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Documentary Photography Review | 20th August 2018

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BOOK REVIEW: The Photographer’s Story – Michael Freeman


Documentary photography requires skill beyond the technical and creative mastery of camera and lens. To document and to photograph requires a skillset that reaches past the mere assembly of a random collection of images on a common theme. In this regard, the strapline “Art of Visual Narrative” is a more appropriate description of the subject matter lying within the covers of Freeman’s book than the title itself. Freeman has published an impressive 50 books on photography and so should know a thing or two about putting words to images that offers fresh perspective on the art of documentary photography.

The Photographer’s Story starts out by recounting the history of the photo essay whose origins are tightly intertwined with the birth of Life magazine in the 1940s. His analysis of W. Eugene Smith’s “Country Doctor” offers a detailed insight into the construction and layout of a quintessential photo story that has stood the test of time. Structure and layout is memorably encapsulated by a 3+1 formula of opener, body and closer plus climax (key shot). Freeman devotes a great deal of time to the so-called “double-page spread” and so talk about layout and design may not be so practical if you don’t intend to submit your work for publication in print. Nevertheless many of the same principles can be applied to the online presentation of a photo essay, particularly if not in slideshow format. Rhythm and pacing are two such principles that are easily overlooked but which Freeman argues strongly (and successfully) for throughout the book.

Some may lament that the examples used in Freeman’s book are drawn almost exclusively from his own archive of photo stories. If it was another photographer, then this could indeed be restrictive and a legitimate cause for concern, but the breadth of Freeman’s work is so extensive that he easily succeeds with this approach in my opinion. Stories such as the Tea Horse Road and the Salt Story are beautifully illustrated and lift the lid on ancient traditions that may not exist for much longer in today’s progress-obsessed China. After all, is it not more useful to offer original insight on the reasons for presenting your own work rather than an analysis of why you think someone else has taken a particular approach? Notwithstanding the fact that Freeman has not always had control over the presentation of his own photo stories due to editorial pressures.

Perhaps the weakest section of the book lies within Part II, specifically the section on “Kinds of Story” which becomes a slightly tedious exercise in rhyming off the different genres of photo essay. Freeman also repeats himself at other points throughout the book but this actually serves to emphasize key principles rather than act as unnecessary page-filler. As the reader turns page after page, it becomes apparent that to be a successful documentary photographer in today’s world demands that you adopt a multimedia approach to enhance the story-telling power of the still image. Slideshow photo essays (of the online sort) are a relatively new invention and will doubtlessly undergo further development. Of particular interest to me at least, is the crossover between a sequence of still images and a movie clip. Expect to see a gradual blurring of boundaries on what is defined as a moving image in a similar manner to the development of stop-motion animation by Hollywood. 

If you’re unsure about splashing out on the book but want a taster, then visit The Slideshows and Photo Essays (Part 1 and 2) article in the Techniques section of his website offers advice on creative planning and technical details. How many of us, for example, have considered the relative merits of click-through versus auto-play? Cross-fades, swipes, pan and zoom are all discussed and the photo story on Secret Angkor effectively translates his guidance into practice. The obvious challenges of using a printed format to illustrate the complexities of designing an online slideshow are laid all too bare in Freeman’s book, which furthers the case for this online resource.

So what could be improved? Although the book concludes with an online section that analyses what makes a good slideshow, it misses the opportunity of describing what makes a good layout on a web page. After all, can one not order a collection of images addressing a specific theme on a screen similarly to a printed page (albeit not a double-page spread)? Perhaps this is material for another book but it at least deserves acknowledgement and a reference to another more suitable source of advice. Another useful resource worth making available would be a “Making of…” video clip on YouTube or Vimeo to enhance the online material already available. Although Freeman makes it clear that he wants to avoid the distraction of focusing on the technical details of assembling and presenting a photo essay, it would have been useful to get some insight into his workflow beyond the “Edit and Show” chapter in the book.

The Photographer’s Story avoids lengthy passages of text and is generously sprinkled with powerful and engaging photo stories that draw upon the author’s long and illustrious career. This book is a commendable point of reference for aspiring documentary photographers such as myself. Freeman redresses the balance away from mere aesthetics and towards the process of creating a more comprehensive and meaningful body of work that engages an audience on multiple levels. You may never look at another photo essay in quite the same way after reading this book.

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