Lewis Blackwell’s “Photo Wisdom” Book Review

11 Nov

Lewis Blackwell’s Photo Wisdom: Master Photographers on Their Art

By Lorette C. Luzajic

What strikes me first is the colour, a brilliant turquoise offset by a wide arc of pale and feathery purple and white ripples. It takes a few seconds to make sense of what is happening, of the giant elephant splayed out across the middle of the photograph. My mind is not used to seeing the underside of elephants, after all. But then it clicks. It is the unusual combination of awkwardness and buoyancy that gives it away- I am underwater, looking up, and the elephant is swimming above me.

Indian Elephant Swimming Underwater – Steve Bloom

It’s an arresting image because of its striking simplicity. The viewer is transported into a rare moment. And we stand there in a goofy and surreal instance, marveling at how, only here, an elephant could be described as elegant.

It took wildlife photographer Steve Bloom three trips to India to perfect that picture. “I was working on the final images for my book Elephant! and was determined to get a unique view of an elephant swimming over me. There were many logistical problems,” he said, “but I was satisfied with the result in the end.”

The picture is from Photo Wisdom, a stunning anthology of photography curated by Lewis Blackwell, creative director at Getty Images.

There are a few important aspects of this book that distinguish it from the many related titles on my shelf.

Firstly, there are too few compilations of contemporary photography masters. While serious artists and  buffs  will never tire of learning from greats like Weston, Brassai, Atget or Cartier-Bresson, our reference shelves need more resources for contemporary greats. This one shows several works each for fifty major contemporary photographers.

Secondly, there are substantial commentaries on the work, all in the photographers’ own words. The stories are conversational and give the audience tremendous insight into the art, the technical aspects, the challenges, the artist’s vision, the style, and the stories of the images.

Chongqing 4 Sunday Picnic – Nadav Kander

The range of the ideas expressed visually and through these stories is especially intriguing. As an animal photographer, aforementioned Steve Bloom would be a fish out of water – or an elephant out of water, as it were- if every other photographer were not also in a league of his own. The artists are diverse:  Loretta Lux, Ami Vitale, Joyce Tenneson, Ron van Dongen, Mark Seliger, and Nadav Kander, to name a few. Because of the emphasis on variety, the collection virtually guarantees anybody a perfect blend of favourites and new discoveries.

The Rose Garden – Loretta Lux

Two personal favourites are polar opposites Ed Burtynsky and David LaChapelle.  Burtynsky is famous for his gorgeous panoramic studies of industrial landscapes like oil refineries, shipyards, and waste.  I respond to Burtynsky’s work differently than most, who perceive it as a statement on environmental disaster and greed. For me, I am captivated by the poetry of industry and the spectacular patterns of machinery and how granite or sludge doing nothing in the earth is turned into civilization, into towers and agriculture that feeds hundreds of millions instead of letting them starve. This artist’s work excites me because it helps me see man’s work- from the highway infrastructure to shipbuilding to photography- as part of nature, not apart from it.

Oxford Tire Pile No.1, Westley, California – Edward Burtynsky

“My work does not stand as an indictment of all things man does,” Burtynsky writes. “…I think in every act of creation there is an act of destruction.” He acknowledges that the “scale and power of the cities we are building has its equivalent in nature. There is a void formed to create the space that we inhabit…a beaver can’t make a beaver home without cutting some trees down, and do we, as a living species, have a right to use other living and mineral elements of the planet to support our life.”  The thing that has changed, Burtynsky writes, is the scale. “We have always taken from nature, but never at this scale.” It is this scale that he tries to capture through his photography, to promote discuss and reflection about how we can steer our future.

Addicted to Diamonds – David LaChapelle

David LaChapelle has entirely different concerns. He is interested in combining the newest technologies with the oldest styles; he is interested in the cult of personality crossed with the mundane.  He sometimes constructs his work in the style of Renaissance or religious art, but his naked models are modern, and brand names and references to popular and haute culture abound.  He likes the contradictions of luxury and banality, observing where they merge one into the other. “Is the work celebratory or satirical?” he asks himself. “…I embrace and am repulsed by it, and I think that comes through in my body of work.”

LaChapelle never graduated from the North Carolina School of Arts, but his photography is not only world famous, it is instantly recognizable.  He has achieved a very Warholian vision that manages to look nothing like Warhol. “I just went to New York and started calling myself a photographer, living in the east village in a squat,” he writes. Sure enough, he was hired by Interview Magazine after they saw his work at a show he put on; he went on to work at the top, photographing Vanity Fair covers and working with Rolling Stone Magazine, “as high as you can go, really…”

LaChapelle stepped away from his work after reaching the top, but soon found himself working again, this time exclusively for exhibitions instead of commercial work. “I took everything I learned communication- and technique-wise from fashion, celebrity, and advertising, and then applied it to the exhibition…I no longer make pictures for magazines that wind up in galleries; now I make pictures for galleries that wind up in magazines.”

It is a luxury to have in one place the photographic art of these brilliant imaginations, and for both new and experienced photographers, it is invaluable to hear what our teachers have to say about digital technology, fine art history, relating to one’s audience and more.  Listening to top photographers discussing the technical and philosophical aspects of imagery can only deepen our visual experience.

Photo Wisdom: Master Photographers on Their Art

Lewis Blackwell

PQ Blackwell, in association with Chronicle Books, 2009

$50.00 (on sale today for $36.95)

Available at : Photowisdom Master Photographers On Their Art

Lorette C. Luzajic is an artist and writer living in Canada. Visit her at Ideafountain or at Amazon.

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