The Art and Essence of Photography: A Review of Bruce Barnbaum's Books

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  • Author Michael Elliott
  • Published August 30, 2023
  • Word count 1,842

Bruce Barnbaum is a celebrated fine art photographer and educator who has been producing stunning images for over four decades. He is known for his mastery of monochrome photography, as well as his inventive use of colour and digital techniques. In this blog post, I will explore his profile, his work, and his books. He is also the author of several books on photography, including the classic "The Art of Photography: An Approach to Personal Expression" and its sequel "The Essence of Photography: Seeing and Creativity" which have had great personal impact. In this review, I will examine the main themes and ideas of these two books, compare them with other similar works, and suggest some additional readings that may complement them.

Profile of Bruce Barnbaum

Barnbaum was born in Chicago in 1943 and grew up in Los Angeles. He studied mathematics at UCLA, where he obtained his Bachelor's and Master's degrees. He worked as a maths instructor and researcher for several years, before pursuing photography as a full-time career in the 1970s. He developed his own style of photography, which combines artistic vision, technical skill, and environmental awareness. He has travelled extensively to capture the beauty and diversity of nature, as well as the impact of human civilisation on the landscape.

Barnbaum's photographs have been exhibited and collected worldwide, and he is represented by several galleries in the USA and Europe. Some of his most famous works include his abstracts, his monochrome landscapes, his slit canyons, and his geometrics. He uses a variety of formats, from 35mm to 8x10 inch, and prints his images on silver gelatin paper or archival inkjet paper. He is also proficient in digital manipulation, creating images that transcend the boundaries of reality.

Barnbaum is also a prolific author and teacher of photography. He has written six books on photography, including The Art of Photography, which has sold over 100,000 copies in English and six other languages. The book is widely regarded as one of the best guides to photographic expression and technique. He has also published Visual Symphony, Tone Poems - Book I & Book II, The Essence of Photography, and Plateau Light. His books are richly illustrated with his own photographs, as well as examples from other photographers.

Barnbaum has been teaching photography workshops for over 30 years, both in the USA and abroad. He founded the Owens Valley Photography Workshops in 1979, which ran until 1990 and attracted students from all over the world. He currently offers workshops in Utah, Washington, California, Italy, France, Spain, and Scotland. His workshops are designed to help students develop their own vision and style, while exploring stunning locations and learning new techniques.

Barnbaum is not only a photographer, but also an activist for environmental and social causes. He has been involved in several campaigns to protect wilderness areas from development and pollution. He has also donated his photographs to support various organisations, such as the Sierra Club, the Nature Conservancy, the Wilderness Society, and Amnesty International.

The Art of Photography: An Approach to Personal Expression

When I walk the reader through my definition of "good composition" and the elements of composition in The Art of Photography, I do not discuss any rules for good composition. I avoid them because there are none. Every composition is unique, and following some concocted formula will not guarantee a good photograph. There are no formulas; there are no rules of composition. I strongly urge all photographers, beginner or experienced, to avoid any instruction or instructor that claims there are - it's bogus.

First published in 1994, "The Art of Photography" is a comprehensive textbook on photography that covers both the technical and the creative aspects of the medium. Barnbaum presents how-to techniques for both traditional and digital approaches, but he goes well beyond the technical as he delves deeply into the philosophical, expressive, and artistic aspects of photography. He argues that photography is not a mere recording of reality, but a personal interpretation and expression of it. He encourages photographers to develop their own vision and style, to experiment with different methods and materials, and to communicate effectively through their chosen medium.

The book is divided into four parts: Part I deals with the basics of photography, such as exposure, film, filters, lenses, cameras, digital imaging, etc. Part II explores the elements of visual design, such as light, tone, colour, contrast, composition, etc. Part III discusses the various genres and subjects of photography, such as landscape, architecture, abstract, documentary, etc. Part IV addresses the issues of presentation and criticism, such as printing, mounting, exhibiting, judging, etc.

Throughout the book, Barnbaum illustrates his points with over 100 beautiful photographs that showcase his mastery of both black-and-white and colour photography. He also provides numerous charts, graphs, tables, and diagrams that explain the technical concepts in a clear and concise manner. He writes in an accessible and engaging style that reflects his passion and enthusiasm for photography. He also shares his personal experiences and insights that reveal his philosophy and approach to photography.

Photography is not a sport. It has no rules. Everything must be dared and tried!

Barnbaum's attitude towards photography as an art form is encapsulated in those 15 words. It requires experimentation, risk-taking, and personal expression. He challenges photographers to break free from the conventions and rules that limit their creativity and to explore their own potential and possibilities.

