THE GOOD BOOK

Two men fully clothed on the beach, Gary Chang on left, Yang Jamison on right. Taking a break on a beautiful Indian Summer day at Brighton Beach.
How photo books can inspire and make you a better photographer.

Whenever I’m looking for ideas and inspiration, I love going to my library, grabbing a book and finding inspiration between the covers. 

I’m happy to report that “The PhotoBook” has not only survived the digital takeover, but it thrives. Nothing to plug in or charge, the sweet aroma of ink on paper, it’s an intimate experience that takes me to amazing places and lets me get inside the head of the photographer who created it. 

When you look at a photobook, in most cases you’re looking at the culmination of a personal project the way the photographer has intended you to see it. It represents a long and arduous process, and there’s a lot to be gleaned from the work, the edit, the sequencing, the format, and the words. It’s a rare entrée into the psyche of the masters of the medium. 

Two of the best references in this genre are books about books: The Photobook: A History, Volumes 1, 2 & 3 by Martin Parr and Gerry Badger, and Andrew Roth’s The Book of 101 Books: Seminal Photographic Books of the Twentieth Century

These volumes will not only show you the insides of great, hard-to-find books, but you’ll also see the photography and photographers who have made those books great. 

I spend time analyzing the best work and then take a critical look at my own, asking myself if the qualities I’m inspired by or am responding to can be infused into my own photography. And then there’s the inspiration of ideas that can be triggered by looking. Skeptics say, “It’s all been done before.” But that doesn’t really matter. 

The title of Austin Kleon’s best-selling book gives us a free pass.… “Steal Like An Artist”, he says. Cartier-Bresson said there are no new ideas, “only new arrangement of things. Everything is new; every minute is new. It means reexamining.” 

Each of us brings our own unique vision to an assignment or project, and I’ve seen it many times as a teacher: two photographers in the same place at the same time with completely different— and equally brilliant—results. 

The boardwalk at Coney Island.

So many photographers have been inspired to shoot at Coney Island. They go there for a reason; it’s a great place to shoot pictures. If it has been shot before, shoot it in your own personal way and make it your own. 

When I go out shooting with my wife Tanja, who uses her iPhone camera, I’m reminded that the colorful details and graphic textures she sees, I often overlook, and it inspires me to see in new ways. 

When I first moved to New York I spent an afternoon at Coney Island, where I made what I thought were some nice images. When I later approached a magazine about publishing them, they told me they had a ban on looking at images from Coney Island since so many photographers were shooting there and they had already published their “quota.” 

But photographers go there for a reason; it’s a great place to shoot pictures. Just because someone else has done a project does not exclude you from doing your own. Yours will be different. Of course it’s always good to have a great and original idea, but don’t write something off just because it has been done before; do it better and do it your way. I keep going back to Coney Island. 

The reality on the ground shooting will often be different from your pre-visualizations, but having a few ideas will let you hit the ground running. I sometimes ask students to come up with five words that describe their first impressions of a place. Sometimes a word can become a headline or title for a project in that place, or a mantra you say to yourself when you raise your camera to your eye, reminding you as you shoot to stay on topic. Don’t get hung up on originality. Shoot. 

Coney Island, New York Lenshoot for 85mm 1.8 lens by Steve Simon

I learned from my experience with that magazine that Coney Island is “played-out,” or overdone. But I continue to go there and find new subjects to photograph in my own way. 

Any Photobooks out there provided you some inspiration? Please let us know and start a conversation in the comments.


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