THE EDUCATION OF A PHOTOGRAPHER
Charles Traub, Steven Heller & Adam Bell (eds)
Allworth Press, 2006
ISBN 1-58115-450-X Pb
Few photographers have nothing left to learn about photography; and this book, consisting mainly of writings by, or about, some of the great photographers of the past could have provided a wealth of information and inspiration for anyone making images today.
There are certainly some gems here, including an impeccably written essay on Garry Winogrand by the photographer Leo Rubinfien which combines illuminating observations on Winogrand’s brusque but complex personality with profound insights into the ambiguity of his work and his refusal to explain it. A perceptive essay on Lisette Model by the writer Max Kozloff draws attention to the still-life qualities of Model’s street photography and its tragic undertones.
The book as a whole, however, is a missed opportunity on a grand scale. Bizarrely, for a book about photography, it contains no photographs, rendering many of the essays impenetrable and confusing. The text is densely laid out in a minimal point size, and the book perfect-bound in such a way that the pages fall out when fully opened: it is an unlovely thing to read.
A more serious, indeed inexcusable, defect is that the essays are inadequately referenced. With few exceptions, we are not given the full context in which they were written – whether as gallery statements, magazine articles, lectures to students, personal letters to friends, introductions to books, or indeed specially commissioned for this one – all of which makes them next to useless as material for research. The experienced reader may know, or be able to guess or work out, some provenances, but should not have to.
Sadly, great photographers (Rodchenko, Abbott, Penn, Minor White) have rarely been great writers, as this book shows all too clearly. Meanwhile, a laughable section called Writers on Photography (subheading: ‘these great writers offer vignettes on photographers …’) contains three items – some purple prose by Wendell Berry and two nugatory half-page pieces by novelists Cynthia Ozick and Dave Eggers. Great writers, indeed. No extracts here from such great writers on photography as Sontag, Barthes, Coleman, Malcolm, Jussim, Jeffrey or Chandler, to name but a few. Now that would have been an education for a photographer.