One of the things I wanted to do with this blog is share some of the books that I have on my bookshelf and the importance they have in my photographic life. In this kindle/ipad dominated world it is very easy to dismiss books as something from another time, but when it comes to photography books nothing matches the experience of holding a book, opening its pages and looking at photographs with which you have an emotional connection. Unfortunately, not everyone feels this way. I remember my daughter coming home from her first day at Arts College and mentioning that some of the photography students were grumpy and not happy. Their tutor had given them some old photography books to study when all they wanted to do was mess about with cameras.
At this year’s Photography Show in Birmingham, Sarah wanted to get her old and worn copy of Cuba by David Alan Harvey signed. We attended his talk at the show and afterwards she asked him if he would sign it for her. David asked her if she would like a personal message or just a signature because the solo signature would make the book more valuable. She told him that a personal message was more important to her and he kindly obliged. After David signed her book, a guy behind Sarah took out a carefully wrapped and completely immaculate example of the same book. He had even left the dust jacket at home because of the fear of creasing it. He handed it to David and insisted on having just a signature. After it was signed he carefully wrapped it back up and I imagined him never opening it again.
We have nearly 300 photography books at home. Most of them sit on bookshelves in our dining room. Some have become rare and increased in value while others you can find for a few quid on eBay. We don’t hide the valuable ones away and we don’t worry about creased dust jackets or yellowing pages. At any time you can take a book from our shelf, turn the pages, and enjoy the pictures. It doesn’t matter if it’s a signed first edition by Salgado, or a £20 Steve McCurry book from a bargain store. We can’t take them with us when we finally fall off our perch, so why not enjoy them while we are here?
I have a lot of books by Henri Cartier-Bresson. At the last count it was 15 including a pretty beat up signed edition. My love affair with his work started when I was a 21 year old photography student at college. My tutor was a big fan of Bresson and would spend entire lessons talking about the way Bresson used geometry and composition in his work. I was mesmerised by the idea of how a random snapshot could be so complex in terms of the way it was constructed. My youthful ignorance bothered me and I worked hard at understanding composition often turning my images upside down, as Bresson used to do, in order to concentrate on form and the visual interplay of lines and shapes. Understanding composition and the use of a 50mm lens became an obsession to me in those early years, but that obsession became the foundation for my photographic style, and many years later I am still visually excited by amazing composition.
A lot of the Bresson images I saw in those early days were photocopies from his book, The Decisive Moment, which belonged to my tutor. As students we never actually saw the book in its original format as it was too valuable to bring into college, but even those crude photocopies spoke to me visually and over the years I’ve tried unsuccessfully to get a decent original copy of the book without paying a small fortune. Several years ago, and in a moment of madness, I actually considered dropping £3K on an original used copy, but sanity prevailed and I was finally able to get my hands on a copy when Steidl re-released the book towards the end of 2014.
It was Christmas morning and Sarah had bought me the book for my birthday. I kind of knew I was getting it but that didn’t prevent the emotional impact of actually seeing this book for the first time. I carefully removed the wrapping paper and slipped the book out of its hard sleeve. The beautiful Matisse cover was opened and then it happened; a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye. This is the book I had coveted for my entire career, and even though this was a facsimile of the original, in my eyes it was an object of beauty in its own right. I actually have no issue with buying modern editions of old books. Often the print and build quality are superior in the later editions and that is the most important thing to me. Steidl have done an incredible job with the print quality in this book and it is quite unlike any other photo book I own. If you have this book you will know exactly what I mean. Big, beautifully printed images on heavyweight paper. They are more like prints than book pages – that’s the only way I can describe them.
This was the first book Bresson published. There are lots of stories about its conception, but away from the romanticism and internet chatter, it is a very well designed book considering it was first published nearly 70 years ago. My understanding is that Bresson wanted to have a vehicle to show his work as he intended (rather than in a magazine) and was responsible for the layout of the photographs. His words at the beginning of the book on technique are like finding gold. Many will think they belong to another time, and that’s ok, but to me they just make so much sense. However, design and words aside, the book’s real importance lies within the photographs. Bresson’s compositional skills are quite remarkable especially given the cameras he was using at the time. His images connect with me in a way that no other photographer seems to do. These are the pictures from my past that continue to shape my future; each one a master class in composition and geometry, rhythm and timing. To be able to see these pictures as Bresson wanted them to be seen is why this book is so important to me. Yes, some of the images are soft by today’s standards, and others obviously could have benefitted from a little more exposure or development, but to get caught up on the technical side of his pictures completely misses the point of his work. He was the world’s most important photographer and this was his greatest work.
So in a marketplace littered with countless Henri Cartier-Bresson titles, my advice would be to save your money and buy this one book. It really is all you need.