On “Why Photographs Work”

  By John Veldhoen

In my last review I started to question the nature of questions writing about the inverted pyramid in Journalism that asks the five questions of who, what, when, and why. I had written why and how as the most important questions to ask, even though they are the last questions to answer when organizing a news story.

How something is asked varies wildly, and it isn’t very easy to define. A few years ago an art theorist asked the question “What do Pictures Want” in a famous essay. It yielded interesting results to ask a question like that, which went against common sense, as pictures should not desire anything on their own as inanimate objects, after all.

Likewise, it is a productive question to ask why a picture works, and then even better to give diagnoses. In “Why Pictures Work”, George Barr does exactly that, going over 52 images by an assortment of people, some of whom are famous photographers, and some of whom are avid enthusiasts. What I like so much about Barr’s approach is his redemptive, one might call it humanistic approach: he describes the circumstances of a photographs being, addresses the holistic life of the pictures in question, from the photographers biography, to their choice of camera.

By examining a variety of pictures, and by transcending the basic reasons for taking pictures, Barr expands the motif of taking pictures, to the start of considering photographs themselves as a form of making art. Why I like this book so much is it a good start for anyone who wants to look into making pictures, and wants to understand why a photograph works without instrumentalizing opinion, or the history of photography, in order to do so. I am accused of pedantry sometimes, and I like this book because the accusation is not one that can be made about it.  It is a good book, and will work well for anyone who may have recently bought a camera, and who now wonders, “What can I do with this thing?”.

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In addition to being on our sales team, John curates The Camera Store's book selection and is a contributing author of our blog. He likes to think about photography, talk about photography, and sometimes write about photography.