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The Photographer's Vision: Understanding and Appreciating Great Photography Paperback – September 29, 2011

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Editorial Reviews Review Exclusive: "What Makes a Good Photograph," an Excerpt from Photographer's Vision

Takes directly from real life
Although the camera can be used to construct images, particularly in studio work, the great strength of photography is that the physical world around us provides the material. This elevates the importance of the subject, the event; and the reporting of this is obviously something at which photography excels. At the same time, however, this ease of capture reduces the value of accurate representation, because it has become commonplace--very different from the early view of painting, when Leonardo da Vinci wrote in his notebook that "painting is most praiseworthy which is most like the thing represented." Instead, the way in which photographers document--the style and treatment--becomes more significant.At a deeper level, there is an inherent paradox between depicting reality and yet being something completely apart as a freestanding image. Other arts, like painting, poetry, and music, are obvious as constructs. There is no confusion in anyone's mind that a poem or a song have originated anywhere else but in the mind of their creator, and that the experience in life that they refer to has been filtered through an imagination, and that some time has been taken to do this. In this respect, photographs do create confusion. The image is, in most cases, so clearly of a real scene, object, or person, and yet it remains just an image that can be looked at quietly in completely divorced circumstances. It is of real life, and at the same time separate. This contradiction offers many possibilities for exploration, and much contemporary fine- art photography does just that, including making constructions to mimic real-life content.

Fast and easy
Photography can explore and capture all aspects of life--and increasingly so as the equipment improves. One example of this is the increased light sensitivity of sensors, which has made night and low-light imagery possible. We take this pretty much for granted, but it is a strong driving force behind photography's immense popularity. Little or no preparation is needed to capture an image, which means that there are many, many opportunities for creative expression. As digital cameras make this easier and more certain technically, it also focuses more and more attention on the composition and on each person's particular vision. Or at least it should, provided we don't get sidetracked by the "bright, shiny toy" component in photography. "Photography is the easiest art," wrote photographer Lisette Model, "which perhaps makes it the hardest." There is unquestionably less craftsmanship in photography in the sense of time and physical effort than there is in other visual arts, something many professionals feel defensive about. But in its place, the act of creation is extended afterwards to reviewing and selecting already-taken images. As well as editing, as this is called, the processing and printing of images is also a later and important part of the process.

Can be taken by anyone
This never happened in art before. Photography is now practiced nearly universally, and not just to record family moments, either. It's no longer a case of artists and professionals on one side, audience on the other. Digital cameras, sharing across the internet, and the decline of traditional print media have made photography available to almost everyone as a means of creative expression. Nor do these many millions of photographers feel bound by the opinions of a few. Many are perfectly happy with the opinions of their peers, as audience and photographers are usually the same people. All of this makes contemporary photography wide-ranging and complex, with different and competing standards and values. Creating good photographs does not depend on a career plan, which for all save professionals is good news. What is less good is that a large number of images tends to confuse any judgement of excellence, and the internet is awash with imagery.

Has a specific look
Whatever choice of paper texture and coating you make for a print, the image itself is completely without a third dimension. The frame is a window, and this sets photography apart from painting and from any kind of imagery created by hand. In many ways, this lack of physical presence makes screen display perfect, and this is increasingly how most photographs get viewed. In terms of its look, photography begins with the viewer's expectation that the contents are "real"--taken from real life. In fact, we relate the appearance of a photograph to two things: how we ourselves see, and how we have learned to accept the look of a photograph. We are very sensitive to the naturalism and "realism" of a photograph. The further that a photographer takes the image away from this, by complicated processing or unusual post-production techniques, the less the image is photographic. This is not a criticism, just a statement of obvious fact. The basic photographic look relies on the assumption that very little has been done to the image since it was captured. Photography also has its own vocabulary of imagery, not found anywhere else. This includes such things as differential focus, a limited dynamic range, motion blur, flare artefacts, less-than-fully-saturated colors, and the possibility of rendering the image entirely in black and white.

Photographer's Vision
From the series Four Seasons in One Day, 2007, by Laura El-Tantawy
A warm afternoon graces central London as pedestrians cool down with ice cream cones. Differential focus, and even some slight motion blur, together with the smoothness of the tonal range, make this a very “photographic” image, despite the ways in which the photographer plays with illusion and juxtaposition. It presents itself as capture from the real world, rather than a manipulated illustration, and it’s this given that allows El-Tantawy to experiment and to intrigue with her distinct way of seeing.


"Acclaimed international photographer and writer Michael Freeman takes the reader on a wonderful journey to understand and appreciate a great photograph. The Photographer's Vision features some of the world's greatest photographers past and present and examines what it takes to create award-winning imagery. Each genre of photography - whether photojournalism, fashion or fine art - requires a developed skill set influenced by an underlying passion and vision. These genres are explored in detail in this book, as are the skills necessary to compose and capture the dynamic range of subjects. Perhaps the most important lesson Michael Freeman shares is how to identify the qualities of a good photograph. Whether you are a gallery owner, photographer, or simply have an appreciation of photography, this book will inspire you to see more and be a better judge of what makes a good photograph."--San Francisco Book Review

"This book examines the work of some of the world's greatest photographers, explaining how to look at photographs, and how to learn from looking at them. It examines composition and design in photography, explores the thought process that goes into taking pictures. Michael Freeman is an acclaimed photography and writer."

