Wednesday, December 10, 2008

In Time, All is Revealed

The Life of a Photograph by Sam Abell

National Geographic Focal Point (October 21, 2008)
208 pages/hardcover/200 photographs/$40.00

Reviewed by Jain Lemos

Sam Abell’s purpose permeates all the way through the weighty pages of his latest book, The Life of a Photograph. Abell provides an important insight to his success: He instinctively and deliberately makes photographs, he does not take them. Abell’s definition of the life of a photograph is all about the progression of a scene. He has trained himself so deeply in this practice that at the end of the day, individual images matter less than staying true to his formula for making them.

The Life of a Photograph is a career technique book. The theme is to continually illustrate Abell’s stance that once he finds the setting of his desire, the picture will come. The book does not follow a structured outline in terms of place, storyline or chronology; instead, there are many parings made at the same setting. This device contributes to the sensation of actually being Abell as he waits. Sometimes the waiting feels anxious and other times, divine. Abell explains his modus operandi with observant, and sometimes modest, words. Strapped to find inspiration in the Amazon, he decides to approach the area as a garden leading to stirring results. He writes the shots were, “done with an appreciation of how, one day, they might be seen.”

There are terrific comparison exercises presented in The Life of a Photograph. For example, when faced with two views of a cab in a Santorni street scene, do you choose the image on the left that includes a towering bust of a historical figure or the frame on the right where the roof of the taxi appears like a fresh sheet of ice? Out of four shots taken from a Japanese bullet train window, are the photographs where Mt. Fuji is captured intact superior to one with the mountain obscured by a steel structure? The book provides a semester of such discussions.

Not all of the images in The Life of a Photograph are remarkable. Many are knock-your-socks-off shots of a lifetime. With this assemblage, Abell reveals his signature approach to photography where the photographer is eventually discerned and connected to every image forever. Abell admits this is not easy, even after forty years in the field. In all, the book is a testament to the fact that photography is extremely hard work. The Life of a Photograph is a treasure map that Abell graciously hands over to those ready for the hunt.