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George Barr: Why Photographs Work

A review and a bit of a rant about film

in Book Reviews , Wednesday, May 25, 2011

I’ve recently finished reading George Barr’s book, “Why Photographs Work”. It features 52 photographs selected by the author, along with an essay on what makes that particular photo tick, in the author’s opinion, as well as an explanation from the photographer, and biographical and technical details. It’s a good format, and the book is well laid laid out and printed, and enjoyable to read. Good value for money, and highly recommended (and you don’t just need to take my word for it).


The book emphasizes photographs over photographers, and this is sometimes evident in the selection of the photos. The cross-section of photographers represented is wide, from well-known to so far unknown artists discovered through recommendation and web browsing. The choice of works from photographers I’m familiar with - Michael Kenna, David Ward, Charlie Waite, Joe Cornish, for example - is far from obvious, and not necessarily representative of their general oeuvre. The point is not to introduce the photographer, as such, and this approach adds to the general attractiveness of the book. The range covers pretty much all of the thematic areas of photography, with maybe a slight bias towards landscape.

You can find a sample of the book here.

And now for a bit of digression…

One thing that really stands out for me though is the number of photos taken with film: some 37 out of 52. This can be explained to an extent by the fact that a good proportion either pre-date digital, or come from the in between period of the first part of the last decade, but then again as far as I know the date of the photo was not a criteria. Within these 37, the overwhelming majority are taken with large or medium format cameras, with very little 35mm in evidence. So, is the reason for their selection the fact that George Barr responds to a particular look characteristic of larger film formats? Or is it something about film, and film cameras and processes which appeals to the photographers he likes? Or is it evidence that film is far from dead? Certainly there seems to be a discernible growth in interest in film photography these days: the latest issue of Amateur Photographer is just one piece of evidence.

Maybe it’s down to economics. Maybe there is no way on Earth that most large format photographers could afford an equivalent switch to digital. Or perhaps some aspects of digital discourage creativity, leading to a lack of inspirational photography produced on these devices? For example, what happens to the mysteries and delights in the balance of light and shadow when you have the enormous dynamic range of the latest Phase One back? You get some very impressive technical feats of recording extreme scenes, but at the cost of substituting reproduction for interpretation. It is in danger of becoming aesthetically uninteresting.

Then again, in these days of digital processing, it is very difficult for me at least to look at a photo on the web or printed in a book and say that it is film or digital. And frankly I think most people who say they can tell are talking rubbish. The clues do exist, but they’re subtle, and require a trained eye and a lot of patience.

So perhaps it comes down to process. Perhaps, fundamentally, film is more fun and more rewarding.



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from Tim Parkin on Thu, May 26, 2011 - 1:16

I have thought long and hard about this when building Great British Landscapes. I am in danger of making it overtly film oriented but if you look at the photographers who are really making fantastic compositions rather than just hunting the golden hour, there are a significant number of film photographers. I know I’m biased to a degree but I would say that about 50% of the photographers I really like use film (possibly more). However, even if I try really hard to compensate for personal bias and ask people to recommend photographers, there still ends up about 30% who us film. Considering the overall ratio of film to digital photographers, this is quite amazing.

I personally think that although digital is great for certain things - if you want to best possible reproduction, film wins - it has a aesthetic colour rendering in all it’s forms that can’t be ignored. Perhaps it’s just a ‘canned post processing technique’ but even if that is all, it really works well.

There does seem to be a resurgence in film use too - a lot of suppliers are noting an increase in demand for film and second hand prices have gone up quite a bit.

An it is more fun and rewarding to produce a physical object that recorded the actual light you saw - there is something magical about that.

from Tim Parkin on Fri, May 27, 2011 - 11:21

Even the Telegraph have an article today about the resurgence in film!

from Robert Boyer on Sat, May 28, 2011 - 10:43

Lovely to know that it’s not just me that thinks film is the Bee’s Knees.

More on point - You hit the nail on the tangential head in saying “The differences are subtle”. Let me take that a little further - Photography is about subtlety. Honestly that is what I think is completely lost in digital (beyond sacrifice of interpretation) - the differences between photographs/cameras/processing/interpretations seem to have acquired a grotesque amplitude. What I would consider a gross difference in color most people don’t even notice, even “photographers”.

The before and after of various post capture processing have to be a mile apart for any notice. Contrast curves are idiotically large. Heck the extreme saturation and contrast are pretty much the default for cameras, RAW converters, etc.

At this point the only RAW conversion that seems to have a reasonable default starting place is CaptureOne.


from david mantripp on Sun, May 29, 2011 - 12:28

Good point - somewhat in contradiction to what I feel is an uncharacteristically daft post from Ctein the other day on the Online Photographer.

He’s taking the view that boundless choice is a good thing, or at least that accepting certain limitations is a bad thing, all based on a fairly groundless initial assumption in my opinion.

Frankly, I don’t know where he’s coming from when he says you can’t interpret slide film. He’s got the same scanner I have. Just because you can’t change the colour temperature by 12000K or boost shadows by 5 stops doesn’t mean you can’t make subtle, but substantial edits.

from Robert Boyer on Sun, May 29, 2011 - 2:10

I will take a look at the post… Have not read so I cannot comment. Freedom without insight is nothing power without control is nothing. Constraints are not absolutely bad.

I agree with this philosophically. I am actually regarded as a Photoshop master not by design but by necessity. I can quite literally make anything into anything else. The real question that I cannot seem to answer is… why. I make a semi-living helping other photographers achieve what they desire, when the why comes into question we part ways.

When I can answer that for myself I will actually be able to achieve my vision and my aspiration. The more control, power, and ability to remove constraints that I have accumulated - the more I understood for myself that is not what was important to me beyond competence. What you choose to put in front of your camera is absolutely the most important aspect of the endeavor. The simpler everything else after that is the better. Unfortunately I am of the sort that must master something before I can deny it’s validity. My fatal flaw is having to validate my initial reactions.


from Robert Boyer on Sun, May 29, 2011 - 2:13

Oh one more thing…

Constraints lead to creativity and actual though process. Shit, shit - I am already prejoritive in before my reading of the post…. damn it - I guess not even I can be “objective” I can merely fein objectivity.


from Project Hyakumeizan on Mon, June 06, 2011 - 9:49

Agree with all the sentiments expressed here about film. And I put my film where my mouth is - that is, took the weekend’s roll of Velvia 100 into Eschenmoser for development. Alas, there is no more slide film in stock here, in one of Zurich’s largest camera stores. What now…?

from david mantripp on Mon, June 06, 2011 - 10:55

Blimey. That’s a bit of a shocker.  Last time I was there (maybe 6 weeks ago) they seemed to have plenty.  These days I buy from HobbyLab. Good range, fast service, good prices.  At least for the time being.

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