Review: Expressive Photography, edited by Tracey Clark

Expressive Photography: The Shutter Sisters' Guide to Shooting from the Heart

First, a disclaimer: I realize that I’m probably not the Shutter Sisters’ usual demographic, what with being a guy (albeit a married one) with no kids. Indeed, some have taken issue with the reception that the bloggers’ book, Expressive Photography: The Shutter Sisters’ Guide to Shooting from the Heart has received, with some people catching what they perceive as a whiff of sexism from the old guard (with the emphasis, presumably, on “old”) of male photographers. I’ve seen quite a few complaints, especially over the last year or so, from female writers, artists and photographers, about appending “mom” or “mommy” to something in order to dismiss it or write it off as lightweight. Mommy bloggers. Momtographers. The complaint is a valid one; you don’t just go writing something, or someone, off just ’cause there’s a mom attached to it somewhere.

With that part out of the way, let’s be equally clear on something else: I think that women, often as not, have a built-in advantage over men as photographers. They tend to focus on the image, rather than the gear, while if you’ve spent any amount of time on a photography forum, you’ve probably seen at least one discussion among the (mostly male) denizens degrade into a genital measuring contest, expressed via prime lenses. You won’t, thankfully, find any of that here. The photographers are highly competent, as are the lion’s share of the images here. Yes, you can nitpick over some of the choices, but that’s the case with any and every photography book I’ve ever read (and thanks to this blog, I’ve read far more of them than I ever planned to). The point is, I don’t think there’s anything to take issue with in the images.

I can’t say the same for the writing. And I hate to say that, because I genuinely like the Shutter Sisters blog. The problem is that what sustains a blog — brief flashes of insight, meant to be read and digested in one sitting — doesn’t always sustain a book. And often as not, this feels less like a book than a blog between covers, a sense of disorganization lurking underneath the structure, and a lot of fragments that hint at something promising but stop frustratingly short of ideas in full bloom.

I get the impression that this is a book with an identity crisis. On one hand, it reads as though it’s meant for a novice audience, or people who may have owned cameras for a while but have only recently given much thought to this whole photography thing. on the other hand, a lot of what a novice would look for* — the specifics on getting shots like these — either isn’t spelled out, or has to be pieced together over several chapters. To give just one example, bokeh is mentioned a few times throughout the book, but it’s not ’til page 132 that someone decides to explain how you go about getting good bokeh. Sure, settings are listed with a number of photos, but absent the reasoning behind them, a novice is often left adrift as to why you’d shoot at one setting versus another. The why of the settings is as important as the settings themselves, but getting to that balance of “how” and “why” can be an exercise in frustration.

Yes, vision matters. It matters quite a lot, especially if you’re trying to communicate yours to someone else. The thing is, it’s not just the vision. We’re photographers. We don’t draw about this stuff, or sing about it, or dance about it (though some of us are lucky enough to be able to do those things too). We photograph it. And because we’re relying on the help of one or more pieces of equipment to capture what we see, those experiences and visions are being mediated by a little black box with a chunk of glass at one end.

I wrestle with the same thing, both in these “pages” that I scrawl, and in the photos I make; sometimes I wrestle with the gear, trying to get not only the scene but also the possibilities I see into a single simple photo. It’s why I study this stuff, why I use the controls my cameras give me, and why my writing on this blog doesn’t just cover the ideas. Yes, emotion is vital in photography. I neither want to look at, nor (really importantly) do I want to create, images that evoke nothing. But that goes beyond composition, beyond the Rule of Thirds, beyond chasing the light. Yes, your photography might involve corralling everything from kids to kittens. But like it or not, we all also play the part of photon wrangler. Vision matters, but technique and gear also matter, even if it’s only to learn how to tell that gear how to stay the hell out of your way so you can get the shot you want, and to make the photo you envisioned when you pressed the shutter button.

So yes, by all means, speak to the importance of emotional connections and resonance in images. If you’ve read anything else I’ve written, you’ve figured out by now that in that respect, the Sisters are preaching to the choir. But please, don’t just stop at the joys of getting that perfect, resonant shot; don’t just stop at the why. The how is an important part of the equation, and in this book, the how is missing, or fragmented, or assumed to be understood. That’s not always a valid assumption. The authors have the skills, and inspiration, to spare, but they’ve done a better job at sharing the latter than the former. And that, to my mind at least, is a problem; because of it, what could’ve been a great book ends up feeling instead like a missed opportunity.

*At least, what I looked for when I was starting out