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Why Photographs Work: 52 Great Images Who Made Them, What Makes Them Special and Why Paperback – January 7, 2011

ISBN-13: 978-1933952703 ISBN-10: 1933952709 Edition: 1st

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Why Photographs Work: 52 Great Images Who Made Them, What Makes Them Special and Why + Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art + The Photographer's Eye
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 228 pages
  • Publisher: Rocky Nook; 1 edition (January 7, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1933952709
  • ISBN-13: 978-1933952703
  • Product Dimensions: 9.9 x 10 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (40 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #441,892 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

About the Author

George Barr is a photographer living in Calgary, Canada. Serious about photography since age 12, working initially with a WWII Zeiss Ikonta in a basement-bathroom "darkroom", he has progressed through medium format, 4X5, and now digital SLR's. He earns his living as a family doctor with a special interest in psychiatry but his primary passion has always been the fine art print.

Major milestones include learning to make quality prints from Fred Picker, learning to really "see" photographs from Hubert Hohn of the Edmonton Art Gallery, looking at Edward Weston prints bare, attending workshops, working with galleries, and being published.

George has had his images published in the magazines Black and White Photography, Black and White, Focus, Lenswork, and Outdoor Photography.

By the time George closed his darkroom, he was making very high quality prints and carried on this quality with digital cameras and inkjet printing, producing some of the finest inkjet prints made, surprising many traditional 4X5 photographers with the level of quality.

Throughout his life George has been a teacher of medical students & residents, patients, and fellow photographers. A writer of understandable patient newsletters and handouts, it was a short step to writing essays on photography. George has bravely tackled the challenging subjects of aesthetics, seeing, and composing in a style that is clear, practical, and applicable to many.


More About the Author

I love the photographic image, all sorts of images. I love the challenge of making fine images, and the process of creating and editing them. I have been doing this for 49 years.

I was born in Glasgow, Scotland and moved to Canada at age 8, being raised in Edmonton. I wanted to be a physicist and that's how I started at university. I wasn't a very good one, barely graduating - I was spending all my time photographing for the university student newspaper and yearbook and making team and student residence group photos.

Eventually I settled on medicine (mum got her wish after all - hated it that she was right). After radically bringing up my marks I went to medical school at U of Alberta, graduating class of 76. I continued to photograph and even in residency, had a darkroom - no running water, but functional none the less.

Over the years I amassed a large collection of books of photographs and even during periods of not photographing, I continued to study great photographs. With the help of Fred Picker's Zone VI manual, I became a good printer, and from a weekend course on photographic appreciation, learned a lot more about what makes fine images.

I now live in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, 60 miles from the Rocky Mountains, 200 miles from the Alberta Badlands.

About six years ago I started writing about photography, first with my own blog, and then for outbackphoto.com and then luminous-landscape.com

The latter publication led to the owner of Rockynook Publishing contacting me to suggest taking my series of articles and expand it into a book. I was already having some success being published, first in Black and White Photography (U.K.) with an article on my badlands photographs, and then a portfolio of my industrial work in Lenswork 57. I've also been in B&W, Focus and Outdoor Photography (U.K.)

I have always enjoyed writing. For years I had a patient newsletter in which I would explain diseases and tests and whatnot and seemed to have some talent for explaining things clearly.

In my blog, although sometimes writing about technical matters, my first love was the art in photography, commenting on subjects like where to point the camera and how to compose, which images to select and how to assess one's work.

Although it is true that I earn my living as a family doctor, I spend almost as much time doing, thinking about and writing on photography.


I'm told I have a good eye. I have an understanding of how composition works rather than knowing a list of rules and I can explain it to you.

I have gone through most if not all of the problems that photographers can face in 40 years, failures, rejections, discouragement, dislike of one's own work, and for the most part I have come out the other side, and think I can help you through that journey.


Perhaps most importantly, I write from the point of view of someone who cares only about the final image, not about efficiency or maximum output, a failing in nearly all the books written by commercial photographers. Should you want to edit 2000 images of the same girl in the same red dress, then read those books, but if you have one image you care about and want to make it the best you can, then I think I can help, right from before you even discover the scene until you make the last edit to your image.

