Review - Why Photographs Work by George Barr by Todd Henson

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Cover of Why Photographs Work by George Barr

Cover of Why Photographs Work by George Barr

What makes a photograph work? How do we know if a photograph is good? What are the qualities that define a good photograph?

These are difficult questions to answer, and to some extent they will differ from person to person. Sometimes we see a photograph and are immediately drawn to it. There is something about it that draws us in, captures our attention or evokes an emotion. Other times we see a photo and move on, only later to realize we keep going back to this photo over and over again. It didn’t immediately catch our attention but still somehow managed to hook us.

Why Photographs Work: Photograph 12: Moore Hall Interior #1 by Sandra C. Davis

Why Photographs Work: Photograph 12: Moore Hall Interior #1 by Sandra C. Davis

Why Photographs Work: Photograph 22: Huangshan Mountains, Study #19 by Michael Kenna

Why Photographs Work: Photograph 22: Huangshan Mountains, Study #19 by Michael Kenna

But why do these things happen? How can you identify the photos that will do these things? There’s not an easy answer. Perhaps that’s why George Barr chooses not to specifically define it in words but instead created an entire book full of examples, full of photographs he feels work. Why Photographs Work is that book. The subtitle is 52 Great Images: Who Make Them, What Makes Them Special and Why.

This book is for any photographer who wants to make beautiful photographs. And it is for anyone — photographer or viewer — who wants to understand why some photographs stand out from all the others.
— George Barr
Why Photographs Work: Photograph 32: Two People / Two Doors - Carlow, Ireland by Harald Mante

Why Photographs Work: Photograph 32: Two People / Two Doors - Carlow, Ireland by Harald Mante

Why Photographs Work: Photograph 39: Melange Un by Freeman Patterson

Why Photographs Work: Photograph 39: Melange Un by Freeman Patterson

Why Photographs Work, by George Barr, is a collection of 52 photographs by 52 different photographers. The photographs cover a huge range of subject matter, some vastly different from others, but all representative of photography as art. It’s such a range of photography there’s very likely to be something that catches your eye. In this post I’ve attempted to include an example of the range of photographs in the book.

Why Photographs Work: Photograph 43: Black Oaks, Morning Mist, Yosemite Valley, California by John Sexton

Why Photographs Work: Photograph 43: Black Oaks, Morning Mist, Yosemite Valley, California by John Sexton

Why Photographs Work: Photograph 49: Birch and Window, Colmar, France by Charlie Waite

Why Photographs Work: Photograph 49: Birch and Window, Colmar, France by Charlie Waite

Each photograph is accompanied by four sections of text:

  • George’s Analysis: Here he analyses the photograph, describing what it is that drew him to the photograph and why he thinks the photograph works. I agree with him on most of the photographs, but there are some that don’t appeal to me as much, likely just a result of personal preferences. I can, however, see where he is coming from when he speaks of the qualities of the photos. This section is worth going back to, rereading from time to time.
  • The Photographer’s Perspective:  In this section we hear from the photographer. What caused them to create this photograph? What does it mean to them? How do they approach photography?
  • Biography: This section provides a biography of the photographer, listing where they’ve been published, how they make their living, who their influences are, and where you can view more of their work.
  • Technical: This is typically the shortest section. It provides technical details about the photograph, such as what camera or lens were used, what film or whether it was digital, and what techniques the photographer used both in camera and in post-processing or printing.
Why Photographs Work: Photograph 51: Descending Angel by John Wimberley

Why Photographs Work: Photograph 51: Descending Angel by John Wimberley

Why Photographs Work: Photograph 52: Tulips #55 by Huntington Witherill

Why Photographs Work: Photograph 52: Tulips #55 by Huntington Witherill

The lessons in this book are not explicitly taught. The lessons are more subtle. It will take time to absorb them. Study the photographs first, see if they appeal to you. If so, why? See if you can express what you see as their strengths. Then read George’s analysis, see what he felt made the photograph work, what drew him to it. Then read what the photographer has to say. I found myself flipping back an forth between the text and the photograph as George or the photographer mentioned some aspect of it I’d not noticed.

