Sunday, 22 May 2011

Book Review: Train Your Gaze – Roswell Angier

From the minute I opened it up this book felt different. Even in paperback it oozes class – the photos are well produced, the paper quality is high and the layout is clear and well thought through.

So what is it? Well, anyone buying it to learn the technical side of portraiture is going to be disappointed. Yes, there are some short techie sections at the back, but if you want to learn about depth of field or 3-light set-ups for portraiture this is not the book you need.

If, on the other hand, you are reasonably competent with the technology, and want to explore portraiture as an art form more deeply, then this seems like a good place to start. The book is divided into 12 chapters covering areas such as self-portraiture. voyeurism, darkness – each with a thoughtful assignment intended to help you explore your own feelings in the area concerned. Each chapter explores its subject by analysing the meaning of and thought processes behind photographs from a wide range of artists covering the period from the very beginning of photography to the present day (more or less). I doing so it points up some interesting contrasts – for example the opening chapter starts with and Avedon photo and then moves to Cindy Sherman via Julia Margaret Cameron.

One of the key achievements of the book for me was its accessibility. Angier writes in a free flowing style, largely free of the jargon and complexity that seems to haunt the photo theory texts I’ve read to date. This is most obvious when you compare his style with some of the many extensive quotes he provides.  Fortunately these are in the minority because the quotes themselves are another strength – especially those from the photographers whose shots he is discussing.
One thing that particularly strikes me is the number of photos in the book that require some understanding of the background before they make sense – which perhaps highlights the difficulty of analysing any photo in isolation from its home body of work and plays to the debate about whether artists statements are good or bad. On the evidence of this book I’ll go with the ‘good’ camp – I don’t want to be told what the photos mean, but it is certainly helpful to understand the context.

The over-riding idea I was left with after reading the book was, interestingly, not about portraiture per se. It was the analogy, introduced in the ‘Confrontation’ chapter, with Herrigel’s ‘Zen in the Art of Archery’ – something I’d already picked up myself earlier on in the discussion of decisive moments. Freeman also uses the same analogy in his book ‘The Photographers Eye’. Freeman uses it in the context of photographers having a, perhaps subconscious, repertoire of photo situations that we can draw on at very short notice to help us with composition etc. If nothing else, a good study of this book will help develop that sense and if, like me, you are keen to take your photography beyond the limits of the usual ‘how-to’ books, then Train Your Gaze is well worth the money and time you invest in it.

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