Review: The Photographer’s Vision, by Michael Freeman

The Photographer’s Vision: Understanding and Appreciating Great Photography, by Michael Freeman

By now, Michael Freeman’s probably written about as many words as he’s made photos, and like the images, his words are generally keepers. The Photographer’s Vision: Understanding and Appreciating Great Photography follows in the footsteps of his earlier works The Photographer’s Eye: Composition and Design for Better Digital Photos and The Photographer’s Mind: Creative Thinking for Better Digital Photos, presenting sound practical advice with history, theory, and philosophy. However, this is much less a how-to than his previous books; in this case, the author is as apt to indulge the when and why of good photography as he is to deal with the how.

The subject matter is presented in three sections. The first of these is “A Momentary Art,” which makes a cogent case for what makes a good photograph, and also lays out a theoretical framework within which the rest of the conversation can unfold. With that done, the second section, “Understanding Purpose,” takes up several genres of, and approaches to, photography. To tie the whole of it together, the third section “Photographers’ Skills,” explores the skills brought to bear by a photographer when making a photo. The technique here has less to do with settings than with things like the element of surprise, and realizing that your photos need not be technically perfect to have an impact. In the early going, the book reads like a collection of essays. However, like one of those photo mosaics that reveals a series of small photographs up close, but which reveals a different, bigger, picture when one steps back from it, the reader begins to realize at some point that each of these thematic bullet points contributes to, and reinforces, a larger point.

If we view this as the third book in a trilogy that started with The Photographer’s Eye, this would be the capstone. In effect, it recaps all that came before, not just in this book but the two preceding, and brings the trilogy full circle. What Freeman seems to be saying throughout the book is that by learning to read others’ photos we can learn, in essence, to “read” the scene before we’ve even framed the photo. Visual literacy, in other words, isn’t just something to apply to others’ work, but to our own as well; it aids us in understanding why photos work (or fail to), and allows us to apply that understanding to our own photography. Being able to “read” a photo by Erwitt or Hoepker is only a first step, and assists the photographer in forming a visual vocabulary and syntax with which he or she may then begin to “write” and express a unique story, whether via an individual photo or a photo essay.

If you’re looking for technique, it’s entirely possible you’ll be disappointed in, if not put off by, this book. Of course, if it’s technique you’re after, there’s no shortage of options from the same author, and from what I’ve read of him thus far, you’d be in good hands with any of them. If, on the other hand, you’ve had your fill of technique, or you’ve come to realize that what’s missing in your images has less to do with settings than with soul, this would be a good antidote to your photographic doldrums.

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