The Life of a Photograph.


The Life of a Photograph: by Sam Abell.

I came across this book while browsing in The Book Loft a few months ago.  Even though I’ve reviewed a couple other books so far, this book is the first photography book I purchased there, and it started my regular visits to the store as a source of inspiration…

I hadn’t heard of Sam Abell prior to finding this book, but the title of the book and the image on the cover captured my interest.  One of the first images in the book is “Woman on the Plaza”.  It is a stark, pale scene of a city plaza with a woman entering the frame in the lower right corner.  The photo is predominantly lines and shapes, with lots of negative space, and at first it appears to be in black and white, with the woman’s skin tone providing the only glimpse of color.  It is an excellent composition, but it would have fallen flat without that woman occupying the corner of the frame, her long shadow casting just inches from that of the building on the right.  Had he pressed the shutter button a fraction of a second sooner, or later, he would have never published the photo.  In part, that is a premise of this book.  I was hooked.  He had me at page 7.


As I continued through the book, more photos jumped into my head and lodged themselves into whichever lobe of the brain convinces us that we need to have something.  I immediately bought the book, even though at that time I was emptying my house of boxes of books I had collected over the years but didn’t need to have around any more.  “I can add just one book, since I’ve gotten rid of so many”, I convinced myself.  Actually, I’ve added several more books since then, and I will write about them in upcoming posts.

Abell accompanies many images with short narratives about what was going on (in his head, as well as the surroundings) when the photographs were taken.  Some scenes are represented by multiple images, demonstrating how waiting for the proper moment, or finding a better angle, can make a particular image stand out from others taken in the moments before or after.  I enjoyed his writing, but I wish there was more of it.  Many of the shots (too many, it seems) are accompanied by nothing more than a title or location.

This is not a ‘greatest hits’ book.  Although there are many outstanding images, there are also many shots from various travels and projects throughout his career which he uses to represent his idea of a photograph having a ‘life’ after it is created.  Outside of the narrative (if there is any), included photos often don’t stand on their own (to me), especially when following awesome work on the preceding page.  It seems like the mediocre (in comparison) content lessens the impact of a book containing so much impressive work.  Some photos look too much like simple travel snapshots that ended up in a book by a great photographer.

Most of the images (maybe all) were created using film, and sometimes seem ‘flat’ and unprocessed compared to the flashy digital photos we often see on the interwebs these days.  I realize there was plenty of dodging, burning, cropping, and chemical processing techniques being used in the film days to alter the look of a photograph, however, the shots in this book often look like they were simply developed then printed, then hung on the wall for the world to see.  That they are also great images is a credit to Abell’s talent, and it demonstrates how nothing more than timing and composition can make a great photograph.  Being able to master either of those aspects, however, can take a years.

I easily consider this book a good buy due to the number of great photographs within (especially considering the discount price I paid), but I would also be interested in adding an actual ‘best of’ retrospective to my collection.  Looking at his website, I see a LOT of excellent work (some of which is more recent) which isn’t included in this book.


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