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Review: The Art of Photography, Bruce Barnbaum

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This article expresses the author's opinion at the time of writing. There are no guarantees of correctness, originality or current relevance. Copying the whole article is forbidden. Transcription of selected parts is allowed provided that author and this source are mentioned.

Following an emphatic recommendation from Ken Rockwell, I bought the book The Art of Photography: An Approach to Personal Expression, written by Bruce Barnbaum, one of the most famous landscape photographers.

In fact it is an excellent book. But it is not a light read. Every sentence has weight and needs to be digested individually. I can't remember another text that tired me as much, forcing me to take a break at every page, particularly in the first chapters.

Differently from 99.9% of books and materials about photography found in the Internet, there are no ready-made formulas to improve your photography, or "10 best tips". Barnbaum starts from scratch, defining what is art. It makes sense, since most of us "photographers" have a hard-science background that helps us to read the instruction manual but stays in the way when we try to communicate something through photography.

Because every art form is simply a communication medium for personal expression. A good art piece, be it a song, a book or a picture, can transmit the message without the need of additional verbal explanations.

Coincidence or not, Barnbaum is the right guy to talk about art to engineers and software developers. Barnbaum has degrees in math and physics and made a living developing missile guidance systems, doing photography as a hobby until an ecological dispute put one of his pictures on National Geographic's cover, making him famous.

I think the main lesson of the book is to define "art" as "efficient personal expression". In this point, I find a point of convergence with another book, Hackers and Painters, by Paul Graham.

Even though I have only skimmed this book, I have read most Paul Graham's online essays. I like the general idea of setting software development apart of common, repetitive work — against the opinion of many project managers that see (and handle) developers as servants that convert specifications into code.

At first sight, Paul Graham's vision enchanted me since it gives our profession the value it deserves, economically speaking. But now I see that software development is more than craftsmanship. It is truly an art form and a tool of personal expression.

Naturally, this is not limited to software. Every engineering branch has connections to art, even though this is not mentioned too loudly — otherwise, engineers would feel entitled to the same income levels of doctors and lawyers... Just think about how many works of civil engineering have become icons of their surroundings e.g. the suspended bridges of San Francisco (USA) and Florianópolis (Brazil).

In short, the book is strongly recommended, not only for people that are interested in improving his/her photography, but also to see a new and surprising dimension in the so-called "hard sciences".

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