Review: Visual Poetry, by Chris Orwig

Visual Poetry, by Chris Orwig

As should probably be pretty clear by now, my approach to photography is as much centered on the “why” as it is on the “how.” There are innumerable ways to get the right exposure even for a single shot (as we saw a couple of days ago in Shooting in Aperture Priority). But there are also innumerable “Whys” for each of us as photographers. Why pick up a camera in the first place? Why that subject, at that angle, in that light, and not some other?

Consequently, I’m drawn to photographers whose Why shines through in their work. Photography doesn’t necessarily always have to be about something, but should always be motivated by something. And when it comes to books on photography, I’m similarly drawn as much to writers that address the thought process or philosophy behind the shot as much as the settings used to get it. All of which brings us, in a rather roundabout way, to Visual Poetry: A Creative Guide for Making Engaging Digital Photographs, by Chris Orwig.

Like a number of other photo books, it’s split into thematic sections. Unlike many of those other books, thankfully, it doesn’t include extensive information on post-processing (which is all the more admirable given that Orwig teaches, and has written a number of books on, those tools). Here, instead, he seems primarily concerned with what happens before you’ve pressed the shutter. A good thing, if you ask me, since an overreliance on postproduction tends to lead to sloppier photography (if the photo’s mediocre, the thinking tends to go, you can always just fix it later). Given the thematic organization, you could probably skip straight to the section on photographing weddings, or family, or whatever suits your particular taste. Don’t. Each chapter, whether it’s about your particular bailiwick or not, has information that will be useful to you, regardless of your specialty (or lack thereof).

If there’s plenty here to stimulate thought, there’s also practical advice on technique and gear. With that said, even these sections are intended to make you think about what you’re using and why; it’s one thing to spell out a list of options (brands, focal lengths), but quite another to give someone the tools with which to make the right buying decisions. You can have all the heart and all the compositional skills in the world, but they won’t get you very far as a photographer if your photos are otherwise a mess visually. So there’s technique scattered among all the philosophical bits as well, and it’s addressed with the same lucidity as the rest of the subject matter here.

The best part comes at the end of each section. Not only is it a succinct summation of what went before, there are also interviews with experienced photographers, a wealth of print and web-based resources, and a series of exercises designed to take all that thought and theory and make it tangible through practice.

I’m of two minds on this book. On the one hand, I think it’s an ideal resource for a novice or an amateur who’s not particularly advanced; those readers, particularly, will find plenty that helps them develop habits and ways of seeing that will serve them well. On the other, advanced amateurs and professionals shouldn’t overlook it. When you’ve been shooting for years, it’s easy to become jaded and maybe a little bored by the craft; there are moments here that can help you shake off some of those cobwebs, and some of the apathy. Regardless of skill level, there’s something to be said for a reminder of first principles that can help kindle, or re-awaken, the joy to be found in simplifying one’s gear, approach, and process.

Postscript: Chris’s website, which you can visit here, is a gateway to his portfolio, blog, and quite a bit else.

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