"Michael Freeman's The Photographer's Vision: Understanding and Appreciating Great Photography from Focal Press is the kind of photo book I'd always wished I'd written but could never get up off my ass to do. (OK, maybe it has something to do with the fact that I'm tied up writing these dang photo gear reviews all the time.) Freeman, who is also the author of companion books The Photographer's Eye and The Photographer's Mind, discusses the work of some of the world's great photographers in The Photographer's Vision and offers his take on how to look at an image and how to gain something from the experience. His choice of photographers and imagery in the book are excellent, including work by Walker Evans, Paul Strand, Nan Goldin, Cindy Sherman and Horst Faas. The only thing I wished he'd discussed was how to develop 'a vision' in your own work. But maybe I've got to write that book myself."

"Michael Freeman is a photographer known internationally for his extensive work in Africa and especially Asia. He also has written numerous books about photography theory. He's currently on tour speaking on 'Storytelling Through Photos'. I had a chance to sit in on one of these lectures given at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pa and afterwards was able to have a few moments with Michael to see how he got started, his views on photo essay structure, and what it is that keeps him going."

"The Photographer's Vision has a power that grows the more you read and re-read it. The stories of great photographers and their images are engrossing...I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in seeing and understanding great photos or for those who want to improve their photographic eye."

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Focal Press; 1 edition (September 29, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0240815181
  • ISBN-13: 978-0240815183
  • Product Dimensions: 0.5 x 9.5 x 10.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #98,570 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

22 of 23 people found the following review helpful By T. Campbell on November 7, 2011
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is one of the few books on how to see, understand, appreciate, and evaluate, a photograph or photographs written by a practicing photographer, who, most unusually for visual artists, is articulate in a concrete manner. Deeply knowledgeable of the entirety of the arts scene, Freeman has given us not only the third volume in his expanding franchise of "The Photographer's ___" series, but what may become a classic among books on this type of subject. It is certainly a wonderful candidate as a text for any university course on art appreciation.

At the zero-dimensional level, it is easily the most and best illustrated of any such book, and has a wonderful eye appeal. Most such books are full of text with few, if any illustrations. I tend to have little patience with books on art that are mostly words, particularly when the words do little to move the reader toward the supposed goal of knowing more about the art under consideration. Arnheim and Gombrich are good for theory, but tedious to plow through, and Susan Sontag? Well, I'll just say that I never managed to get through hers; she does have some quotable one-liners.

This book took a lot of work. Unlike Freeman's other books, only a very few of the illustrations in PV are his. He has mined the historical archives and dozens of the most current practitioners' work for over a hundred images, almost all with a well thought out caption. Setting this book apart from any other by a European or American is the number of images from East Asian photographers of the first caliber. Freeman has done a number of book and article projects in China and throughout Southeast Asia over many years and is more aware of talent there than we in the US are likely to be.
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35 of 41 people found the following review helpful By Alan Shi on January 12, 2012
Format: Paperback
Aside from the fact that there are some very nice images in this book, I struggled to find anything to like about "The Photographer's Vision" at all. Ultimately, I think I had totally the wrong expectations about what this book would be about. The description on the back of the book promises to help the reader to learn to read and understand a photograph (a tall order), and ultimately "identify the secret of a photograph's success". If anything remotely close to this is examined in this book, I failed to notice because it was drowned in a sea of incredibly boring and pointless historical facts, descriptions, definitions, anecdotes, and other ramblings.

After some 30 pages of text, Freeman gets effectively to what should be the heart of the matter, in a list of "ten questions to ask yourself" when reading a photograph. You'd think the whole book would be about examining those questions, but sadly, this is just a flat list that might as well have been written on the back of a paper napkin. The key point is #10: does the image work? Why so little real treatment is given to this question in a book supposedly devoted to understanding photography completely boggles my mind. Instead, you'll read page after mind-numbing page about some random topic that save maybe a sliver of knowledge here and there, is completely lacking in practical value. A huge portion of the book just describes various genres of photography in an unstructured and uninteresting way, filled with stories but completely lacking any real analysis of photographs or what effect they have.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Conrad J. Obregon VINE VOICE on October 31, 2011
Format: Paperback
Folks who have read Michael Freeman's books, "The Photographer's Eye: Composition and Design for Better Digital Photos" and "The Photographer's Mind: Creative Thinking for Better Digital Photos" might well assume this is another well-conceived, how-to book. But it is so much more. It is in fact the entire story of photography, including history, aesthetics, criticism and technique.

The book is divided into three parts called "A Momentary Art", "Understanding Purpose" and "Photography Skills" but the content is so interrelated that these headings seem almost irrelevant. Freeman does define what a photograph is; talks about the genres of photography; describes the different methods of presentation; explains the purpose of photographers (and editors and art directors); and mentions some issues like the methods that photographers use to pull us into their images. He outlines many of the issues in photography like whether an image should be printed in black-and white or in color. The book is profusely illustrated with images dating back to the nineteenth century and as current as the work of today's critical darlings like Andreas Gursky and Jeff Wall. Moreover, the book examines photographs not just from Europe and North America but the other continents, showing that so-called "western society" is not the only place where great images are created.
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