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Book Review: Seeing Things


Book Review Seeing Things By Joel Meyerowitz Reviewed by Blake Andrews What's gotten into the water at Aperture Foundation? Based on its recent run of book titles, readers might wonder if they've tapped a fountain of youth. In 2014 Jason Fulford's delightful This Equals That targeted the under five demographic.

Seeing Things: A Kid's Guide to Looking at Photographs.
By Joel MeyerowitzAperture, 2016.
 
Seeing Things
Reviewed by Blake Andrews

Seeing Things: A Kid's Guide to Looking at Photographs.
Text by Joel Meyerowitz.
Aperture, New York, USA, 2016. In English. 80 pp., 8¼x11¼".

What's gotten into the water at Aperture Foundation? Based on its recent run of book titles, readers might wonder if they've tapped a fountain of youth. In 2014 Jason Fulford's delightful This Equals That targeted the under five demographic. This was followed by Alice Poujansky's kid activity book Go Photo! Sandwiched in between were two efforts — a photographer's playbook and photographer's cookbook — which, while not overtly aimed at children, put a buoyant, informal twist on the material. These books have all come out in the past two years, on the heels of Aperture's 50+ year history of sober, ceremonious monographs.

There seems a conscious effort afoot by Aperture to deflate their pompous reputation, pivot to the future, and expand the audience. The cause of this shift is less clear. Is it indeed a fountain of youth? Editors of child-bearing age? A publisher's midlife crisis? Some broader cultural shift among photobook makers? I'm not sure. But regardless of cause, the editorial winds at Aperture have shifted in a sprightly direction.

Seeing Things: A Kid's Guide to Looking at PhotographsBy Joel MeyerowitzAperture, 2016.

The latest from revamped fun-loving Aperture is Seeing Things: A Kid's Guide To Looking At Photographs written and compiled by photo legend Joel Meyerowitz. Meyerowitz is just the man for the task. A father and author of 24 photobooks, he has an encyclopedic knowledge of photo history, a rolodex of contacts to match, and a rare ability to articulate concepts in a clear and inspirational fashion. He's deployed all of these facets in Seeing Things. The book is structured as a sequence of individual photographs, each one used as the basis of a tutorial: The Frame Within the Frame, Still Life, Actions and Angles, etc. The lessons are simply organized, and the ideas concise and inviting. His description of a Strand photo (Eye Contact) is typical:

Feel the intensity of the boy's stare. The photograph invites us to make direct eye contact, to look for a long time into the face of another human being, and to inspect the details. The picture allows you to have a connection with the person in this portrait even though he is from a different time.

No dictionary-inducing words. No artspeak. It's the way one might describe a photo to any 10 year old. With bright yellow triple die-cut eyeball cover, a disarming variety of type sizes, and inexorbitant price, Seeing Things has all the familiar hallmarks of a kid's book, and it is ostensibly geared toward the children's market. But the tricky thing about kid's books is the people making buying decisions aren't kids. They're parents. So book publishers must appeal to both age groups. Seeing Things does just the trick, accommodating a range of demographics, its target age range of 8-12 notwithstanding. In fact I'm guessing — based partly on personal experience — the adult set may be where Seeing Things finds its most receptive audience. Parents who gift this book to their children may gift themselves unwittingly.

Seeing Things: A Kid's Guide to Looking at PhotographsBy Joel MeyerowitzAperture, 2016.

So Seeing Things is a sort of grown up book in disguise. Once stripped of its childish veneer, the meat of Seeing Things bears some resemblance to Stephen Shore's 1998 primer The Nature of Photographs. Like Seeing Things, The Nature of Photographs took photographers back to square one, describing root photo concepts in basic language before building these ideas Gödel-style into a comprehensive photographic vocabulary. Shore's building blocks are weightier than Meyerowitz's, but the foundational character is similar, for example:
A photograph may have a deep depictive space but shallow space on the mental level — in which there is little sensation of your eye changing focus. Conversely, a photograph may have shallow depictive space but deep mental space.
Um, heavy stuff, not for kids. Nevertheless, Shore's zen focus and unassuming spirit has echoes in Meyerowitz's writing. Both books have basic concepts, clear language, and interesting photographs. Shore's was a sweeping effort written with detachment. Meyerowitz — in the vein of Aperture's recent The Photography Workshop Series — is more of how-to book, albeit one accessible to children. But the differences are complementary, and taken together the two books would make a great matched set of primers.

Seeing Things: A Kid's Guide to Looking at PhotographsBy Joel MeyerowitzAperture, 2016.

One aspect of Seeing Things that definitely hasn't waded in the fountain of youth is the photo selection, an unfortunate throwback to the Newhall/Szarkowski canon dominated for decades by white male photographers. This has been going on for a while. The selections in Shore's book (and its predecessor Szarkowski's Looking At Photographs) pulled from a similar demographic. Thumbing past one white male after another tested one's patience twenty years ago. At this point it seems ridiculous. While an abundance of old white men is somewhat understandable given Meyerowitz's generational ties and influences, a more multicultural approach would've been beneficial. After all, this is a book for future photographers. White male dominance points instead to the past.

Seeing Things: A Kid's Guide to Looking at PhotographsBy Joel MeyerowitzAperture, 2016.

Ultimately, perhaps the proof is in the pudding. I happen to live with a 10 year old who has a budding interest in photography. Perfect case study. I presented him with my review copy of Seeing Things to see if it might be useful. He turned it over, poked playfully through the die-cut, then thumbed earnestly through several pages before setting it aside. To be fair, he's not yet a dedicated reader nor photographer. And this was in summer when adventures and friends and video games abound, so the book had some competition for attention. For what it's worth most books get the exact same treatment. But it's fair to say Seeing Things didn't tightly grab him. I, on the other hand, devoured the book quickly in one sitting. Granted, the two of us are a limited sample pool. But our experiences support my hunch that the sweet spot for this book may skew slightly older than 8-12, and reach well into adulthood. It'll take its place in many libraries alongside Shore and Szarkowski, and eventually near whatever the youngsters of today grow up to write.—BLAKE ANDREWS

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BLAKE ANDREWS is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at blakeandrews.blogspot.com.

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