Musings on: the value of thinking holistically
Books – photography books that is – cover an enormous range of subject matter: from fundamental techniques, right through to the philosophy of photography itself, as an art form. I’m perfectly happy to say that I’ve found all the types valuable. The popularity of such books, however, tends to be massively skewed towards the ‘how to’ type, concentrating on technique and location. Naturally, the availability of both types follows the market: people happily buy technique books, whatever their activity or interest, so there are vastly more technique / location books available than there are of the more thoughtful, perhaps introspective variety.
Anyone who’s read more than a couple of posts on this site will inevitably have noticed that I’m prone to a bit of musing on all the processes and approaches which surround the core, ‘make a picture’, aspect of photography, and less inclined towards camera technique. Consequently the latter type of book – the holistic ones, as I’m terming them – attract me more, both due to their relative scarcity and to their thought-provoking nature.
The photographer is the key component – think holistically
I’ve recently read David Ward’s ‘Landscape Beyond’, an excellent book, and one with which many people reading this will be familiar. It covers (in very broad terms indeed) the philosophy of photography and the approach David Ward takes to his work. An inspiring read, both the photographs and the discussion. I’ve also just re-read Bruce Percy’s most recent e-book ‘The Art of Self-Awareness – Developing a better photographic approach’, and it’s the combination of these books which provoked me to write this short article.
In my, perhaps still limited, understanding, people are far more likely to buy ‘technique’ books than the type represented by the two examples because they seem to offer a possible quick fix, a route to making better images through improved handling and use of the camera and through finding the ‘best bits’ of ‘good’ locations. All useful stuff, without doubt, but I’m increasingly thinking that the photographer’s overall vision (for want of a better term!) is more important than their ability to drive to a photogenic place and then to drive the camera well. Those latter two things are clearly vital, but they’re not what truly differentiates the final images, they’re merely prerequisites.
Bruce Percy’s book examines the creation of photographic art from an holistic perspective, taking technique as a building block – one which the reader can acquire elsewhere – and considering how the photographer’s thoughts, emotions, reactions to adversity and examination of motives can have an immense effect on the end result, that being a body of photographic work, rather than an individual image. I’m convinced that this is the key to the most important area of improvement we can work on as photographers: ourselves and our understanding of how we respond to the photographic process in its entirety.
By that ‘entirety’, I mean: starting with simply wanting to make images, through deciding when, where, how, with what equipment, and with what objective we create our work. The key component in this process is you, the photographer. Having self-awareness of how you relate to photography is patently fundamental to the end result, and to the progressive establishment of both a distinctive style and the ability to maintain standards and learn through successes and failures.
How to: be self-aware…
Thinking about this as I write, I could readily argue that Bruce’s new e-book is a ‘how to’ book; it’s ‘how to develop your photography through increased self-awareness’. In those terms, it’s an excellent read, since it may well lead to a change in thought processes, and hence to benefits long into the future.
The value of this book, then, and what makes it a remarkably good acquisition, is the way that it can subtly move one’s attitude towards one of approaching the process of creating landscape photographs holistically. This sort of discussion is not unique, but it’s rare, and as such it’s certainly very valuable.
I should declare an ‘interest’: I’ve been on, and reviewed, one of Bruce Percy’s workshops and found it enormously valuable in my development. I also made a few suggestions prior to the published edition, when Bruce had initially finished the book but not finalised it. That said, I’m confident that I’d have been commenting on it in the absence of either of those things, and especially having just read both it and David Ward’s book in quick succession – both make eminently re-readable additions to my now growing photographic library, and in both cases it’s because they talk about the photographer, not the tools, and because this is not only a relative rarity but, I strongly suspect, the most important aspect of producing great images.
I recommend both books very highly. In the more-than-a-little-unlikely event that you don’t ‘learn’ anything definable from them, they’re both highly readable and entertaining, and in many respects the point is that you are provoked into thought, and hence the learning comes over time, from within.
8 Responses to “Musings on: the value of thinking holistically”
I’m also at the stage where I am looking for guidance on how to “make a picture”, rather than how to “take” it and the books are certainly spread thinly! The mainstream bias towards the “take” side is understandable because that is where most photographers start (and many stay) whereas the “make” side requires a much greater investment from the photographer and teaching skill from the author.
I haven’t read Bruce’s e-book but will now, thanks!
Also to be recommended is David Ward’s earlier book “The Landscape Within”, plenty of insight as well but much more philosophical. Freeman Patterson’s books, e.g. “Photography and the Art of seeing”, are also good but hard to get hold of.
Thanks for the comment and recommendation Andrew. I’ve just started ‘The Landscape Within’ and so far I’m enjoying it very much. I’ll have a hunt around for Freeman Patterson’s book; the title alone sounds very promising! I agree that the bias towards ‘take’ or ‘how to’, as I put it, books is perfectly reasonable and understandable. I’m really trying to encourage anyone who’s not looked at the more philosophical ideas to do so as I think, beyond a stage of technical competence, that’s where the major benefits can be found.
I’ve got a couple of bookshelves full of “how to” books, all bought between 15 and 25 years ago. I used to avidly hoover up anything that looked remotely applicable to what it was that I thought I wanted to do photographically wise. They made me buy a lot of kit and encouraged me to take “I’ll do a photograph like that” style of pictures. Now I keep looking at them and wondering about sorting them out taking them to the charity shop as most of them a out of date photographically wise. Today, I tend to buy books that cause me to think more about “what it is I want to achieve” rather than “how to achieve it”. In a way, I think that it’s possible that “how to” books can stifle creativity, yes they help you to tackle technical considerations but not much more beyond. All of David Ward’s books are very good.
Now that is an impressive collection by the sound of it, Colin! I’m the same: I hoover up the ‘how to’ type of thing on anything I do for a year or so; then, when I imagine I know how to – or at least vaguely how to – I start looking at alternative input. Keeps things fresh, if nothing else. I concur that over-use of ‘how to’ books must eventually stifle creativity – it’s getting the balance right though. I’m not decrying ‘how tos’ at all here – they’re invaluable to get to a certain level of competence, but to really improve I’m sure that you’re right and that doing a lot more thinking is the way to go. That’s partly why I’m writing these articles really – to make myself think about what I’m doing and get input from people on new ways of looking at things and books to read – so, thanks for the input!
Stimulating post, Mike. Books that make people think are not always so popular, but you’ve managed to “sell” both in a very constructive way here.
Good – thanks Michael! And thanks for retweeting the notification on this article – much appreciated. I think many people shy away from making the leap from learning how to to building on that by applying it to their own ideas. Books like these really help overcome that possible hurdle, it seems to me.
I would like to add Bruce Barnbaum’s “The Art Of Photography” to the must-have list. Usually I don’t think about must-haves, but this book is brilliant. The texts are brilliant, the pictures are brilliant.
I quite agree; an excellent book. I think that, along with Galen Rowell’s ‘Mountain Light’ were two of the first books I was fortunate enough to read when I first started and they’re both thoroughly inspirational.