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Top 5 Books for Fine Art photographers


In 2016 I published my top 5 of photography books that I’ve read and would recommend anyone to read. Looking at the list one can see that they weren’t the typical photography books. Books that were targeted at those among us who want to profess photography as an art form and therefore books that gave insight into how photography relates to art and the bigger context of art. Today I’m going to present another top 5 of books that go even further and don’t have a direct relationship with photography at all but only to art in general. I believe those books will give you a better understanding of what fine art photography could be and therefore will make you a better, or at least a more conscious fine art photographer. Books are mentioned in no particular order, but first an answer to why.

Why this list

When it comes to art, we’re talking about something that transcends a specific medium and is not bound to just painting, sculpture, music, literature, architecture, or (fine art) photography. To get an idea of what binds all these disciplines together in the realm of art and what makes them art, we need to look beyond the discipline we’re comfortable working in; in our case photography. Fine art photography is more than just an aesthetic and effective visual style in photography, just like art in painting is more than just a pretty landscape, or just like any nice and catchy tune is art. Calling yourself a fine art photographer is a very conscious decision, indicating that you’re trying to create photographs that are considered fine art, and that implies since you call yourself a fine art photographer, that you have an informed opinion on what fine art or just simply art, is, else, how would you know that what you create could be considered fine art? It’s not just a label, it is an intention, it should be an intention to create photographs that could be art. I believe there are 2 types of artists. First, the ones who call themselves artists, create art, and have a very outspoken idea of what art should be. They dedicate their lives, their art, to follow that idea. And no, no one else needs to agree with your opinion on art. But you, you have to know it, you have to be filled with the absolute certainty of that idea, you have to be completely obsessed with it – with that idea, no matter if you’re right or wrong. There’s no right or wrong in art. Just absolute conviction and you’re able to defend that idea for yourself. That’s what makes your art unique and authentic. They are what I like to call articulate artists. And then there are artists who claim to not know what their work stands for, what their artistic principles and intentions are, while all along,  they were creating art in retrospect. They are the more intuitive artists. But make no mistake: even though they can’t articulate what art was or should be in their view, they were driven by the act of creation. They don’t always call themselves artists, as they had not even an idea of what it was. They just create, and artists, they certainly are, but they are rare. And here we are in the digital age with many photographers calling themselves artists. If you’re one of them or consider labeling yourself as such, then at least try to figure out for yourself what you believe art should be, and how you incorporate that idea in your photography. And follow that idea no matter what other people think or say how wrong your conception of art is. No matter if they laugh in your face. No one possesses the absolute truth on art, except yourself, for yourself. But then at least try to articulate that idea convincingly for yourself, and even better – toward others, else you’re just fooling yourself. Don’t make it easy on yourself: the more unique your idea on what art in photography is, the more it’s an indication it’s authentic. The more it’s an indication it comes from you, uniquely. You don’t have to be an academic, a philosopher, or an art historian, just true to your beliefs. Considering every single person that was born, or still alive or yet to be born, is unique and will never have a duplicate, then that could potentially result in the unique expression of all those beings, contributing to the shared collective experience, through individual artistic expression, of what it is and means to be alive for a unique individual. That I believe, is the essence of art. The shared experience of what it is to be alive and find beauty, pleasure, and consolation in that. But for that to happen you need to be true to yourself and make your stance on art clear to yourself. So, for all those who want to educate themselves and call themselves fine art photographers and be able to articulate why they call themselves fine art photographers and find your unique stance, I have a top 5 of books here that relate to art and almost nothing to photography, but I believe they will enhance your understanding of what art can be and how its meaning can vary. You might find a clue as to what your authentic stance is. You might find yourself and how incredibly unique you are. If you want to know more about my specific ideas on art, then I’ve written several blog posts on this website to give you an idea. Or you can sign up for my Online B&W Fine Art weekend workshop that I announced for October 17/18, 2020.

1. Man with a blue scarf – On sitting for a portrait by Lucian Freud – Martin Gayford.

Portraiture has always fascinated me. What is it that the artist tries to depict when painting or taking a portrait? Is what we see a self-portrait or do we see the sitter or do we see both? Writer Martin Gayford spent many months serving as a subject for one of Lucian Freud’s paintings. Lucian Freud (indeed related to Sigmund Freud: Lucian is his grandson) is an artist lauded for his fantastic portraits of famous and not so famous people. One of his most famous is perhaps his painting of fellow British painter Francis Bacon with whom Lucian Freud had a very special relationship. Bacon’s portraiture work btw is very beautiful and very disturbing. More on that and Freud’s relationship with Bacon in one of the other entries in this shortlist.

