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The New How-To's: Three Recent Manuals in Review

Book Review The New How-To's: Three Recent Manuals in Review Reviewed by Kim Beil This week author & teacher Kim Beil looks at several how-to titles for the photographer: PhotoWork by Sasha Wolf, How I Make Photographs by Joel Meyerowitz, and Photographers on Photography by Henry Carroll.
PhotoWork. By Sasha Wolf.
The New How-To's
Three Recent Manuals in Review
PhotoWork by Sasha Wolf
How I Make Photographs by Joel Meyerowitz
Photographers on Photography by Henry Carroll

During most of the twentieth century, camera and film manufacturers were also publishers. They released hundreds of how-to guides aimed at amateur photographers, most notably Kodak’s long-running handbook, How to Make Good Pictures.

Now the how-to is built into the camera and there is no film. Smartphones allow photographers few opportunities to make “bad pictures.” The infamous marks of the amateur — tilted framing, camera shake, red-eye, or poor focus — are all fixed by software. At the same time, the elements that have emerged as indicators of “good pictures,” such as saturated colors and selective focus, are added to smartphone pictures automatically.

Where does that leave instructional literature? Rather than teach aspiring photographers to obey the rote directives of composition or master technical details, three new books concentrate on training photographers to develop their own unique pictorial sensibilities: Joel Meyerowitz’s How I Make Photographs (Laurence King, 2020), Sasha Wolf’s PhotoWork: Forty Photographers on Process and Practice (Aperture, 2019), and Henry Carroll’s Photographers on Photography (Laurence King, 2018).

Photographers on Photography. By Henry Carroll.
PhotoWork and Photographers on Photography are both curated by their editor/writers who, each in their way, allow a range of photographer voices to be heard. Like Nathan Lyons’ classic Photographers on Photography (1966), Carroll draws largely on previously published statements and essays by photographers, ranging from the nineteenth century to the present day. He augments these with five new, short interviews with photographers, including Alec Soth and Olivia Bee. The arrangement of Carroll’s compendium is neither alphabetical nor chronological. Instead, he puts the photographers and their pictures into a loose conversation, exploring one idea, such as the relative importance of photographic equipment or the relationship of photographer to subject, before moving on to the next subject.

Wolf’s PhotoWork compiles the responses of 41 contemporary photographers to a twelve-question survey. The result is an illuminating index, which reveals not only the photographers’ direct answers (or evasions), but also their positions on ideas inherent in the questions, such as the resounding dissatisfaction with the words ‘style’ or ‘genre,’ echoed across responses from Robert Adams to Elinor Carucci and Justine Kurland.

Just as I began to suspect an emerging pattern, say, in response to the question of whether individual pictures or bodies of work come first, the trend would then be broken by a photographer who responded, adamantly, otherwise. Some questions, especially whether one ever returns to a body of work after its initial presentation, are often met with almost comic brevity: no.

Questionaire, from PhotoWork. By Sasha Wolf.

The repetition and narrow focus of PhotoWork is its great strength, like a core sample of the contemporary moment. In Carroll’s compilation, I sometimes wondered about the context of the pithy statements. Wolf avoids this concern by providing the complete list of questions and answers. I almost wished for a spreadsheet where I could re-sort the answers to make these comparisons more direct than the alphabetical organization allows.

How I Make Photographs. By Joel Meyerowitz.
Meyerowitz’s book stands as part of a long tradition of photographers writing about their medium. Since the earliest publications of the nineteenth century, these dispatches from the field served not only as instruction for less accomplished photographers, but as confirmation and ratification of emerging aesthetic standards. The how-to books that accompanied the rise of amateur practice in the twentieth century concentrated almost entirely on composition, lighting, and the selection of appropriate subject matter. Even the most sophisticated of these manuals, such as those by Berenice Abbott or Ansel Adams, laid out a rigid set of rules.

Those hard and fast rules have been almost entirely abandoned in this new generation of books, and Meyerowitz’s is no exception. He writes that composition “is really anything you want to make of it. You’ve got a frame, which you’re going to fill with the things that appeal to you” (91). The emphasis is on a photographer’s personal experience. He advocates for photography as a tool of self-discovery: “Anything we do with passion, obsession or desire teaches us not only about the medium we’re using but about ourselves” (111).

Meyerowitz’s own techniques for street photography are cogently identified: stand in the middle of the action and look for patterns, then build a picture with these pieces. He does not prescribe a subject, only a practice, according to which his readers will learn to identify their own preferences.

This shift towards individuality stands in contrast to the overwhelming homogeneity of photos seen on social media. When cameras and software make their own technical decisions, which are then reinforced by likes and algorithms, it’s hard to imagine pictures that look different from the norm. These three books, with their focus on choices made by individual photographers rather than on overarching rules, promise to expand the genre of instructional literature.

Purchase PhotoWork by Sasha Wolf

Purchase How I Make Photographs by Joel Meyerowitz

Purchase Photographers on Photography by Henry Carroll

Read More Book Reviews

How I Make Photographs. By Joel Meyerowitz.
Photographers on Photography. By Henry Carroll.

Kim Beil is an art historian who teaches at Stanford University. She is the author of Good Pictures: A History of Popular Photography.