Sunday, January 28, 2007

How to Read a Photographic Book

I fell into a habit many years ago that I think has served me especially well. Like the importance of a print-viewing area where you can comfortably display workprints to look at in a leisurely fashion, it's one of those major secrets that hides in plain sight—something many people might do as a matter of course but very few actually do.

What is it? Simply a method of paying attention to books of photographs. A quality and a level of attention similar to what you might devote to reading a printed book of text.

What problem does it solve? A big one, actually. It's called "closure." Closure is what happens when you're having a conversation with another person and you decide you understand what they're saying, so you stop listening and start thinking about what you're going to say. More generally, closure is what happens when you think you understand something well enough, and don't think you need to understand it any better—so you stop trying. You close down.

Unfortunately, photographs are among the things we reach closure on the fastest of anything. We primates are visually-dominant in terms of the sense we favor, and these days we're utterly bombarded with images—on some television commercials (adverts, for your Brits), the bombardment can come at the rate of five per second. Advertising photographs, which are often designed to be slick but simplistic—the better to be immediately appealing—are designed to be "gotten" quickly and easily. And of course many images don't deserve extended attention. All of this conspires to encourage our habits of early, often instant, closure. Like it or not, we can hardly help approaching pictures that way: scanning, appraising, closing down, moving on. We spend all day dismissing things.

Here's how I reverse that. When you get a monograph (a book primarily of plates—i.e., of pictures) that you want to "read"—that you really want to digest—first, page through it as you normally might. On that run-through, note where the bits to read are located. Then read whatever those things are—the essay, a preface, an afterward, whatever.

Then wait.

Wait a few hours until that evening, or wait a day or two. Set aside some time. Make sure you're feeling relaxed, rested, and that you're in a comfortable chair, in a place with decent lighting. Try to see that you won't be disturbed. Put music on if you want to, or not if you don't. And get an egg timer.


Right, an egg timer. Something that counts off three minutes. (Preferably one that doesn't make any distracting noise, although a low reminder at the end of the three minutes might help.) Five minutes works too. What you do is to use the egg timer to help you spend time looking at each picture (or "spread" of two pages). During that time, let your eyes stay on the picture. Your mind can wander if you want, but keep looking at the picture. After the time is up, turn the page.

Keep at this just as you'd read a novel—for as long as you want to, or until you get tired of it. If you haven't "finished" the book, mark your place and come back to it later, and resume where you left off. After you've "read" a book like this, try coming back to it later, after a few days or a week or two, and either page through it again slowly or "read" it again.

While you're "reading" the book, don't think you need to be formulating language about it, or thinking large, "front-brain" thoughts. The eye and the brain are constantly working together to dismiss images—glancing, gathering in the gist, registering the information, appraising, moving on. Just keep your eyes on the pictures. Let your mind go wherever it wants to. Looking is enough.

And look at all the pictures. Don't be judgmental. Part of what the exercise does is to relieve you of your appraising, judgmental mode of approach—gets you over the idea of "I like this one, I'll linger here—nope, don't care for this, move on, move on!" If the photographer liked the picture well enough to put it in her book, maybe you should just take it in like all the rest of them.

If you'll just try this with one or two books, I think you'll be surprised how well it works. All it does it to enforce a different "pace" with images than the one you're used to all day every day. It just slows you down and lets you notice more. I find it helps me to "get" what photographers are up to in their work.

I'll bet it can open your eyes, too.


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