During the time Gayford posed for Freud, day in, day out for months in a row, Gayford became very intimately a firsthand witness of how Freud worked and thought when it comes to the artistic process of creating portraits. Reading this book it becomes clear how obsessive Freud is and how he works for weeks, sometimes months on just one small detail in Gayford’s attire or face just to get it perfect. Not perfect in the sense of exact photographic detail, but perfect in how he selects those parts of someone’s face or attire and how he thinks it should be interpreted and magnified in his painting. Lucian Freud, by way of Martin Gayford, gives a very clear answer to what it is what the artist should try to capture in either a painting or a photograph. And it is revealing. Without giving away too much here: it has nothing to do with what most fine art portrait photographers think should be captured and should be expressed. It has to do with capturing the interaction between sitter and artist. Furthermore, it has not much to do with ‘beauty’ in the illusory, external sense either. I already said something about that when discussing Mark Rothko’s book in the other top 5 list mentioned at the beginning of this article and that I want to paraphrase again to explain what is meant with an ‘illusory beauty’:

There are 2 types of beauty in art: illusory beauty, a type of beauty that is external, and is not in the art itself but lends its beauty from the sitter, like a beautiful woman. And there’s tactile or plastic beauty, which is beauty that is intrinsically present in the artwork itself and has nothing to do with the person depicted. The latter is true beauty in art. The painting, the photo, as it is, lends its beauty from its physical self and from what’s depicted as a whole, not from something external (the beautiful person who’s the sitter).

2. Looking at the Overlooked – Norman Bryson

What is still life in its essence? Just some flowers in a vase? A beautifully lit nautilus shell? A skull or some oranges and lemons neatly arranged in a frame? Or is there more to it? When I first asked myself these questions and searched for meaningful essays, and relevant literature on this subject, I couldn’t find anything that satisfied my curiosity. All I could find were many paintings from old Dutch masters like Adriaen Coorte and from Spanish masters like Juan Sanchez Cotan and Francisco de Zurbaran, and more recently and more relevant for photographers: the famous Pepper no 30 by Edward Weston or the fabulous flowers by Robert Mapplethorpe. There was hardly any explanation, hardly any insight except for the obligatory categorization like Vanity and Memento Mori types of still life in the articles I could find. I wanted to know why still life, I wanted to know its essence, its true nature, its deeper meaning. Because I love photographing still life myself and I wanted to know what to really aim for when shooting still life, besides the considerations of a more technical and mechanical nature. After some more research, I finally found Norman Bryson’s ‘Looking at the Overlooked’. And while reading this, I knew there was no need to look any further. Any other explanation, any attempt to analyze and dissect the nature of still life would be futile in my view after this book.

Rhopography (still life works that use objects that are trivial and ordinary as they are so much part of our daily life that they tend to be overlooked) and Megalography (categorizes the works that use objects that are the reflection of the wealth and status of the owners of those objects) for example are 2 categories in Still life I never heard anyone mention before. But there’s far more to it than just categorization. Bryson brilliantly discovers and describes the hidden but intriguing essence of still life that I, at best, could only feel, but never know. Let me give a quote from the book to give you an idea.

When Bryson analyzes the paintings by Zurbaran and Cotan, he says: […] “Instead of receding, objects come forward, as though the vanishing-point were not ‘behind’ the canvas, on some internal horizon, but in front of it, in the space where the viewer stands. The Basket of Fruit does not recede: it projects. And as it does so, it announces that the only space where the objects reside is in this projection that is sent out from the canvas towards the spectator. The painting shows objects that exist there, and only there – not in some prior, receding space that is neutrally copied or transcribed. The basket of fruity and the fruit are presented, not represented; they come into being on the canvas for the first time, not as transcription but as the original inscription.”[…]

There you have it. Still life, when done well, suggests that it occupies a space in a different dimension and it is only there for the viewer – it’s about intimacy. Still life is about intimacy. Edward Weston’s Pepper is a photograph from another reality, from another dimension and they’re there just for the sake of the viewer. For me… I think it’s mind-blowing.

