Book reviews


Deborah Copaken Kogan

Random House, ISBN: 0375758682  PublisherBuy online

coverI picked up the hardcover edition of this book from the sale bin at Stacey’s Booksellers, as the Leica on the cover just beckoned to me.

This is an autobiography by an American woman, almost a girl, who moved to Paris, fresh out of college, to break into the tightly-knit (and not a little macho) community of photojournalists. Who knows, I might even have crossed paths with her when I studied in Paris. She was certainly not the first female war correspondent, Margaret Bourke-White springs to mind (even though she is not referred to anywhere in the book), but women were still a rarity, specially one as young and inexperienced. She started as a freelancer and eventually ended up working for the Gamma agency, one of the few independent photo agencies left.

For some unknown reason, many of the prestigious photo press agencies are based in Paris, starting with Magnum, founded simultaneously in Paris and New York by Robert Capa (the man who took the only photographs of D-Day), Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger and Chim Seymour. Others like Gamma, Sygma and Sipa followed, but most have been acquired since by large media conglomerates like Bill Gates’ Corbis. The move to digital, with the corresponding explosion in equipment costs is one reason – the independent agencies simply couldn’t compete with wire services like Reuters or Agence France Presse (AFP), the latter being government-subsidized. Saturation is probably another, and press photographers struggle to make a living in a world with no shortage of wannabes. Just read the Digital Journalist if you are not convinced.

Shutterbabe is not a mere feminist screed, however. Engagingly written, with very candid (sometimes too candid) descriptions of the sexual hijinks and penurious squalor behind her trade, this book is a pleasurable read and features a varied rogues’ gallery ranging from the cad (her first partner) to the tragically earnest (her classmate who is executed by Iraqi soldiers while covering Kurdish refugees). It only touches in passing on photographic technique, as the general public was clearly the intended audience, but more surprisingly, does not include that many of her photos either. The main thread reads like a coming of age story, with the young (25 year old at the time) woman moving on from her thrill-seeking ways and discovering true love and marriage in a life marked by death: deaths of friends and colleagues, victims of strife and war in Afghanistan or Russia, but also orphans dying of neglect in Romania.

A photojournalist is always in a rush to get to the next assignments, and she recognizes her involvement with her subjects’ culture as superficial, unlike that of her locally based correspondent colleagues or those who would nowadays be called photoethnographers. There is more humanity in a single frame by Karen Nakamura or Dorothea Lange than in all of Deborah Copaken’s work. Much like her idol Cartier-Bresson’s work, there is a certain glib coldness, perhaps even callousness to her attitude. On her first war coverage, an Afghan who is escorting her (so she can make her ablutions in privacy) has his leg blown off by a landmine, and she hardly elicits any concern for the poor soul. Granted, this is the “Shutterbabe”, not the reborn Mom. but it is hard to imagine one’s fundamental personality changing that much.

The author is not uncontroversial. She featured in a nasty spat with Jim Nachtwey, one of the most famous photographers alive, and who is obliquely referred to in Shutterbabe‘s Romanian chapter (where she implies she found out first about the terrible situation in the orphanages, and nobly tipped him so the story could come out). The follow-ups are here and here.

Her observations of the one culture she is immersed in, the French one, seldom go beyond the realm of cliché. Glamorous but feckless and chauvinistic Frenchmen! Sexpot Frenchwomen! Narcissistic French intellectuals!

In the end, she returns to the United States with her husband, and moves into an equally short-lived career in TV production to support her family. A happy ending? One hopes. I for one am curious about how her children will react to the book when they are old enough to read it.

Archival photography

Henry Wilhelm is a well-known authority on preserving photographs. He pretty much wrote the book on the subject, and it is now downloadable for free in PDF format from his website.

In a nutshell:

  • No widespread color process is really archival, unlike black & white
  • Fuji good, Kodak bad

Wilhelm has contributed greatly to making photographs last by raising the public’s awareness of conservation issues, at a time when manufacturers like Kodak were engaging in deliberately deceptive marketing implying that color prints would “last forever”, when they knew the prints would not exceed 10 to 15 years (Fuji has put far more effort in making their materials last).

That said, his simulated aging testing methodology has been criticized as too optimistic, and in one embarrassing instance, Epson Stylus Photo 2000 inkjet photo papers he highly rated for their durability turned out to be very short-lived because they were very sensitive to very common ozone pollution. For an alternative, more conservative, take on inkjet print longevity, Stephen Livick’s website offers a valuable counterpoint.

My take on the subject: I almost exclusively use black & white film because it has a distinct character and is archival without special equipment or active attention. Color film relies on dyes (that fade over time) rather than silver, and fades quickly or suffers from weird color shifts even when kept in the dark. The exception is Kodachrome, which keeps a very long time in the dark despite being also dye-based, but Kodak is not enthusiastic in supporting it and its future availability is uncertain. Given that, it makes more sense to use digital, which has more than caught up in quality, and at least has the potential for lasting images if managed properly (a big if: imagine you were to disappear tomorrow, would your heirs know how to retrieve your digital photos from your computer?).

And of course, I boycott Kodak, a company ruled by bean-counting MBAs whose only concern seems to be how to cut corners in silver content at the expense of product quality, much like Detroit automakers behaved before American consumers wised up to the shoddy quality of their products. Then again, Kodak’s current management is stacked with former HP executives who are turning the company into a HP-wannabe, thus predictably accelerating its slide into irrelevance.

