Top 5 Photography Books

My Choice Of Photography Books

A personal selection of photography books that are not the typical technical text books on photography, some aren’t even on photography at all, but they are all books that have proven to be influential books that have changed how art and fine art photography can be approached and thought of. You won’t find Ansel Adams’ text books on photography here, because even though they were influential, they are more technically oriented, nor will you find the obligatory coffee table books on photography. My objective with this website has always been providing the reader with original information, that I personally find valuable and that goes beyond technicalities only.

My choice of books, was to give you insight into the more abstract and artistic philosophical considerations of art, and how artistic vision is a result of those considerations and not just the result of technical excellence. A part that is often neglected in the understanding and creation of art. Furthermore to give insight into the mysterious muses and intimate moments of furious passion, that accompanied the artists when creating their brilliant art and insights. That is perhaps more valuable than ‘how-to’ technical information that anyone can teach and learn.

Books are mentioned in no particular order.

1. Just Kids by Patti Smith

Patti Smith (December 30, 1946) and Robert Mapplethorpe (November 4, 1946 – March 9, 1989), today they are two well known artists. Patti Smith is famous for her music. Her album “Horses” is considered to be one of the greatest albums of all times. Mapplethorpe is often thought of as one of the big names in photography. Back in the late ’60’s however they were two unknown entities roaming the streets of New York, penniless.

“Just Kids” by Patti Smith is a book that details the relationship between Smith and Mapplethorpe, how they met in ’67 and their rise to international stardom. This book offers a fascinating insight into their lives and how, almost by chance, Mapplethorpe became the famous photographer who earned a place in photography history and how Smith became the protagonist of punk-rock and how they motivated and encouraged each other to become the monumental artists they are considered now.

Smith and Mapplethorpe always loved art. With New York City being one of the cultural centers of the world, art museums were easy to come by. Money for entry fees however, were scarce. Often when they visited a museum one of them had to wait outside. This didn’t discourage Mapplethorpe at all. “One day we’ll go in together, and the work will be ours,” Mapplethorpe told Smith on one of those occasions. He was broke and jobless when he said that. He never doubted his or Smith’s abilities.

Early work of Mapplethorpe demonstrates that he used a multitude of mediums in creating his artwork. He would cut out photographs from magazines and use pastels and coloured pencils and assemble it in his collages. An example of this is shown in the image above, dated circa 1968. Mapplethorpe needed photographs for his collages but never aspired to be a photographer, he didn’t dream of it, he only knew he was an artist. He lacked the patience for developing and printing the images. This all changed when Smith gave him a Polaroid SX-70 in 1971 because she insisted that it would be better than cutting out photographs from magazines that would have his critical approval, to be used in his collages. There was no need to develop pictures in a darkroom. Press the shutter and just wait sixty seconds. “The immediacy of the process suited his temperament,” as Patti Smith put it. Film was pricy though ($3 dollars for 10 pictures), so Mapplethorpe couldn’t experiment as much as he’d liked. That was the start for his love of photography, and we have Patti Smith to thank for that.

In 1972 Mapplethorpe was introduced to John McKendry, at the time a curator of prints and photographs at The Met. They would discuss about photography as an art form. Mapplethorpe was convinced photography should be as highly regarded as paintings and sculptures. Although McKendry agreed, it was not his place to reform the nations opinion. He did manage to land Mapplethorpe a grant from Polaroid, giving him unlimited access to al the film he wanted. This was a big step in Mapplethorpe’s photography career. In 1973 he had his first solo exhibition (“Polaroids”) at the Light Gallery in New York City.

A Polaroid camera is obviously very limited in its abilities. A basic point and shoot camera, with no interchangeable lenses. It’s difficult to exactly get the result that you want. Once Mapplethorpe came in possession of a Hasselblad, through his friend Sam Wagstaff, there was no holding him back.

Mapplethorpe photographed many portraits of his partner Patti Smith. What struck me about how they would go about that is that Mapplethorpe always used natural light and never asked Smith to strike a specific pose. Mapplethorpe only was interested in the light for his portrait, while Smith would assume the pose that she knew Mapplethorpe would like. There was a silent and telepathic understanding while shooting the portraits. In the book it becomes clear that both contributed to the beautiful portraits Mapplethorpe took of Smith.

Just Kids is an entertaining book that gives insight in how one of the most revered photographers of the 20th century found his calling in a rather accidental way.

2. Interaction Of Color by Josef Albers

If you’re a color photographer and want to use colors in a more thoughtful, deliberate and effective way in your photographs, then this is the book you should have at hand on your bookshelves.

It’s been more than 50 years since Interaction of Color by Josef Albers was first released. The book is announced by the author himself as ‘a record of an experimental way of studying color and of teaching color.’ Josef Albers (March 19, 1888 – March 25, 1976) was an educator and painter and by many considered to be ‘the teacher of artists’. His color theories and teachings are instrumental up to this date, in how is thought and taught about color in art education and practice, and in the development of art movements such as the American Abstract Expressionism.

Albers developed a theory on colors that goes beyond traditional theories on color and how colors are perceived and used in art. Interaction of Colors was unprecedented and generated a lot of controversy and negative criticism, at the time of its release, but ultimately the work became a bestseller and was and is highly praised.

What Albers demonstrated in a clear way in his book, was that color is very relative. Albers says:

In visual perception a color is almost never seen as it really is — as it physically is. This fact makes color the most relative medium in art.

And furthermore:

In order to use color effectively it is necessary to recognize that color deceives continually.

The book consists of 26 chapters, all with a theoretical premise, in, again, very clear language, and all premises are accompanied by so called ‘plates and commentary’ sections, to explain visually, through colorful illustrations and examples, what the premise entails.

I’ve included a few scans of the book to give you an idea.