I have written 3 books so far.

My first is:

"Take Your Photography To The Next Level"

This book is about the art of photography - there isn't a single f stop or shutter speed in the whole book. It takes you from seeing to working the scene, onto composing and through the mental struggles we get up to, and to selecting our best work. Finally it gives you a frame work upon which to judge your work, not because having a rating is of the slightest value other than to point out how you might go about improving your work. I use 30 years of my work as examples and to illustrate points. The basic premise is "Practicing what you are good at is human nature, but not terribly effective. Identifying our weaknesses and working on them may be painful, but even modest improvements usually make huge differences to our work.

This is a book for all photographers who care about their craft or art. It won't explain how to use your new camera, but it might help you aim it in a good direction.

This book has been translated into German, Italian, Swedish, Polish and two different versions of Chinese.

My second book is:

"From Camera To Computer"

We considered calling this "A Look Over My Shoulder" and rejected it. When it came time to translate it into German, we went with the "Over My Shoulder", albeit in German, and the book has sold 10X as well.

The idea of the book is to take the theoretical knowledge of the first book and apply it to working the scene in a series of example sittuations. I show you my failures on the way to success, and then show how I go about editing the captured image(s) to make the final photograph. There is a short Photoshop primer at the back of the book explaining how to use the small fraction of Photoshop that I use to edit my images. All but a few of the images were not in the first book. This is the field manual to the text book of my first book.


The third book is:

"Why Photographs Work"

Sarkowski's "looking At Photographs" was an important book for my development as a photogapher, and I felt there was a place for a modern equivalent, explaining why photographs work, with the emphasis on image rather than process, recent rather than historical and including colour. I felt I could not write faithfully about why a photograph is successful when it is one of my own images - perhaps I could write about what I did to try and make it successful, but that's not the same, so STEP 1 was to use images of other photographers. I decided to limit it to photographers who are living.

I proposed the idea to my publisher and Rockynook was very enthusiastic, so I bit the bullet and started selecting images I'd like to write about, then tracked down the photographers and asked for their participation. I had little to offer except some exposure, hardly a carrot for the more famous on my 'want' list. I was blown away by the positive response to my request. From an anticipated 40 photographs and photographers the book soon expanded to 50, and as you will note, eventually 52.

Some of the photographers are extremely famous, from Pete Turner to John Sexton, From Beth Moon to Elizabeth Opalenik. Also included are some names you likely have never heard of (yet), simply because I thought their photographs wonderful. Photographers have come from six different countries and involve a large variety of subjects and processes, a number of the images pushing even my comfort zone in terms of subject and style, yet still wonderful. There are still lifes and landscapes, nudes and flowers, people and architecture, wildlife and abstract.

There are 52 wonderful photographs, each on its own page. There are essays on why I think each image works. Each photographer has donated their image, and their time and writing, without payment. They explain what made them take the image and briefly, how. There are short biographies by the photographers, including their major influences. At the end of the book is a list of other photographers you might want to check out, suggested by some of our 52 photographers.

As I write this, I have only seen the book as a pdf but it's coming, within the month(I'm writing this 24 Oct. 2010). It's going to be beautiful, affordable, and I think helpful, for both photographers and lovers of photography.

Customer Reviews

You may not know a lot about art, but you know a good photograph when you see it.
Image Print Reviews
Some great photographers were selected for the book and George has done an admirable job of describing what works for him in each of the images.
Andrew E. Nixon
I would highly recommend this book to anyone in the art or photography community.
Jeff Ornstein

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

87 of 91 people found the following review helpful By Andrew Ilachinski on December 15, 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
About 35 years ago, the late great curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in NY, John Szarkowski, published a landmark book called Looking at Photographs. Intended as "... a picture book, and its ...purpose ...to provide the material for simple delectation" (according to Szarkowski, from his own introduction to that book), it was, and is, considerably more, giving life to Szarkowski's always thoughtful ruminations about 100 pictures from MOMA's collection and food-for-thought for all aspiring photographers. Also around the same time (in 1983, shortly before his death), Ansel Adams published his Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs, in which the master provides narratives about each of 40 photographs, engaging readers in the technical and aesthetic dimensions of photography. These two books are almost always found (typically, and notably, in excruciating dog-eared form!) on the bookshelves of virtually every photographer who has bought at least two books on photography!

