Should You Only Look at Beautifully Printed Books?

A couple of weeks ago I visited the Doylestown Public Library. Whenever I’m there I take a look at the photography section to see if there is anything I should borrow. This time I found books by Paula Chamlee, Manuel Álvarez Bravo and Bill Brandt. Well, I finally got around to sitting down and looking at them the other day and the experience made me think about something beyond the actual merits of the photographs themselves. I wondered if low reproduction quality prevents people from enjoying great work and learning from it.

Most monographs produced in the last twenty or thirty years are very high quality, from the resolution and tonality of the images, to the paper used to in making the books. In fact some are so beautiful that it is easy to get drawn in more by the technical quality then the aesthetic quality of the images themselves. I think this particularly true in the case of black and white photography. It is a phenomenon similar to listening to well-produced vinyl records on a high quality stereo system. Sometimes it’s easy to skip wonderful music and great performances if they aren’t of audiophile quality. What a shame!

Back to these great books. All three are wonderful, containing great images by formidable photographers. One book is printed beautifully, the other two are not in the same league. Paula Chamlee is an 8×10 photographer who only makes contact prints. Her work is exquisite and reproduced in the finest quality. The reproduction quality of the Brandt book was OK and the Álvarez Bravo a little bit better. Many of the Brandt images were further handicapped because they were printed in high contrast, so combined with average reproduction … well you get the picture (no pun intended!).

To me the collection of images contained in the rather large Brandt book are the most powerful, but like a great Beethoven performance pressed on budget vinyl that you start listening to, only to lift off the needle and put on something else, it may be easy to casually flip through these pages quickly and decide you’ve had enough. In both cases you are missing out on being exposed (again, no pun … I can’t help myself!) to masterpieces.

Please do not make this terrible and shortsighted mistake. There are many wonderful photographic monographs by the great masters readily available at your library, used bookstore or online. Don’t be dissuaded by worn covers or lower production values. To do so would handicap your efforts to become a better photographer. In short, don’t overlook these gems. And when you find them take the time to study the wonderful and powerful images they contain. You won’t be sorry!

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