We should all fear the day the monster has become the sole source for books. For those books still in print, I recommend you try to buy directly from a local independent bookseller, the publisher, or the author if possible. For those books that have gone out of print, I have found www.alibris.com to be a consistently useful aggregator of new and used books available from independent booksellers. For those in the UK, consider www.alibris.co.uk.

Frank Field
The Sea Ranch, California
June 2020
www.edgelightimages.com

 

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  • Nice list Frank. I have an extensive personal library on photography and more specifically landscape photography and you made me discover more (George Barr, whom I will definitely read). To your list (mostly focused on bw photography) I would have added Paul Strand, Eliot Porter (the one photographer who, after bw, was the first to use colour and dye transfer extensively from the 1950s on), John Sexton (a former assistant to Ansel Adams), Eugène Atget and Bill Brandt (who both influenced Michael Kenna), Mario Giacomelli, Lewis Baltz (beyond his photographs, his thoughts and writings on photography are quite interesting [“Texts”, Steidl]), George Tice, Wright Morris, Mark Klett, Josef Sudek, Josef Koudelka (not to be missed!!), and, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Fay Godwin, Jean-Pierre Gilson, Raymond Depardon. And to add a few more names to the list, color photographers such as Ernst Haas, John Pfahl, Joel Sternfeld, Richard Misrach, Donovan Willie, Simon Norfolk, … as for “the landscapes of the mind”: Minor White, Jerry Uelsmann, and Carl Chiarenza. Keith Carter and “Genesis” by Sebastian Salgado are also worth looking at. Thank you for your work. Best,

    • Frank Field says:

      Bruno –

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I am familiar with the work of many of these and they are all good names to learn from.

      I have especially enjoyed Paul Strand’s “Time in New England” (text & editing by Nancy Newhall, I have the edition published by Aperture in 1980). A newer monograph prepared by Philadelphia Museum of Art & published by Yale University Press in 2104 is entitled “Paul Strand: Master of Modern Photography.” Strand’s prints tend to be quite contrasty. The Yale Press has done a very good job of retaining texture when reproducing the lower zones of the prints. New England is both geographic place and a way of living. I grew up in New England and Strand’s work captures both.

      I believe Pascal would like to create pages of resources such as monographs. I would encourage you to turn your fine list into a contribution to DearSusan.

      Best,

      Frank

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Isn’t it interesting, Frank, how many of us – and other artists, such as painters, sculptors et al – are introverts!

    Fascinating list, with a great explanation as to what each of them offers. No doubt DS members from other countries can add to this, with suggestions of their own, from their countries.

    The impact these books (and the rest of the collection) have had on your photography is glaringly obvious. Whatever a “high tech R & D leader” does, I’m quite certain none of them produces photographs as gifted as these!

    • Frank Field says:

      Pete – Thanks for your kind remarks. I would love to see recommendations re: photographers from around the world. My list is very American-centric with one Canadian, two Brits and one Italian (Modotti) photographer mentioned. It was the Canadian (Barr) and one of the Brits (Ward) who started my movement away from well-focused and exposed snapshots. There is still a long-road to go and work from other global photographers could well provide the stimulus for the next leg of the journey. Best, Frank

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        LOL – I’m not anything “centric” – one of life’s puzzles. I’m cruising through the lockdown we’ve had with COVID, because I’m introverted, watching all the extroverts shredding themselves because they can’t cope. But when it comes to nations or ethnicities, I’m totally poly”centric”, poly-ethnic and “colour” blind.
        “Less is more!” is utterly incomprehensible. Pascal J has cautioned me in the past about trying to be an expert in more than one or two fields of photography – perfect excuse for my inadequacies and “fails”, because I enjoy trying a wide range of different fields of photography. I “need” to explore different regimes! – it stimulates thought and creativity, no matter how bad the results might be!
        Changing our reading materials on photography from country to country might seem likely to produce only subtle changes.
        But the harsh sunlight of Australia – despised by many “traditional” photographers – is something I love exploring – alongside the almost non-existent “available light” in my friend’s room, where she sits watching films on Netflix while I take photos of her dog. And comparing Kristian’s photos in the thin light of Scandinavia with the strong light of Paul P’s South African photos!
        Life would be dull, if we were all the same! “Baked beans on toast? Not AGAIN!”

  • Jean-Claude Louis says:

    Some exquisite images here, Frank !

    Thank you for the post and fine list. Thanks to Bruno, too, for adding his favorites.
    Books are treasures. I have amassed a library of 500+ books of and about photography over the past 40 years. I pick up a book every morning and immerse myself in its universe. I’m a sponge, I derive pleasure – aesthetic and tactile – motivation, inspiration from books.

    I will add a few contemporary photographers who made seminal contributions to photography, but have lesser name recognition in the general public. In no particular order: Hiroshi Sugimoto, Heikoh Hosoe, Thomas Struth, Axel Huette, Elger Esser, Linda Connor, James Fee, Bernard Plossu, Jeff Wall, Balthasar Burkhard, Sylvia Plachy, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Pentti Sammallahti, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, among many others.

    And what about making books ourselves? The “graph” part of photography is mostly an afterthought these days. Why not converting virtual vaporware into print? Making a book can be a very fulfilling exercise – editing, curating, designing the format, selecting the paper that matches best the images, the layout, the font of the text. And then, sharing. Books are the ultimate destination of my photographs.

    All the best

    • Frank Field says:

      Jean-Claude – What a wonderful way to start each day immersed in a fine photography book. I’m sure Pascal would appreciate having specific book recommendations for the list of key monographs he is building for DearSusan. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Frank

  • Sean says:

    Hi Frank,
    This article of yours is a wonderful overview of immensely talented individuals in the art and craft of photography. You’ve really hit the bullseye with some of the individuals you reference in your article. The accompanying images are superb organic examples of what’s achievable in the pursuance of good photographic technique. Your article shines a light on a treasure-trove of resource material that can help build a cornerstone reference so as to spring from, in terms of personal endeavour, what to consider and achieve in photographic practice.

    • Frank Field says:

      Sean – Thank you for your kind comments. I do hope others will be able to contribute similarly. Frankly, there are far more monographs available than any one of us have physical space for in our homes. With many of the monographs out of print, we have few if any ways to peruse before buying. A good recommendation from a fellow photographer can be very helpful. Best, Frank

  • philberphoto says:

    What a fascinating post, Frank! Many thanks, for it has really got me thinking big time, and that is as good as it gets, as far as I am concerned.

  • Nancee Rostad says:

    Thank you for sharing your outstanding list of favorite photography books, Frank! I have a medium-sized collection of photography books, but after reading your post, it’s sure to increase in size! The accompanying images offer great inspiration and the push to go out there and shoot, which we all need during the pandemic crisis. Hopefully others will submit their own book lists to DS – I know that I will.

    • Frank Field says:

      Nancee — Thank you for your encouraging comment. I would much appreciate seeing you and others contribute to Pascal’s online resource page. We all have limited budget to buy and limited space to hold our photography books. Especially for books that are out of print, it really helps to have recommendations from knowledgeable DearSusan readers. Best, Frank

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