I read a ton of books every year. A lot of them are like fine dinners. You spend some real cash on them, you read them and then the experience is gone. You're left with a memory of the way it tasted and not much more. And then there are some books that come slamming back into your psyche without the least conscious provocation. And they become part of your personal operating system. Or at least the content you gleaned did. Here are ten that I keep at hand either for reference or inspiration. Some I keep for nostalgia and the fact that they act like time machines and give me a sense of temporal balance.
1. The War of Art. By Steven Pressfield. Given the number of times I've recommended this book on this forum you would think that I was getting a percentage of the royalties but sadly that's not true. It's just that this book is good for what ails you. It's the kind of book that you read one time and it changes you. You read it again because you need to move your game forward. And this is not a photography book per se. It's aimed at anyone who needs to start a painting, a business, a project or a process but feels paralyzed by procrastination. It should save you about.......a year of your life.
2. Janson's History of Art. By various, including Dr. Penelope J.E. Davies, who teaches at UT Austin and is a work of art herself. It's a fool who barrels on a path without looking at a map. In art the map is Art History. Study this book and you'll be able to speak intelligently the next time the asshole in the next cube says something like, "What a crock! My three year old could paint that!!!" And an understanding of 20 centuries of work that came before yours might even give you some valuable perspective.
3. The History of Photography. By Beaumont Newhall. An additional book, that covers more of the last half of the 20th Century is A World History of Photography. By Naomi Rosenblum. Do you know about Group 64? The Photo Secessionists? J. Holland Day? The New Documentarians? and all the people who did this well long before we had our sweaty hands wrapped around the fake leather skin of our favorite Nikon or Canon? These two books and one by Helmut Gernsheim will go a long way toward filling in the gap. It's not enough just to know who stated "Moore's Law."
4. Any book by Elliot Erwitt. You might start with: Dogs. And then work your way thru the whole catelog of books. Along with his inspiration, Henri Cartier Bresson, he helped create and mold what we consider to be street photography today. His work is humorous and rich. And he's still alive and it would be great if he got to play with some of the royalties before it's too late. And he's so damn good.
5. The Hemingway Reader. Hemingway was a friend to many famous photographers and was himself the subject of many wonderful editorial portraits. His stories are like rich photo essays and his short stories are like perfectly composed verbal snapshots. When the world seems to weird and I want to feel something I grab my Hemingway reader and go to his classic short story, A Clean, Well Lighted Place, and I read every work. It's inspires me to go out and try again. It's all classic. It's all good. And if you don't like Hemingway I don't really want to know.
6. Speedliter's Handbook: Learning to Craft Light with Canon Speedlights. For years Canon shooters worked with the idea hanging over their heads that Nikon's flash technology was light years ahead. That no one could shoot decent flash images on automatic with any Canon speedlight. We were second class rapid photonic citizens. Then along came Syl Arena to free us. And he taught us that TTL could work with Canon. That we could controls those Speedlite beasts. That we had the power to go toe to toe with Nikonians and retain our professional pride. His book was also a wake up call to all the "fluff" books on the market. With over 350 pages of dynamic fury he created and presented a "no holds barred" and encyclopedic tome that demystified the process of being good with flash. I have a copy. No, you can't borrow it.
7. Best Business Practices for Photographers. By John Harrington. Harrington's no wimp when it comes to the business of doing the photography business and you shouldn't be either. This is the go to book to understand the paperwork, and more importantly, the theory behind the paperwork. Here's deal: Clients want to save money but they NEED good images for their businesses. It's their job to try to balance those two desires. Our job, as photographers, it to get the real value of our work and not flip over like a submissive dog and just hand over the whole candy store for less than the cost of a Snickers Bar. Don't avoid learning this stuff. You'll damage your ability to earn a living and you'll leave a dirty campground for the next gen of campers. If you'd like a softer intro with more focus on marketing you can always give my business book a go. It's called, Commercial Photography Handbook, and it's a nice overview/intro to the business. A good warm-up for John's book. Which sits on the corner of my desk. All the time.
8. Richard Avedon Autobiography. One of the most important books about one of the most important photographers of the twentieth century, and perhaps of all time. If you've just seen small Avedon photos on the web or in little magazine spreads you should see his work in galleries and museums. He was amazingly bright and literate and took the glossy nostalgia off traditional photography and replaced it with insanely powerful visual energy. This book is a chronicle from his earliest work up to the 1980's. Once a year I grab this heavyweight volume and sit in a comfy chair and go thru it. I walk away amazed by his energy and how much his work resonates in everything we see in this century. And I walk away chastened that I will never have the maniacal focus it takes to excel at just one thing. His vision was so consistent. His intellect so pervasive. Everything else seems like a 60 watt light bulb. On a dimmer switch. In a bad lampshade. Get the book.
9. The Elements of Style. We used to be a somewhat literate nation. Now? Not so much. People have a vague understanding of grammar and proper word usage. Much the same way that the guys at the coffee shop understand circuit design. But writing well is a powerful tool for business and an even more powerful tool for moving thru the elements of society with whom we aspire to hang. This is a short book and easy to read. It teaches you the proper way to use our English language. Even the people who went to "Uni" (God, I hate that abbreviation!!!!!!) will get more out of it than they think. Once read you'll seem brighter and more promotable. More interesting to talk to. A joy to receive letters from. Come on. You read the book about how to program your own flash website, I'm sure you'd like the "About me" section to read well. Right? Here's the manual.
10. Still Life: Irving Penn Photographs. 1939-2000. This is a toss up with Irving Penn Portraits. I'm generally lukewarm about landscape photography and still life but the images in the still life book are incredible and seem to set the foundation for the next forty years of advertising still life and imagery. The portraits are classic Penn portraits that celebrate the power of shadow and the power of light equally. A contemporary of Penn in these kinds of portraits was Victor Skrebneski who work I also like very much. His approach to portraits was/is unique but softer than Penn's vision. At any rate, I always learn something when I sit down with the books.
If you are struggling to make a career of photography and can only afford one book then be sure to get John Harrington's business book. If you are comfortable in another career and you want to go deeper with your own vision you couldn't do better than getting the Janson's History of Art book. It all starts there. Now I have to go. There's short story by Salinger I wanted to read before I head off to photograph today's swim meet. Did I mention it's 95 degrees (F) here already? Maybe just one camera today......