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The Photographer's Mind: Creative Thinking for Better Digital Photos By Michael Freeman

adamkoplan | Book Reviews | Published Nov 21, 2011

By Michael Freeman
Focal Press, $29.95 (192p)
ISBN-10: 0240815173 / ISBN-13: 978-0240815176

In a follow-up to his well-regarded book, The Photographer's Eye, Michael Freeman has written another fascinating, if sometimes diffuse, text that aims to help photographers to be more thoughtful in their picture-making.

Of the various popular authors in the photo-technique category, Freeman occupies an unusual niche - he is among the more scholarly. What other best-seller in the industry freely quotes from Immanuel Kant and Ernst Gombrich? His work is tonally more like a readable textbook in an undergraduate photography course than a tip-oriented handbook. He peppers his writing with references to art history, philosophy, and even musical theory in order to address the fundamental issues in photography.

The scope of this book for example, aims to answer the elusive question of 'What makes a good photograph?' and further addresses how we humans 'see'. He asserts that though understanding the underlying principles that make an image compelling to look at, photographers will make more intentional photos that are of more consistent quality.  

To organize this grand and ambitious topic, he divides his subject into three broad categories - intent, style, and process - and then further breaks these areas down into smaller component parts. His chapters, dense with illustrations, photographs, and sidebars, contain a wealth of information and theories around how people determine when something is visually gripping. For example, he has a section on 'balance’ and with multiple photographs, graphic representations, and even a Van Gogh painting, he describes how effective use of contrast, color, shape, spatial arrangement, and relative sharpness can create a sense of balance within a frame. On any given page, Freeman manages to make potentially theoretical and dry information digestible and thereby provides information, analysis, and even inspiration. 

His approach worked somewhat better in The Photographers Eye when his subject was centered principally on composition and design. In that prior work, he could provide analysis and guiding principles to a much more discrete area of inquiry. By going to such a large topic in this book, he attempts to juggle theoretical questions (what informs people’s aesthetic judgment?) with the practical (how can we make captivating pictures?) with the art-historical (how has taste in photographic composition evolved over the last several decades?) The effect is often revelatory, but sometimes scattershot. The book is better absorbed in segments rather than as a whole.

If the reader is comfortable skipping about within the text as well as synthesizing disparate bits of wisdom, the wealth of valuable and well-illustrated information makes this a very worthwhile read. The Photographer's Mind may lack a completely cohesive unity of purpose, but at a page-by-page level, the insightful content holds interest. Freeman's latest offering reaffirms his place as a skilled photographer and deep thinker with much to impart about the variety of mental processes at play when viewing an image.

The Photographer's Mind is available on Amazon.com as a paperback and kindle e-book version.


Adam Koplan is head of the Performance Department at the Dreamyard Project which brings arts programs to NYC schools. He is also Artistic Director of The Flying Carpet Theatre Co.
Follow him on Twitter @FlyingCarpetNYC