$26.54

Why Photographs Work can also be used as a list of photographers to learn more about, whose work is worth seeking out and studying. First off there are the 52 photographers whose work is included in the book. Many of the photographers also recommended other photographers, and George Barr has compiled a list of these at the end of the book. I plan to spend some time looking for works by these photographers.

He says in his intro he wrote this book for himself. That this was the sort of book he wished were available when he was learning photography. It’s a book I’m glad is available as I learn photography. I strongly suspect I will return to this book often, as I do with so many of my favorite photography books. Highly recommended!


Purple Tropical Water Lily by Todd Henson

Purple tropical water lily at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens.

Water lilies can be such beautiful photographic subjects. But often they grow in crowded, busy, sometimes dirty ponds that create a compositional challenge. And they are often growing far enough into the pond you can’t quite get close enough to fill the frame or position them against a decent background.

But if you keep looking you can sometimes find a great subject against a pleasing background. I was fortunate to find such a situation at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in Washington, D.C.

I was there for the lotus flowers, but the park also hosts water lily ponds, and I love trying to photograph water lilies. So this trip I actually went to the water lily ponds before looking at the lotus ponds.

I’m glad I did. It was still early and the sun wasn’t yet fully out over the ponds. This created a nice, soft light to show off the flowers without any harsh shadows.

Now to find a subject. I was very fortunate to find a lone water lily growing well above the water. And positioned just behind the water lily was a good sized lily pad.

Often the lily pads are damaged or dirty. But this lily pad was fairly intact and not too discolored. There were some off color patches, but by using a telephoto lens and a large aperture, which created a shallow depth of field, I was able to blur the lily pad enough that any rough patches mostly disappeared into the background.

I did the best I could to stand tall enough to look into the flower as much as possible. I wanted to see all that beautiful detail and color, the purples and the fiery oranges.

I also tried to line up the stem of the flower with the notch in the bottom of the lily pad, and place the flower so it was surrounded by out of focus green from the lily pad in the water behind it.

In the end this is my favorite photograph from the trip.


Finding Blue in a Field of Sunflowers by Todd Henson

A bee on a young sunflower against a cloudless blue sky.

One morning my brother and I found ourselves driving to McKee-Beshers Wildlife Management Area in Poolesville, Maryland. We were hoping to photograph the fields of sunflowers that are planted there each year to feed the wildlife.

A young green sunflower bud.

But when we arrived we found the first field had yet to bloom. It was a field full of green sunflowers. A kind individual walking the field told us there was only one field even partly in bloom, and he showed us where this field was on the map. We, along with another group of photographers, got back in our cars and drove towards this field.

Facing the field of sunflowers, partly in bloom.

The morning was hot and extra humid. Just walking from the car to the field we were already soaked in sweat. Some of the sunflowers in the field has begun to bloom, but it was still mostly full of unopened green buds.

Side view of the partly blooming sunflower field.

So what do you do when you find your main subject is not how you had planned? You adjust your plans!

We hiked around the field looking for anything that caught our eyes. We did photograph a sunflower here and there, but what ended up catching our interest were other flowers growing amongst the sunflowers.

A beautiful blue morning glory flower against a green background, found in a field of sunflowers.

Along one side of the field we found morning glory vines with soft blue flowers. I tried using a very shallow depth of field to create a soft focus image, more about the green and blue colors than any detail in the flower.

Dew covered flower and bud at the back of the sunflower field.

At the back of the field we spent time photographing another flowering vine, possibly also a morning glory. I loved how dew had collected on the flower as it was still in shade; the sun had yet to rise high enough over the edge of the trees to reach this part of the field.

Green bee on a blue chicory flower with a green background.

And on the way back to the car we found a small patch of light blue chicory flowers attracting bees and other insects. Thankfully these were in shade which created a beautiful soft light just perfect for detail shots of the flowers and insects.

So if you ever head out for a shoot and don’t find exactly what you’re looking for, remember to stay flexible and keep your eyes open. There will usually be something else nearby worthy of your attention.