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The First Book on Advanced Topics in Photographic Composition/Design
on October 10, 2010
This is the first book in English to look at topics in photographic composition and visual design in a practical manner from an advanced standpoint. It is the current approach for digital photographers to Ansel Adams's concept of "previsualization."
It is difficult to overstate the importance of this book to the literature on the composition/design (c/d) problem, not only in photography, but also in the drawing/painting arts. For the first time a potential text is available that provides the basis for a spiral curriculum in practical imaging, starting from the elementary writing that dominates the topic, through the intermediate level of Freeman's earlier "Photographer's Eye" (PE), and Mante's and Hoffmann's books, now to "The Photographer's Mind" (PM) at the advanced level. Throughout the text, actually a number of essays, Freeman weaves insights from the standard and highly regarded theoreticians, such as Arnheim and Gombrich, to the more current insights from visual psychology and brain studies on visualization, to art history and other writing on the c/d problem.
PM is a very worthy extension of PE, taking analysis of the structural components of an image done in PE to the next level - the photographer's intent, or the purpose of an image and how to define that and use the work flow of digital photographing to achieve a desired reaction from or convey a message to viewers. The material in PE needs by now to be second nature, done without conscious deliberation for the most part.
PM starts where PE left off, but in inverted order. The fifth chapter in PE on "Intent" is now an entire first section in PM. Freeman examined different kinds of "intent" in PE as contrasting pairs, starting from the most basic, conventional versus challenging. In PM, he moves on to considerations the photographer should make of a photograph's presentational context: what is right in one context may be less effective in another, which may require a whole other "look." He does National Geographic's commentaries on photographing more than one better in his initial chapter on the "layers of subject." Freeman examines this topic in more textual depth and with more illustrations than NG does among most of their books and photographers' commentaries put together. Other topics look at beauty, clarity versus ambiguity, and ending with hiding in plain sight, the visual delay.
The second part of PM, "Style," is not really a continuation of the first several chapters in PE on the nuts and bolts of compositions, but on using those techniques to create a particular style of image. Yes, that's right, a style for potentially each separate image, as opposed to a "photographer's style." Why this approach? Well, digital photography has democratized the act of photographing to the extent that it is a universal activity. It now may be easier to notice who does not photograph or video than who does. It is, therefore, ever more difficult for a photographer to stand out over the long haul based on a "style," but more necessary for one to have mastered the old and the new to meet the need or intention of the moment, assignment, or project. Those who have invested the most in mastering composing and manipulating new technologies to individualize the effects of each image will win and be noticed. Training and mastery count here; this is not the stuff of the "I'm OK, you're OK" art training that prevails today. "Getting closer" eventually becomes a prescription for boring photos, if that is as far as one takes creating stronger images, despite what Capa said.
In the "Style" section, one highlight is the finest, most detailed, comprehensive essay on classical, static, and asymmetric balance I have seen anywhere, especially paired with the one on "opposition." I was stunned with how he managed to apply the musical harmonic measures covered in Bouleau's book to practical photographing in the essay on harmonics - not something I had figured out how to use in quick photographing. He wraps up this section with essays on the main range of styles in contemporary photography defined into four categories. This grouping covers the lens-timing-lighting aspects of composition inherent in the debates and conflicts between modernist and post-modernist adherents who may to greater or lesser degrees operate from behind a manifesto or within a philosophy.
The third section returns to the "process" by which, at least, this photographer solves creative, compositional problems at the time of shooting. In PE, he looked at reactive shooting in depth. He returns to that for a while in the essay on "interactive composition," wherein he examines his own reactions to changes in a situation and his reactions to them. The final set of topics he considers in this section is to define and analyze an image's "look." This concept, with the infinitude of hyper-precise digital processing techniques, is now a much more evident characteristic of one image or a collection of images. Freeman categorizes and examines in detail the stylistic components of what can be manipulated to achieve a certain "look" in a manner that was not feasible to any similar degree with film.
Freeman, among all photographers and painters, is almost alone in his ability to articulate in precise, meaningful ways his thoughts on composing and, in particular, how he manages the task. There is no art critical jargon and hand waving here. Each page is packed with information, often presented in novel ways and using differing emphases. Beyond using text, pages of captioned illustrations, and some of the best instructive diagrams I've seen anywhere to make his argument, he also summarizes or restates a topic or isolates a specific point in boxes - a sort of Power Point presentation within the book, and gives the reader tiny boxes with lists of web search terms pertaining to the subject at hand.
As a first entry in the literature of advanced topics in composition/design, this is a most worthy contribution, on its own merits and for opening a new level of discourse. Both Freeman and his publisher, ILEX, are to be commended for taking the risk to publish this level of material, not aimed at the beginning amateur market, where the publishing numbers are. PE is a best seller by any reasonable measure, and PM is a worthy next step for those who are hungry for objective, well-stated assistance in improving their photography, or, in fact, their image-making in any medium.
Bravo, Freeman and ILEX. May risk in this arena continue to be worth taking. We want more writing on this level and quality.