The Essence of Photography: Seeing and Creativity

Published in 2015 as a revised and expanded second edition of the original 2014 book, "The Essence of Photography" is a sequel to "The Art of Photography" that focuses more on the creative and expressive aspects of photography. Barnbaum draws upon his 50 years of experience and observation to teach the art of photographic seeing and creativity. He argues that there is more to photography than simply picking up a camera, pointing it at something, and tripping the shutter. He claims that achieving a great photograph requires thought and preparation, an understanding of the photographic process, and a firm grasp of how light and composition affect a photo. He also stresses that there must be personal involvement and personal expression in photography.

Just as people talk about things of no real interest to them, they also take pictures of things that have no real interest to them, and the results are uniformly boring.

The book is divided into three parts: Part I deals with the rhythm and approach of photography, such as defining one's own style, translating the scene into the final photograph, comparing amateur and professional approaches, etc. Part II explores the realism and abstraction in photography, such as understanding the differences and similarities between them, learning to expand one's seeing and creativity through classes, workshops, etc. Part III discusses the passion and criticism in photography, such as following one's passion, ignoring or listening to critics, etc.

Throughout the book, Barnbaum uses not only photographs, but also painting, music, writing, and other arts to provide examples of creative thinking. He also uses science and business to illustrate some of his points. He writes in a conversational and humorous style that reflects his personality and wit. He also shares his personal stories and anecdotes that reveal his challenges and achievements in photography.

Creativity is not something you are born with or without; it is something you can learn.

Barnbaum believes truly that photographic seeing and creativity can be taught, learned, and improved. He provides practical advice and exercises to help photographers develop their skills and abilities.

Comparison with Other Works

Barnbaum's books are not the only ones that deal with the art and essence of photography. There are many other books that cover similar topics and offer different perspectives and approaches. Some of the most notable ones are:

-- "On Photography" by Susan Sontag: A collection of essays that examine the cultural, social, and political implications of photography. Sontag critiques the role of photography in modern society and questions its claims to truth, objectivity, and reality. She also explores the aesthetic, ethical, and moral issues of photography.

-- "Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography" by Roland Barthes: A personal and philosophical meditation on photography. Barthes analyses the nature and meaning of photography through his own experiences and memories. He distinguishes between the studium and the punctum of a photograph, the former being the general interest or cultural context, and the latter being the personal or emotional impact.

-- "The Photographer's Eye: Composition and Design for Better Digital Photos" by Michael Freeman: A practical guide to visual design and composition in photography. Freeman explains the principles and techniques of graphic design, such as shape, line, colour, contrast, balance, etc., and how they can be applied to photography. He also provides examples and exercises to help photographers improve their visual literacy and creativity.

Additional Reading

Barnbaum's books are excellent resources for photographers who want to learn more about the art and essence of photography. However, they are not the only ones that can provide valuable information and inspiration. Here are some additional readings that may complement Barnbaum's books:

-- "The Photographer's Mind: Creative Thinking for Better Digital Photos" by Michael Freeman: A sequel to "The Photographer's Eye" that focuses more on the creative and cognitive aspects of photography. Freeman explores the psychology and neuroscience of vision and perception, and how they affect photographic decision-making. He also discusses the concepts of intention, style, narrative, etc., and how they can enhance photographic expression.

-- "The Nature of Photographs: A Primer" by Stephen Shore: A concise and elegant introduction to the visual language of photography. Shore explains the physical, depictive, mental, and abstract levels of a photograph, and how they interact to create meaning and emotion. He also provides examples from various photographers to illustrate his points.

-- "Why Photographs Work: 52 Great Images Who Made Them, What Makes Them Special and Why" by George Barr: A collection of 52 photographs by different photographers that are analysed and discussed by the author and the photographers themselves. Barr examines the technical, aesthetic, and emotional aspects of each photograph, and reveals what makes them work. He also provides insights into the photographers' motivations, intentions, and processes.


Bruce Barnbaum's books are among the best books on photography that I have ever read. They are not only informative and comprehensive, but also inspiring and enlightening. They teach me not only how to take better photographs, but also how to see better and think better as a photographer. They challenge me to experiment with different methods and materials, to express my personal vision and style, and to communicate effectively through my chosen medium. They also enrich my appreciation and understanding of photography as an art form that has infinite potential and possibilities.

Barnbaum is a living legend in the field of photography, who continues to inspire and educate others with his work. He is a true artist who combines passion, creativity, and craftsmanship in his images. If you are interested in learning more about the art and essence of photography, I highly recommend you to read Barnbaum's books. They will not disappoint you. They will make you a better photographer.

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