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The Life of a Photograph Hardcover – October 21, 2008
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About the Author
Sam Abell has photographed for National Geographic magazine for almost 40 years. He is the author of Seeing Gardens and Stay This Moment, a mid-career retrospective accompanied by an exhibition at the International Center of Photography, New York. He collaborated with Stephen Ambrose on two bestselling National Geographic books Lewis & Clark: Voyage of Discovery and The Mississippi River.
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the good: The photographs themselves. You can see 2 examples of a scene and how Sam handled them differently.
the bad: I found the writing incomplete. It was like the attitude was, "Isn't it obvious? The photos speak for themselves!" and I don't think they do.
In some cases I thought both pictures were great and couldn't figure out which one was supposed to be better. In other cases I wondered, "What are people seeing? What makes this great?" and I found no help from the book.
After getting the book I saw a lecture by Sam on YouTube. It was about an hour long and he had many of the same photos in it. But in the lecture he explained what his goal was, what his approach was and why the final photo was the one he liked best. I thought this would have been great info to include in the book and wonder why it was not there. (OK, maybe it is obvious to everyone else in the universe and I just didn't get it. Totally possible, but I do have a strong visual arts background...but photography seems to play be different rules and it was not clear from this book what they are).
With Sam's lecture in my mind I like the book a lot better. But it seems odd that it did not work as a stand alone item. (at least for me, who had no experience with his working methods and goals when I first got the book).
Would I recommend buying it? Yes. But with the caveat of watching some YouTube lectures by Sam, if you are not familiar with his work and what makes it great.
This is definitely not a typical National Geographic Collection of photographs either. Yes the quality of the NGS is there, gorgeous print and super-saturated color quality, simple layout and quality printing in every respect, but otherwise the book most resembles a collection of paintings. When I looked at the beautiful fine arts photographs in this collection I couldn't help but notice the similarity of many of the images to what is displayed in many of the art galleries along nearby Newbury Street. So similar is some of the work that it could be hung in the same galleries and many viewers might assume that Abell's photographs were really paintings.
Sam Abell loves subtlety. Most of these pictures don't jump off the page and "wow" the viewers. Sometimes they simply slowly draw you into the scenes portrayed. Sometimes it takes a while to get the point and Sam always has a point. After decades of shooting for the NGS his personal tastes have naturally shifted from the stereotypical beautiful "National Geographic" image to more, personal, subtle images and patterns. His earliest photographs including the one of his father waiting a train station platform look so Art Deco in composition. Likewise for the surreal scene on page seven of a woman in a grey dress crossing and empty, sterile, futuristic looking grey concrete plaza. It too is Art Deco in style. More recent photographs don't emphasize the hard lines of a combination of Edward Hopper and Art Deco, and that's good. Like most world-class photographers whose style and interests change over time, that happens to most of the National Geographic staff photographers as well and Sam Able is a perfect example of that fact.
As I'm certain will be the case with other viewers and purchasers of this Fine Arts Photography Collection, there were many images that I loved, but there were many that I really didn't care for at all. The message that the photographer's eye sensed didn't transfer to me the viewer, although they probably did move other viewers. There are so few pictures showing any emotion. The biggest exception was the cowboy cradling his injured, fallen horse's head while waiting for medical help for his beloved steed. The photographer seems to prefer mechanical, machine-like patterns and pictures with hints of motion, form or color. In many cases the book's double-page spreads show two different views of the same subject matter. In addition to illustrating that more than one good photo exist within most situations, sometimes with a change in light, or simply examining a smaller detail of the over-all scene or the same scene taken in different weather or season such as "Two Views of Leo Tolstoy's Grave" shown on pages 190-191. It's very educational to see how a photographer such as Mr. Abell works a photographic situation looking for better, or at least different images within the over-all image.
The photographer's text is interesting, but doesn't always seem to add a lot of information to supplement the accompanying images. Mostly, the picture caption and/or accompanying text shows that the photographer takes his work very seriously even when he shoots pictures that are humorous like the dance class picture from the Farmington Country Club on page 35. Abell senses the unseen, unsaid and personal in his picture subjects. He attempts to bring that which is unseen to his viewers. Sometimes he gets the bear and sometimes the bear gets him.
At first look this book looks very ordinary until you start reading and connecting the dots. It is very clear that you are listening to a master, a person who is rightly regarded as one the finest image makers - not takers - of our times. An essential reading for every aspiring Travel and general photographer.
Often before taking photos by myself I open this book and adore Sam's work, it encourages me to be creative and thoughtful and passionate about photography.
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"Two portraits of a swimmer, Nova Scotia" (Pages 64-65.Read more