Step X Step: Why Photographs Work; 52 Great Images: Who Made Them, What Makes Them Special and Why

By George Barr

“There are many “how-to” books and even “how I did it” books,” explains George Barr in the introduction to Why Photographs Work. “But there are not many books available that discuss why photographs work from a practical rather than theoretical or philosophical point of view.”

The photographic subjects of Barr’s visual analysis include pristine landscapes, canny environmental portraits, jewel-like industrial details, expansive architectural views, delicate floral still lives, plastic camera reveries and abstract image composites, amid many other visual themes.
“This book is about great photographs  rather than great photographers. Some of the photographers are famous; others are not,” Barr adds. “Some have literally thousands of strong images and many books to their names, while others have only made a handful of great images but are poised to make many more.”
The three examples on these pages offer a wide view of both subject matter and approach to successful image making. For more detail about Wayne Levin’s underwater seascape, Dan Burkholder’s iPhone landscape composite and Louie Palu’s documentary portrait featured here—from the photographer’s perspective on the image to biographical backgrounds and headshots—

Wayne Levin: Bluefin Trevally Herding Akule, 2000 

BARR’S ANALYSIS: It simply never occurred to me that a beautiful photograph could be made from schooling fish—interesting maybe, but actually artistic? It was quite a surprise to find Wayne Levin’s portfolio in LensWork, but I could quickly appreciate the beauty of the images, which are definitely art.
Good photographs often benefit from great reflective surfaces and nice tonal gradients. Sometimes the effective reflections occur en masse—for example, with leaves turned inside out in the wind and changing the tones of a tree. I knew that individual fish can be iridescent but hadn’t appreciated the effects of a huge school of fish. More power then to Levin for recognizing the potential, where other underwater photographers have not. © Wayne Levin
In this photograph we have an explosion of light at the bottom. It is not clear if this is a sandy bottom or something else entirely. If it is the bottom, then why the dark waters so nearby? We see a multitude of Akule fish bursting out from this area, blossoming in spreading paths. The gradations of rightness in the fish give the image depth, while the orchestrated swimming patterns provide wonderful curving lines through the image.
Levin has used his position to control the lighting and provide the range of tonalities across the image, undoubtedly through considerable experience. We see no murky waters or sun-filled background. I dare say a diver would understand the picture better. I prefer to accept it as magic.
The three predatory Trevally fish offer the only brilliant highlights and are quite menacing. They swim in line, too, arcing slightly and in opposition to the fish below them. It is hard to estimate scale, not knowing the fish. I have the sense that these are huge fish, shark sized, yet I suspect the truth is more mundane, the scale smaller, but the scene no less impressive.
The photographer has managed to imply movement without the need for a long exposure, the darting of the threatened fish implied by their head-to-tail lines of direction. Some images are beautiful, others informative. Here Levin has managed both, to our collective surprise considering the subject. Looking at photographs is very much about discovery.

TECHNICAL: Nikonos V with Technical Pan film and a NIKKOR 2.8 20mm lens. Both photos © Wayne Levin www.waynelevinimages.com

Dan Burkholder: Tree and Pond in Fall, 2009

BARR’S ANALYSIS: Dan Burkholder has a reputation as both fine art photographer and innovator. Going to his Web site, I was greeted by his latest project—photographs taken with his iPhone, with image editing also on the iPhone. Normally I’d greet an idea like this with considerable skepticism, but these images were beautiful, resembling old master landscape paintings. © Dan Burkholder
Although this photograph is a rather ordinary rural composition, the color and texture make the image. Vignetting contributes to the scene’s antique look, as if the image has darkened over many years with layers of varnish obscuring the edges and warming the colors.
This photograph’s strength is in the handling of color and the overall presentation. Unlike simple photographic tinting, where large areas are typically colored with a single wash, here we have changes in color on a very small scale, as if these were brushstrokes from a palette of generous proportions, exactly as a skilled painter would use, while at the same time entirely avoiding the look of fake paintings. The subject is something most of us can relate to: rural, pond, late fall, low sun, peaceful, still, a refuge from the city. The presentation reminds us of our youth, grandparents, neighbors or a day away.
Burkholder has stitched together several images, but with the iPhone’s automatic exposure and less than perfect stitching, we see ghosting, as if some elements were not entirely there. Given the painterly presentation, this deviation from reality seems entirely appropriate, giving the image a sense of movement as well. The photographer shows very skilled use of his tools and a thorough knowledge of their limitations. Moreover, he knows how to work around their limitations. Most importantly (and what separates the artist from the worker), he knows how to take advantage of these limitations to make something wonderful.
Really, the difference between an image captured on a cell phone and one taken with the best and most expensive digital equipment is mostly about the number of pixels and how spontaneous and relaxed one can be in making the image. When multiple photographs are used to stitch the final image, size is no longer limited by the equipment. Prints of this image have been made up to two feet square and are full of detail.

TECHNICAL: Image mosaic made with and stitched on an Apple iPhone. Overlapping 19 images provided both a wide-angle perspective and (thanks to varied exposures) a quasi-HDR effect that helped preserve velvety shadows and
milky highlight detail. The final four percent of image tweaking (color correction, final sharpening and so on) is done on a “real” computer with Photoshop. The image is printed on an Epson 9900 using Imageprint (a third-party, RIP software by ColorByte) and Museo Max paper.

Louie Palu: Front Towards Enemy, 2008

BARR’S ANALYSIS: The face of war, so young, so innocent looking, barely shaving,  yet there is weariness in those eyes that speaks of fatigue, experience, pain and loss. Without the story behind the image, we don’t know which warzone if any this was. Louie Palu tells us that the young man is an American soldier, but it could have been any modern army. The helmet confirms he’s English speaking.

Palu is a photojournalist, not a commercial portrait photographer, but the pose is somewhat formal, with studio-like © Loilie Palulighting. The almost formal setup contrasts with the dirt, sweat and cracked lips that imply the end of a mission, the fatigue in the eyes further emphasizing the toll on these young people. To capture so much in a warzone photograph is remarkable, probably more revealing than the soldier might prefer to have seen by those back home. 

The message on the helmet is clear in its statement, but hardly in its purpose. Is this a joke played by platoon mates, a philosophy of the soldier or a reminder to oneself in situations that could quite reasonably make one terrified?

The helmet is askew and shows considerable wear. The uniform has been “customized” with the neckerchief, almost an adoption of local dress.
Is this empathy with the local people or simply a practical way to keep out desert sand?
As a photograph, it reveals the youth of the face, its smooth curves and lack of lines, which might not have been as obvious had the subject been photographed out in the sun. The face is framed by the helmet above, the striped neckerchief below, and the straps of the helmet on the sides: the young man a prisoner to his circumstances.
While one might not think that image quality is an important issue in photojournalism, in fact, when one studies some of the best street, news and even war photography, the best work tends to be well composed, the original prints have rich tones and the images are beautiful in their own way.

TECHNICAL: Nikon D2X, NIKKOR 50mm f/1.4 lens. Image captured in RAW format and converted to grayscale. Photograph taken in bunker made of sand bags, natural light, no reflectors or artificial light.



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