In recent months I have purchased three new photography books:

My small office and the hallway just outside are crammed full of photography books and I used to buy them on a regular basis. However, I came to realise that I revisited the same books time and again: Rene Burri, Sergio Larrain, Cartier-Bresson, Don McCullin and a few others, which has meant that I am now more considered in my choices.

I have long been a fan of Matt Black and high recommend his Magnum Course for anyone who is interested in documentary photography or simply embarking on a documentary project.

Roger Deakins is best known as a cinematographer but has also been hosting a podcast for several years, where he interviews people from the world of cinema but has also had Harry Gruyaert and Alex Webb as guests.

Letizia Battaglia was the focus of a documentary a few years ago called ‘Shooting the Mafia’. She was a journalist (latterly a politician) in Sicily, who witnessed and probably helped to influence, the growing public resentment against the Mafia in the 1990s, leading to a collapse in its hold over the island.

Letitiza Battaglia
Letizia Battaglia

“A photographer has to have a thought behind her; there’s always an emotional relationship with the reality you observe, often I botch the exposure, the frame. I keep going until I get the right image, the one that’s right for me.” LB

The book follows a narrative. It starts with the innocence and carefree nature of children and animals, it evolves into the hope and joy of relationships, juxtaposed by the realities of life for young women in a male dominated environment. We then see the grief caused by violence, the children’s innocence now lost to the vision of blood stained roads and police cordons.

Copyright Letizia Battaglia
Copyright Letizia Battaglia

But still these darker images of bodies and bloodbaths are punctuated by Battaglia’s hope for a better future in the hands of today’s children who she clearly hopes will retain their youthful optimism. The story ends with the person who became the symbol of hope for Sicily, Judge Giovanni Falcone. It was his murder that so outraged the people of Sicily that the authorities realised they had to act against organised crime and swiftly acted. Battaglia doesn’t show us Falcone’s funeral but instead celebrates his dignity as an official going about his business for the benefit of the island that she says she adores.

Matt Black is probably my favourite photographer. I find his images so simple and beautiful, yet complex and intriguing. His photographs draw you in.

“I’m a photographer who is motivated by questions.” Says Matt Black, which resonates with me. My career has been working with corporates to use imagery and words to answer questions whereas Matt Black uses imagery to ask the questions. Why do people have to live like this? Why are these people suffering? What are the consequences of a particular situation?

American Geography

His book, American Geography, portrays an America that you don’t see in Hollywood films. Black’s America introduces us to towns and communities struggling to survive, usually because of circumstances beyond their control. Lack of water, job opportunities, crop failures, people failed by or fallen through the system. The images are undoubtedly America but the content is third-world poverty that the likes of Times magazine would run as an international tragedy.

American Geography – Pleasant Point, Maine. 2019.

Roger Deakins’ book Byways is very different. The first half of the book is his early photography from the 1970s a time when he lived in the west of England. There is a documentary feel to these images that capture a way of life that has changed or passed. Then there are a series of images that he has taken on his travels as a film maker. These are often shapes, silhouettes, occasionally people but far less engaging than the earlier work.

1970s North Devon

In the introduction Deakins asks “Without a detailed explanation of hoe and why a picture came about, can it mean the same to the viewer as is does to the photographer.” To my mind that is the difference between Deakins’ work and that of Battaglia and Black. The latter two ask questions with their photographs and present those questions within a frame. Deakins’ work captures moments that are aesthetically pleasing to him in the moment but are less engaging for me.

Roger Deakins – Byways

What have I learned?

Over the few months that I’ve had these books I have learned three things about myself as a photographer:

  • I am drawn to black and white images more than colour, which makes me question why I do so much in colour and not black and white
  • That photography should ask questions
  • If you don’t feel it, don’t click the shutter