And now - a mere 30 or so years later - comes another destined-to-be classic in the same mold, George Barr's Why Photographs Work: 52 Great Images Who Made Them, What Makes Them Special and Why.

This is not to say that there have not been similar "picture books" published in the intervening years. In truth, one could argue that there are too many, as the quality seldom approaches Szarkowski's and Adams' volumes. Very few books in this genre approach the simple, understated elegance of Barr's new book; fewer still share the same attention to detail. And seldom have I seen such a magically diverse and exquisite collection of photographs that just sing.
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40 of 44 people found the following review helpful By Rob LaRosa on April 9, 2011
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Each photo in this book is "analyzed" (and I use the term loosely)two ways, one is by the author's thoughts about the photo and the other by the thoughts of the photographer. About a third of each chapter discussing an image is taken up by the photographer's biography. This book is called "Why Photographs Work" not, "Biographies of Photographers" - why is a third of the book talking about the photographers rather than the photos?

When the author actually does discuss the photo, it's very brief. Never more than 4-5 paragraphs (not including the introduction of each photo), and his "analysis" is very shallow and not usually not insightful. You can examine the photo yourself and more often that not, reach the same conclusion.

This book had a good idea behind it, but it fails miserably. Check out The Photographer's Eye by John Szarkowski instead.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful By fafield on December 18, 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
George Barr's "Why Photographs Work" will be well received by both photographers wishing to advance their own aesthetic skills and by anyone wishing to enhance their satisfaction from looking at fine photographs.

Barr has selected one image from each of fifty two contemporary photographers. Many of the photographers are well known, others are emerging. Writing in a clear and accessible style, Barr provides his critique and analysis of what separates each of these compelling images from merely good images. Each essay includes a "back story" about the image, written in the photographer's own words.

I've read and own many tens of books on photography, largely written in the last decade or so. This book is unique; I can think of no other book that provides such insight to why we are drawn to look and re-look at certain images and certainly no book that simultaneously provides insights from each of the photographers.

This is Barr's third book. I have read both of his prior books and each has helped propel my own journey in photography. I know that, just as I continue to do with his prior books, I will come back to "Why Photographs Work" again and again in the coming months and years.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Conrad J. Obregon TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on December 20, 2010
Format: Paperback
Ideally, art criticism should help the consumer of art to better understand and appreciate the art. In addition, for the practitioner of the art, criticism may help the artist to shape his or her art so that consumers better understand and appreciate it. George Barr's "Why Photographs Work" is art criticism.

Barr presents us with 52 images, each by a different photographer, together with his analysis of the image, the photographer's perspective on the image, a biography of the photographer and technical data. Some of the artists are famous (at least in the photography world) like John Sexton and David Ward, and some of the artists I had never encountered. The photographs ranged from "straight" images of landscapes to highly manipulated images where it was almost impossible to tell the original source of the photographs. The images were both in black and white and in color (although I suspect a slight bias on the part of Barr towards black and white images as more artful - not that there is anything wrong with that). Each of the images was spectacular. Even though I had to remind myself that reading the book was not about me, I began to wonder why I should even try to take photographs when these artists had created such amazing works.

Barr's analysis tries to examine how the technique of the photographer helped to create the art of the image, and seems to concentrate mostly on composition and light. He states in his introduction that he is trying to show the reader, whether photographer or viewer, "why some photographs stand out from all the others". He describes the play of light within a photograph, or how areas of light balance or are set in opposition to each other, or how the subject matter is placed within the frame.
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