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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.