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Stephen Johnson on Digital Photography by Stephen Johnson
ISBN: 0-596-52370-X, Pages, 320, $39.99 US, $55.99 CA

This is a superb book. The best photography book I have ever seen. This kind of book is generally a “how to” or a “look at my great pictures collection.” Stephen Johnson covers all this and a whole lot more – an entire universe that I have never seen treated in a single volume before.

This beautifully laid out and printed volume is Johnson’s photographic biography, artistic memoire, history of photography and photographic techniques; and introduction to the technology of digital photography. It includes a very careful and well-illustrated depiction of why it is better than film. (Greatly enhanced dynamic range is the major but not the only benefit).

Johnson explains how he discovered digital photography between about 1991 and 1994 when he announced he was abandoning film. His early digital work was done with Silicon Valley prototypes. These were highend color scanners attached to cameras and computers. At first landscapes were all that could be done because the scans took as much as a minute or more each. But as well know the cameras now are superb and exceed 35 mm film resolution in their capability.

On thing that Johnson does that I have not seen before is answer the question of why many of us are addicted to photography. Very early on (p.37) he says: “ My need for cross knowledge of how all of the imaging technologies fit together turned out to be of value beyond my own needs. I was also lobbying heavily for the empowerment of people like me to take control over the reproduction of their own work.”

He leads the reader deeper into the technology and technique with considerable narrative and visual skill. For example going from 8 to 16 to 48 and 96 bit color and explaining why it could matter.

He has been involved with the development of PhotoShop from the very beginning. He gives his reader an introduction a very gradual one into this software which is far to feature rich and complex of the average person to grasp. Over a series of chapters in which he discusses many things he gives PhotoShop examples – just a few in a way that cause the reader to say – oh! I see! If I ever manage to find the time to get into PhotoShop with any seriousness, I will do so with the chapters that he uses on basic Photoshop techniques.

He does an excellent job of explaining digital camera technology and hardware. One of the first things I looked for was Foveon in the index. Yep page 87 has one entry. In the text you find two very well written and illustrated pages on The Creation of Electronic Color. But this leads to just about my only quibble with the book. The index seems to have been an after-thought. There is only one page entry per item in the index. Foveon appears probably on 6 or 8 pages in the book. It is well chronicled. Johnson well understands what it is and why it is better than Bayer. There are very few books that have a clue. It is good to see that Johnson does.

Johnson also understands the opportunities brought by the internet for the dissemination of the photographers art. Consider for example “Chapter 15 What to Do with your Images” with subheads like Galleries: Real and Virtual; and Outreach, Ownership and Sharing.

Why Photography is so Compelling

In many respects the later chapters are the best. They grasp what can be so compelling about serious photography.

Between 1992 and 2003 I discovered this for myself over the course of nine trips to Russia, and five to the Himalayas. I experimented on each trip and learned haphazardly as I went, buying a new lens here or a flashgun there. I looked at what went wrong and asked how I could do it better on the next trip. I didn’t know it but I probably was developing a nascent philosophy with each successive visit. In Russia I knew the land, the art, and the people and the culture and care deeply about them. The Himalaya, the greatest mountains on earth were a different form of passion along with the exotic forms of Buddhist temples and masked dances at Tengboche monastery in the shadow of Mount Everest.

Part 6 of Johnson’s book is titled a Photographer’s Digital Journey. How true the quote from Dorthea Lange: “the benefit of seeing can come only if you pause a while, extricate yourself from the maddening mob of quick impressions ceaselessly battering our lives and look thoughtfully at a quiet image. . . the viewer must be willing to pause, to look again, to meditate.”

Part Seven: Photography Art and the Future, is in many ways the best of the book. “The finest works of Art are precious among other reasons because they make it possible for us to know if only imperfectly and for a little while what it actually feels like to think subtly and feel nobly.” Aldous Huxlley

Chapter 18 Making Art- “you don’t memorize the dictionary and suddenly say profound things” Jerry Ulesmann 2004

Johnson begins: “Talking about art is hard. Either there don’t seem to be words to describe the motivations or there are too many words that end up obfuscating meaning. Learning contemporary language and references of modern art criticism may held some understand art history, but “art- speak’ is rarely a tongue I hear used by artists themselves. Plain folk, real dreams and real persons are what drive us forward. Sometimes irrationally,. Sometimes with a plan. Photography fits neatly into this long and confused history.”

And he quotes some wonderful pages from of all things a book called Art and Fear: “art is made by ordinary people with the whole usual mixed bag of human traits that real human beings possess. This is a giant hint about art because it suggests that our flaws and weaknesses, while often obstacles in our getting work done are a source of strength as well.”

Page 236: Passion and Commitment

“For me art is an expression of those passions and ultimate humanness that takes me beyond the specific instance – being on top of a volcano or in a lovers embrace – into an intuition abouyt what it means to be human. Words don’t exp[ress irt well. That is why we make art. It is also why we feel such a passion for the medium. I want an emotional response to my work because my work is an emotional response to what I saw.”

Page 237 Photography and Magic

“I love photography not software. PhotoShop is just a tool, albeit a critical tool, but so is you imaging system, and more fundamentally you heart.”

Page 241

Art is a lie that teaches us to see the truth

Pablo Picasso

Exaggerate the essential, leave the obvious vague.

Vincent van Gogh

And finally Chapter 21 From the Digital Stone Age Onward: “as I said at the beginning of this book we are in the Stone Age of Electronic photography. We haven’t even figured out yet the shape of the tools that we need, much less developed sophisticated versions of such tools.”

As Johnson says at the books very beginning in a Note from the Author: “I have often also been frustrated at the concentration on the technical aspect of digital photography with so little discussion of the aesthetics and the heart behind the imagery.” Indeed and at the book’s end he uses this frustration to deliver hugely enlightening home run. The book itself is an artistic treasure with a very meaningful subtitle: Text, Photography and Design by Stephen Johnson. Johnson obviously demanded freedom to create. Tim O’Reilly did well when he granted Johnson’s wish. Quite simply the best photography book I have ever read.

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