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Top 4 Reads for Photography Inspiration

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

If you love to read philosophy and enjoy challenging your perspective, then I have a number of books I’d like to share with you which help me a lot when I’m looking for inspiration or trying to find the right words for project/photo submission.

Below is a list of books I’ve recently read, or am reading (or re-reading) which inspire my ideas and creativity. For each book, I have written a blurb as to why these books inspire my thoughts and creativity below. Please enjoy

John Berger: Ways of Seeing and Understanding a Photograph

I’m going to start with Berger, because, above all else, his work has influenced my understanding and ideas the most. Albeit, many argue that he is not a photographer, I want to preface this blog post by stating that there are many people across a multitude of different industries that critique and comment on the industry of their interest, without themselves having the skill set to do the thing they critique. Berger is no different, and the fairness, breadth and depth of understanding that Berger brings to these books is the reason for you to read them alone. Ways of Seeing is said to bring to the forefront of the photographic world, a new understanding of art and imagery and how photography takes from those worlds and add or uses what we know about art history to establish itself in modern times.

It also challenged my understanding of imagery as a whole, and is now the reason my book collection is not longer just different Daido Moriyama photo books.

Many have said that Ways of Seeing changed their own ideas and perception of art. The book is highly recommended by most contemporary photography bodies, such as Lens Culture. It’s a quick read, but I will note that Berger has an unforgiving writing style, so I found myself re-reading paragraphs sometimes. Luckily, the production of the current version has introduced images and larger text which makes this a little more bearable.


I bought a copy of Understanding a Photograph, and I was off on my new found philosophical adventure.

Ways of Seeing was a gateway drug for me, and added a lot of value to my understanding of creating images, and more so, why I was addicted to creating images. It gave me a crash course in art history and also gave me leads to finding other books to read and expand my art history knowledge too. It also challenged my understanding of imagery as a whole and is now the reason my book collection is no longer just different Daido Moriyama photo books. Way’s of Seeing lead me to want more, so I decided to see if Berger had more books I could learn from, and I was happy to discover that he had plenty of ideas to share. I bought a copy of Understanding a Photograph, and I was off on my new found philosophical adventure.

Understanding a Photograph is a dense, deep and incredible selection of essays Berger has written over the years about photography. Specifically, Berger has an incredible ability to respond to criticisms and opinions people have about his ideas (such as Susan Sontag critiques of Ways of Seeing). I have read Understanding a Photograph twice, and to date, my copy of the book is dog tagged, highlighted and has pen scribbles all over it. I have a deep connection to the way Berger writes about photography, even though I don’t fully agree with everything he writes.

My favourite quote from the book is his description of Paul Strand’s approach to portrait photography. The quote I love goes along the line of “Paul sets his camera, aims it at his subject and then lets it listen”. His reference to a camera functioning as a listening object is directly related to his description of photography as a “quote from appearance” rather than a form of art. The idea that photography can listen to the objects surrounding it, to this day, captures my imagination to no end.

Susan Sontag: On Photography

On Photography – Susan Sontag

There are many different interpretations of this book, many who read it find Sontag’s thoughts dramatic, or unagreeable. She makes some heavily political claims about photography and asks questions of the moral ethics surrounding the act of photographing. This book is a collection of six essays all discussing the way we “manufacture reality and authority” using photographs and photography.

“Shooting” is the analogy many of us use, so to “shoot” a candid photo of a person on the street objectifies their existance for judgement, and the photographer is the person opening the gates for this judgement.

So why would such a heavy read (and this book is heavy) influence my ideas? From a creative perspective, I believe I need to understand the issues and problems of my selected medium as much as I need to understand the values of it. Learning about the flaws in creative endeavours allows me to manage my own approach and workflow around things I may find problematic. A perfect example of this idea is a topic currently in question. How do street photographers morally defend their approach to candid photography?

Henri Bresson Cartier likens candid photography to hunting. “Shooting” is the analogy many of us use, so to “shoot” a candid photo of a person on the street objectifies their existence for judgement, and the photographer is the person opening the gates for this judgement. This is a moral issue many of us struggle with – and one that needs further investigation. Sontag’s book does an incredible job of highlighting these flaws in photography. Reading it taught me to start being more introspective about my ideas, and more sensitive to the morality of my work. This added value to my own ideas, and ties in deeply with the next book I’m going to recommend.

Albert Camus: Create Dangerously

Create Dangerously – Albert Camus

The existentialist, and author of the more famous book “Myth of Sisyphus”, Albert Camus’s Create Dangerously is an incredibly inspiring body of thought. It outlines the importance of creating work that has some form of political meaning or influence, and better yet some form of meaning beyond repetition for art’s sake. I find this book endlessly important, and partly why I highly recommend Sontag’s book above too. I read Create Dangerously after struggling with Sontag’s book. But, if anything, Camus words taught me to open of my mind toward the value of creating, and after finishing Create Dangerously, I went back and finished On Photography, and was very glad I did.

The premise of Create Dangerously is similar to the following thought. If we are just taking photos, for photography sake, we are making meaningless recreations mundanely. Albert writes:

If it [art] adapts itself to what the majority of our society wants, art will be a meaningless recreation. If it blindly rejects that society, if the artist makes up his mind to take refuge in his dream, art will express nothing but a negation. In this way we shall have the production of entertainers or of formal grammarians, and in both cases this leads to an art cut off from living reality.

 

The quote above alone isn’t totally inclusive of this incredible books breadth, but enough for me to close on given I want you to read these books and discover them for yourselves. I will say that out of the 4 books above listed, Berger’s remain most influential to me, and beyond that, I have bought a few more of his books to delve deeper into his thinking. Once I have finished them I will do a book review on them too!

I hope my book recommendations come to you in good time, and I hope you too find the same inspiration I have in these incredible bodies of work.

Thanks for reading

~Ed

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