The Photo Books That Made Me Love Photography
I’d applied to art school on a whim, but these books gave me a reason to be there
Earlier this week, I wrote a love letter to photography, and it got me thinking about what inspired me to set forth on the path I am on as a photographer. I was in my early twenties, lost and looking for something, living in my hometown. I had the idea to become a photographer because I had met a photographer, and it seemed like the best idea I could latch onto at the time. So I set off to Brisbane to study photography at the Queensland College of Art on a total whim.
I landed in Brisbane with my mother’s Pentax K1000, naive and clueless. I had got into the college with a portfolio I’d assembled in two days, and I learned later that the college accepted everyone who had applied. During one of those early days, I saw a student take the 50mm lens of my camera; it was the first time I saw it removed. I didn’t know I could take it off or even what the focal lengths of lenses were. I also didn’t realize that film came in different speeds; I thought the 400 ISO on the box of film I bought was part of the branding. I felt foolish. All the other students had some form of prerequisite knowledge of the subject.
For one of my first units, I was lucky enough to land in class with a lecturer who was an avid and passionate documentarian. It felt like he spoke in another language to me, but he was one of those rare teachers who radiated conviction for what he was teaching. David Lloyd became my first and long-lasting mentor. David sent me to the library after class one day and told me to borrow some photo books, and that day my life changed. I drove them home to my rented Queenslander, where I lived with a girlfriend on a busy arterial road, sat on the couch, and flipped.
I had An Uncertain Grace by Sebastio Selgado, Dream/Life by Trent Parke, a retrospective of Don McCullin’s work, a couple of World Press Photo yearbooks (no idea which years), and a monograph of Henri Cartier-Bresson. In the span of a few hours, my world changed.
It was the first time I had looked at collections of photographs by single photographers and recognized a distinctive voice and world view. Parke took the streets of Sydney and narrated his experiential poem with them. Selgado made photographs that gave an allegorical beauty to what could have otherwise been ‘news events.’ As I looked at McMullin’s work, I didn’t understand why but I knew I wanted to go to war.
I poured through these books into the dead of night, and when I woke the next morning, I knew what I was doing with my life. There was no question, nothing else that felt as important. I didn’t yet know how I would do it, but I looked at my camera with a new respect and started to take it everywhere with me.
My interaction with photography has changed over the years, and many other books have influenced my life and work, but I will always pay homage to these few.
What are some photo books that influenced you to take up photography?
Thanks Adam. These books may have been your early readings, but your curiosity saw this expand quickly developing into a library that, I suspect, underpins your emergence as a very significant and reflective practitioner today (you bet I'm proud). In the contemporary world of photographic practice, each book alone could be seen as problematic. But placed within a rich canon developed across time, these books form a foundation to (and history of) an incredibly powerful (storytelling) discipline.
Great selections. Salgado's 'Workers' changed me forever, as did 'Five Decades' from Arnold Newman (highly recommend!).