Book reviews: Two different takes on photography

Photos are like music; they reach beyond borders to speak to any culture or personality. So it makes sense that books about photography would be just as diverse. Two books that came across my desk recently take opposite approaches to the art: “Vision of Photography Series: The Museum Collection” by William Meriwether is highly artistic in every way, while “That Picture Stinks! an in-your-face, no-nonsense guide to end lousy picture taking forever!” by Judy Holmes and Greg Baer takes a much more casual, simple instructional approach. To say which is better is a matter of taste — and how you approach photography.

People's Press, in Woody Creek (right outside of Aspen) published Meriwether's book, and Aspen's high culture reflects throughout the black-and-white artistic piece. Meriwether, who earned a masters degree in fine art from Adams State College and has taught for four colleges and hosted more than 40 programs for PBS, pairs his photos with a series of well-written essays devoted to various aspects of photography, and of creating fine art; some fill the page with pure description of the trips he took to capture specific images, others explain techniques, while others talk about the process of capturing tough shots or give a little history about many of the churches and places he features, from 1966 to the present. 

He encourages people to spend an hour a week in a library simply viewing books of prints to become more literate in visual arts. He compiled his book “devoted to seeing beyond the rules, to presenting an aesthetic perspective, which offers infinite alternatives, and to knowing with conviction why a composition works for you.”

Part Two, “Essays and Visual Literacy,” provides more stories, including delightful images of an old lady “bickering with a cold.”

“One can learn as much from reading photographs as from reading poetry,” he writes on p. 39. “The photo-poet must have mastery of every device, symbol and technique of visual communication. … A photograph is an assemblage of symbols skillfully conjugated to communicate a story.”

Through his short 52-page book, Meriwether packs in a wealth of sophisticated, yet accessible information and even adds ideas, such as turning the photo upside down to learn more about negative space. He not only instructs and shows, but also explains why a concept such as negative space and abstract shape is important. For example, on p. 47, he says, “If the right brain is sufficiently entertained by these shapes, the left brain will be distracted from its search for information.” 

‘That picture stinks'
On the other side of the spectrum, “That Picture Stinks” uses large photos — one “bad” the other “fixed” — on each side of the page, and just a couple comments below about why one “stinks” and the other “rocks.”

Holmes taught for Hasselblad cameras for 20 years, wrote books and magazine articles and contributed to Alaska Stock Images worldwide. Baer has been published in magazines, calendars and cards and has run Corporate Cards for the last decade.

They take a direct, humorous approach to what they define as the three elements resulting in bad pictures: terrible composition, light and dark problems, and out of focus images. 

Their 96-page book shows funny poses and problems — from the “fig leaf” pose (hands formally over genitals which happen to already be covered by clothing) to background trees shooting out of people's heads. The authors show novice photographers how to clean up clutter, compose a shot with the rule of thirds, provide a sense of place (as opposed to zooming into the top of a lighthouse), give human bodies their due space, zoom in to eliminate competing background and foreground distractions, straighten horizons and more.

One of the more helpful questions they ask photographers to ask themselves is: “Why did I stop to take this picture?” This helps people capture a mountain scene the way they want it to look framed.

They also underscore how to obtain proper exposure: If you want a scene darker, point at something bright (assuming you're using a point-and-shoot), hold the shutter halfway down, then recompose the frame. Vice versa for lighter shots. They also go over the technique of following a moving subject with the camera to blur the background. The rest of the book provides quick tutorials on automated programs in point-and-shoot cameras, from night portrait to landscape modes. 

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