3. Living with Art – Mark Getlein

Perhaps the book that comes closest to having a direct relationship with photography and no matter if you want to be a fine art photographer or just a photographer, this is the book that should be in every photographer’s library. This book is about understanding art and photography and all its deeper, more universal, and fundamental principles, most of them, the more advanced photographers and instructors even never heard of, instead of a book on stating the obvious and then recommending to memorize them and not understanding what lies behind it. This is about understanding why all the rules in image-making are there in the first place and where they came from and more. Hence this is a book that will allow you to apply more fundamental rules and make rules yourself.

Looking at the top five list: all books mentioned here are listed to enhance your understanding of art and image-making, but from all books, this is the most practical book.

The idea of figure-ground relationships, the importance of strong shapes, effective use of colors, or the fact that the diagonal is always better than the vertical line and the vertical line better than the horizontal line, those are notions that you can use immediately in your own work.

4. The Art of Rivalry – Sebastian Smee

Art has progressed and made important breakthroughs not only by the pure genius and divine inspiration of the artist, but also by the admiration, inspiration, rivalries, and betrayals they encountered in their close friendships with other artists. Art could progress, artists could revolutionize because the trigger for those breakthroughs could also be found in the deeply rooted need to respond to other artists. But not just any other artist: often only to artists that were in a very specific relationship with the responding artist. Either they were very good friends, or lovers, or had tremendous respect and admiration for each other, but there was always a closeness, an intimacy that goes beyond the superficial and physical and extends into the world of thoughts and deep emotions.

The author of the book researched the lives of 4 ‘couples’: Matisse and PicassoLucian Freud and Francis BaconWillem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock and Edgar Degas and Edouard Manet and describes vividly how closely connected their lives were and how they influenced each other in ways that impacted the entire art world. As the author of the book, Sebastian Smee states in his introduction:

There is, I believe, an intimacy in art history that the textbooks ignore. This book is an attempt to reckon with that intimacy. Its title is The Art of Rivalry, but the idea of rivalry it presents is not the macho cliche of sworn enemies, bitter competitors, and stubborn grudge-holders slugging it out for artistic and worldly supremacy. Instead, it is a book about yielding, intimacy, and openness to influence. It is about susceptibility. That these states of susceptibility are concentrated early on in an artist’s career, and that they have a limited life span – that they were never going to last beyond a certain point […] If this is a book, in other words, about seduction, it is also to some extent about breakups and betrayal

5. Matisse and Picasso – The story of their Rivalry and Friendship – Jack Flam

The aforementioned book struck such a chord with me that I wanted to dig deeper into the nature of influential and intimate relationships in art, and more specifically into the relationship, rivalry, and friendship between the two giants of art from the 20th century. And last but not least, the art they created and why and how cubism for example started and evolved.

Henry Matisse and Picasso were 2 of the most important artists at the beginning of the 20th century up to the end of their lives in the second half of the previous century. What I found so incredibly fascinating when reading this book is that not only it gave me insight into their respective lives but it also gave me so much insight into how their important works were created, and how it can be understood and interpreted. Additionally, and perhaps for me the most important aspect: it gave me insight into how their works were intricately connected to each other and that one of the most important sources of inspiration for great artists is the other artist, just like the previous book in this list already suggested. Their individual work is almost always a response to the work of other artists they feel artistically connected to and admire and intuitively feel they serve as a catalyst for their progression. Looking at their work you can almost see a conversation, not between artists, but between the work they produced. Their paintings tell a passionate story of how their creators thought and were influenced by the other artists in their lives.

Art in its essence is always a response to other artists, society, politics, religion, and any other institution or paradigm. But the most important and most interesting response for the sake of art is when art is created as a response to the artistic creations of other artists. Art then becomes an autonomous, abstract, and almost sacred entity by itself.

Picasso is often quoted to have said that ‘ Good artists copy and great artists steal’. I’m very aware of this misused quote but I haven’t found this quote anywhere in my own personal readings on Picasso. This doesn’t mean he never said it, I just haven’t found it myself, literally coming out of his mouth. But what I am very sure of is that Picasso never meant this as a justification for artists to just steal other artist’s work or ideas. That is nonsense. What I always suspected and now know for sure after reading this book and some others, is that he meant to say that great artists use the other artist’s work as something to respond to in such a way to reject the other artist’s concept and replace it with his own concepts. It’s not literally taking an entire concept and then using it without any other intention than to steal. It’s what this entire book is about: artists responding through their work on the other artist’s work and ideas.

A book that truly meant very much to me and made me understand the process of art and creativity much better.

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3 Responses

  1. Great list and wonderful descriptions of why these books were important to you. You just made my Christmas list so much easier.

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