The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint

Edward Tufte

Graphics Press, ISBN: 0-9613921-5-0 Publisher

Edward Tufte is probably the single most influential authority on communicating complex information graphically. He pretty much wrote the book(s) on the subject in his classic series The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Envisioning Information and Visual Explanations.

In this short booklet (24 pages), he devastatingly takes to task the shoddy quality of Microsoft PowerPoint presentations, and makes the case this information poverty is intrinsic to the tool itself, due to its limitations such as low resolution (cannot use complex data), poor typography, strong bias towards hierarchical outlines and fluff over substance. In Tufte’s own words:

The PP slide format has probably the worst signal/noise ratio of any known method of communication on paper or computer screen.

This echoes one of the reasons why Sun Microsystems banned PowerPoint slides, their abysmal information per kilobyte ratio. More worryingly,

In day-to-day practice, PowerPoint templates may improve 10% or 20% of all presentations by organizing inept, extremely disorganized speakers at a cost of intellectual damage to 80%.

The booklet is short and sweet. Tufte’s wicked sense of humor comes out in comparisons to Stalinist propaganda or in a set of slides by Peter Norvig showing how PowerPoint could have denatured the Gettysburg Address.

In my experience, PowerPoint slides are mostly used to vehiculate marketing garbage presentations. As such, there isn’t much content to damage in the first place, and the act of showing a PowerPoint presentation is in itself an excellent cue to the audience that they can do their crossword puzzles, tick off their grocery lists on their Palm Pilots or whatever other discreet way is at hand to salvage otherwise completely wasted time.

Tufte’s suggestions for improving the quality of presentations (give high-content handouts, eschew PowerPoint for anything but projecting low-resolution images, and above all, do not read out slides) are mostly useful for scientific or engineering presentations, which is probably a tiny proportion of PowerPoint’s market.

Holy War

Karen Armstrong

Anchor Books (Random House), ISBN: 0385721404  PublisherBuy online

coverBritish theologian Karen Armstrong entered a convent at seventeen to become a Catholic nun. She defrocked in 1969 (this caused a great scandal among British Catholics, many have not forgiven her to this day). She has since become a student of the three great monotheistic religions, writing one bestseller on the subject, A History of God

In this book, she recounts the history of the Crusades and how it still shapes the modern-day Middle East. Interestingly, she tries to take a tripartite Christian/Jewish/Muslim view (more accurately, a quadripartite Catholic/Greek Orthodox/Jewish/Muslim view, but she herself writes about a “triple vision”). Most other accounts give short shrift to the Jewish point of view.

Even now, the subject is still fraught with passion and having an entirely unbiased view is difficult, but she does a good job of it in my opinion. Certainly, her assessment is quite critical of the Crusaders, but the only actors to which she is wholly sympathetic are the humanistic Byzantines, who were poorly repaid for their forbearance towards the Crusaders by the sack of Constantinople.

Her central thesis is that the Crusades were the crucible where the modern European identity was forged, and that unfortunately in the process it was alloyed with anti-semitism and a visceral hostility towards Islam. Her second thesis, somewhat less convincing, is that in the current Israeli-Arab conflict, both parties are consciously replaying the Crusades.

The convoluted politics of the Middle East, over seven millennia in the making, have a habit of tripping up overly simplistic analyses. The Lebanese master story-teller Amin Maalouf, in his excellent (but clearly not unbiased) The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, notes that shortly after the first crusade, an army of Christian and Muslim allies fought another such army in Syria.

The Crusades were clearly seen at first as a colonial or purely military venture by Arabs of all faiths, it is only later with the sultans Nasr-ud-din and Salah-ud-din (Saladin) that the war took on a religious significance. While Karen Armstrong does a good job of showing how the conflict progressively acquired the traits of a holy war, she is not as good at identifying the purely secular realpolitik that was pursued then as it is today.

All in all, for all its flaws, specially in the political analysis of the current situation, this is an excellent and thought-provoking book. Highly recommended.

Mountain Light

Galen Rowell

Sierra Club, ISBN: 0871563673 PublisherBuy online

coverGalen Rowell was a world-class mountaineer and photographer. He passed away with his wife in an airplane crash on August 11, 2002.

He was a master of color landscapes and had the knack of catching unique combinations of light in the memorable photos that can be seen in his Mountain Light Gallery. Interestingly, he eschewed the large format cameras used by Ansel Adams and used exclusively 35mm cameras from Nikon (thus thoroughly debunking the orthodoxy that 35mm cannot be used for serious landscape photography).

In this book, Rowell lays out his relation to mountains, his artistic vision and his photographic techniques, in an engaging and lively style alternating between theoretical text and more illustrative intermezzos with detailed descriptions of the story behind each image (reminiscent of Ansel Adams’ Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs. Like Ansel Adams, he was a member of the Sierra Club, but ecological preoccupations are woven subtly in the text. He shows a photo taken near a 4900 year old bristlecone pine that was felled by a botanist who couldn’t be troubled to special-order a core sampling borer from Switzerland.

The photos in the book are gorgeous, but this is no mere coffee-table book (it is too affordable to be one, for starters). All in all, I believe this book is a must-read for anyone interested in landscape photography, even if you are not into the strenuous physical style he favored.