Book Review: The Creative Life in Photography

In photography, perhaps more than other visual arts, it can be very easy to slip away from what makes it an art. We spend so much time analyzing films, chemistry, physics, and gear (all the glorious gear!) that sometimes we don’t leave any time to think about why we may have gotten into this mess in the first place.

So today I wanted to take a moment to discuss a photography book that left all of that behind. Not only is there not a single paragraph detailing technology in Brooks Jensen’s The Creative Life in Photography, there’s not even a single photograph! In many ways, this is exactly the photography book that many of us need.

If you’re not familiar with Brooks, he’s the founder and editor of Lenswork magazine, a publication I’ve respected greatly over the years. He’s also a very accomplished photographer in his own right. Although he’s not a pinhole photographer (nobody’s perfect), his years as a professional photographer and curator of photography have given him some very valuable insights into how to be a better photographer and how to be a successful photographer (whatever that means for you).

In Creative Life in Photography, he’s collected for the reader a number of his editorial essays from Lenswork over the years. This makes the book exceptionally easy to read – 15 minutes gets you through an editorial to think about for a day or two before you return for the next one. What follows are some of my favorite excerpts from the book. Not to worry – I left plenty out for you to discover and explore yourself.

On making great artistic accomplishments:

Great art always works on multiple levels. It appeals to the sophisticated aficionado, the superbly trained and appreciative peer, and at the same time to the masses who have less appreciation of the intricacies, but nonetheless respond at a level appropriate to their training. I am reminded of the portrayal of Mozart in the fictionalized movie Amadeus. His work was appreciated (well, actually despised ) for its fine subtleties of genius by his peer Salieri, and at the same time enjoyed by the masses for its sheer enjoyability and accessibility.

On the importance of art teaching us to see that which we overlooked before:

Landscapes were just background until artists taught us to see them. Those monks who crossed the Alps in medieval times didn’t look to the hills as beautiful examples of nature. They thought those mountains were a burden and would have liked to flatten them out into nice rolling plains that would be easier to traverse. Now we look at the Alps and say they are beautiful precisely because the artists have taught us to see them as beautiful.

On discovery and seeing:

One of my favorite quotes is from Nobel Prize winner Albert SzentGyorgyi: “Discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought.”

On finding great photographs within your own surroundings, and resisting the temptation to find greatness in unfamiliar lands:

Could it be that the great photographers make their great images because they spring from their life, whereas the majority of “amateurs” fail to make great photographs because they are too busy trying to photograph someone else’s life, someone else’s landscape, someone else’s experience? Perhaps instead of going out looking for subject matter, we should simply try to clearly see our life as it is and find the images of significance that surround us.

One passage I found particularly interesting was about his process when he does go to a new place. He found that, like myself and I’m sure many others, he would have a hard time seeing beyond the straightforward and obvious. For a time, this frustrated him. Eventually though he learned to cope with this tendency – he now sets about getting the obvious shots out of his system. He indulges the urge to get the first 10 or 20 obvious shots out of the way. This accomplishes two things.

First, it allows him to move past the obvious, rather than spend the mental energy to fight the urge. Second, he uses these shots to get more familiar with the place, so that by the time he’s done with these shots, he’s got a better understanding of what he’s seeing. Pinhole takes some time to do these photos, especially if you know you’re going to not like them later. So I adapted his process – I shoot these photos with my phone. This way I get to see the obvious, explore for the less than obvious, and get a quick check on my exposure settings.

Over the years, I’ve learned that such obvious compositions are an important part of the “loosening up” phase of my process, like limbering stiff joints after a long drive. I photograph with self- indulgent patience, but universally find these images of little use. They are too predictable.

The final piece of his book that really got me was his discussion of artist statements. He’s read a lot of artist statements in his day, and in a nutshell, detests most of them. If you’re a serious artist, his discussion on artist statements alone is worth the few bucks for the book.


2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Creative Life in Photography”

  1. A good choice and a great review, Kier!
    Brooks Jensen’s thoughts always are (and have been) great inspirations on my own photographic journey. You should have mentioned one editorial in the book though: “Twentyone Ways to Improve Your Artwork”. There he puts his finger on seeing and thinking about seeing. It is kind of a summary on how to enhance the quality of your own work.
    I use a German translation of it in discussions and the lectures i give. And if i look at the feedback in the pictures of others – it does work…..
    There are not so many people writing on photography in a way that even a beginner does understand (if (s)he is interested in more than just snapping away, that is…). Brooks Jensen is one of them!

    1. Thanks Rudi! the 21 ways was a great piece of the book as well. I try to not spoil all the surprises – not an easy balancing act 🙂

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