Review: Photography for the Joy of It, by Freeman Patterson

Photography for the Joy of It, by Freeman Patterson

The copy of Freeman Patterson’s Photography for the Joy of It that’s sitting next to me is from 1977. As I write this, the book is out of print (though you can find used copies of the original edition and two subsequent reprints at the Amazon links below). It’s a shame, because even though it shows its age in places, this is one photography book I wish I’d picked up when I was first starting out.

The title isn’t just some marketing gimmick, a takeoff on the “Joy of…” (cooking, bicycle riding, chinchillas) titles that are so popular. Patterson clearly takes joy in his craft, and that joy is palpable both in his words and in his photos. Some of his photos stop you in their tracks for their creativity (be prepared for a lot of “What is that?” moments), but a lot of his advice does the same. Patterson lays out the rules clearly and concisely, but goes out of his way to affirm that they’re just rules, and that it’s okay to break them if it’ll make a better photo.

Too often, the books I’ve read on photography — especially when they’re targeted at novice photographers, as this one is — are weighted heavily, or entirely, toward gear and the minutiae of technique. You’ll find some of that — just enough of it, as it happens — but this book’s saving grace is that there’s plenty of philosophy and insight on design principles, the use of symbolism, and quite a bit else that you won’t find in a more typical introduction to photography… which is exactly why it’s such a good introduction, or even a good refresher on the off chance that you need one.

For as much experience as I’ve picked up along the way (which is by no means exhaustive, but still, it’s there), I was still able to learn quite a bit from this book; for instance, the section on Selective Focus would’ve been worth the price of the book by itself (it goes far beyond depth of field). And there’s plenty here to act as reminders or a call to mindfulness, which we all need from time to time as well, even in something as simple as Patterson’s injunction that “The most important thing you can do with your camera and lenses is to use them.”

Remember last week, when I said it’s all been done? Patterson’s work, for me, is a reminder that while it’s all been done, it’s still worth doing anyway. It’s good to have something to aspire to, a signpost or two on the road ahead that let us know we’re headed in the right direction. It’s also a reminder that we have a chance for us to “pay it forward,” giving a helping hand to those behind us on the road just as those ahead have done for us. If you are, or you know, a photographer who’s just embarking on their path, give this book some serious thought. Yes, photography takes dedication, discipline, and lots of practice, but Patterson reminds us time and again of all the joy it gives in return.


Visit Freeman Patterson’s website here:

There’s also a great Freeman Patterson interview here, courtesy of BermanGraphics:

Finally, if you purchase either the 1999 edition or the 2007 edition of Photography for the Joy of It through these Amazon affiliate links, you help keep The First 10,000 going. Thanks!

Review: The Photograph, by Graham Clarke

The Photograph, by Graham Clarke

I purchased Graham Clarke’s The Photograph around the time that it first came out about fifteen years ago. At the time, I was more concerned with art theory, history, and criticism than I was with trying to make art of my own, and this book appealed to the side of me that, when I was a kid, would take things apart to see how they worked. I approached art in the same way; I wanted to take it apart, examine all those pieces, see how it all fit together, and what made the end result work (or not).

What drew me to art, and kept me circling back to photography ’til I finally gave in — and dove in — myself, is that it made sense to me in a way that, say, electronics or cars just don’t. I could take a radio apart, but I had no better idea of what made the thing tick by the time I’d finished than I had when I started. Art, on the other hand, made sense to me, even if I wasn’t ready or quite able at the time to use those same things to put those pieces — the theory, the medium, the history — together in a way that they’d work.

I’m not altogether sure whether this book was written for a layman or for more of a scholarly audience. It’s certainly not a light read, but neither is it so dense as to be obtuse; to my mind, at least, it should be accessible enough for a general audience, but thought-provoking enough that the academics shouldn’t get bored halfway through. Clarke explores history, genre, and theory, but also does something your average photography book doesn’t; he stops to consider the consequences of the still image, whether as fodder for art, commerce, documentary, manipulation or political purposes. Of course, these things don’t typically stay in their own fenced-in little areas, so Clarke gives the sometimes messy intersections of all these considerations their due as well.

If that sounds a bit different than your average coffee table book, that’s because it is. If you’re looking for a survey of photography that concerns itself mostly with the images themselves, and allows the images to speak for themselves, you’re likely to be disappointed in this book. But that would, I humbly suggest, be your fault rather than the author’s, simply because that’s not what this book is for. The author isn’t just uncritically presenting images; he is, instead, interrogating them, and inviting the reader to do the same. It’s an attempt to look at photography through a critical lens in much the same way that earlier works by Barthes and Sontag had done, but more accessibly (to this reader, at least).

The bottom line is, if you’re picking this up primarily for the photos, don’t; there are other, better, books for that. If, on the other hand, you’d like a deeper understanding of the history and theory of photography (without subjecting yourself to a degree program), this is an excellent place to start. And speaking of starting points, if you’re just starting with a camera, or haven’t even picked one up yet, I’d still urge you to give this book a shot. I can’t say this for everyone who’ll read this review, or the book to which it refers, but I know I can’t possibly be the only person for whom understanding the theory and/or history behind something — learning how to “read” the medium, however haltingly, before trying my hand at it — was a gateway, and permission, toward trying it myself.

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