Adams, Ansel. Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs. Boston: Little, Brown, 1983. ISBN 0-8212-1750-X.

March 2002 Permalink

Adams, Ansel. Singular Images. Dobbs Ferry, NY: Morgan & Morgan, 1974. ISBN 0-87100-046-6.

July 2002 Permalink

Begleiter, Steven H. The Art of Color Infrared Photography. Buffalo, NY: Amherst Media, 2002. ISBN 1-58428-065-4.

April 2003 Permalink

Bonanos, Christopher. Instant. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2012. ISBN 978-1-61689-085-8.
The second half of the twentieth century in the developed world was, in many ways, the age of immediate gratification, and no invention was as iconic of the epoch as the Polaroid instant photograph. No longer did people have to wait until a roll of film was full, take it to the drug store to be sent off to a photo lab, and then, a week or so later, see whether the irreplaceable pictures of their child's first birthday came out or were forever lost. With the introduction of Edwin Land's first Polaroid camera in 1948, only a minute elapsed between the click of the shutter and peeling off a completely developed black and white (well, initially, sepia and white, but that was fixed within two years) print. If the picture wasn't satisfactory, another shot could be taken on the spot, and pictures of special events could be immediately shared with others present—in a way, the Polaroid print was the original visual social medium: Flickr in the Fifties.

This book chronicles the history of Polaroid, which is inseparable from the life of its exceptional founder, CEO, and technological visionary, Edwin Land. Land, like other, more recent founders of technological empires, was a college drop-out (the tedium simply repelled him), whose instinct drove him to create products which other, more sensible, people considered impossible, for markets which did not exist, fulfilling needs which future customers did not remotely perceive they had, and then continuing to dazzle them with ever more amazing achievements. Polaroid in its heyday was the descendent of Thomas Edison's Menlo Park invention factory and the ancestor of Apple under Steve Jobs—a place where crazy, world-transforming ideas bubbled up and were groomed into products with a huge profit margin.

Although his technical knowledge was both broad and deep, and he spent most of his life in the laboratory or supervising research and product development, Edwin Land was anything but a nerd: he was deeply versed in the fine arts and literature, and assembled a large collection of photography (both instant and conventional) along with his 535 patents. He cultivated relationships with artists ranging from Ansel Adams to Andy Warhol and involved them in the design and evolution of Polaroid's products. Land considered basic research part of Polaroid's mission, and viewed his work on human colour perception as his most important achievement: he told a reporter in 1959, “Photography…that is something I do for a living.”

Although Polaroid produced a wide (indeed, almost bewildering) variety of cameras and film which progressed from peel-off monochrome to professional large-format positive/negative sheets to colour to all-in-one colour film packs for the SX-70 and its successors, which miraculously developed in broad daylight after being spit out by the camera, it remained, to a large extent, a one product company—entirely identified with instant photography. And, it was not only a one product company (something with which this scrivener has some acquaintance), but a one genius company, where the entire technical direction and product strategy resided in the braincase of a single individual. This has its risks, and when the stock was flying high there was no shortage of sceptical analysts on Wall Street who pointed them out.

And then slowly, painfully, it all fell back to Earth. In 1977, Land's long-time dream of instant motion pictures was launched on the market as Polavision. The company had expended years and on the order of half a billion dollars in developing a system which produced three minute silent movies which were grainy and murky. This was launched just at the time video cassette recorders were coming onto the market, which could record and replay full television programs with sound, using inexpensive tapes which could be re-recorded. Polavision sales were dismal, and the product was discontinued two years later. In 1976, Kodak launched their own instant camera line, which cut into Polaroid's sales and set off a patent litigation battle which would last more than fourteen years and cause Polaroid to focus on the past and defending its market share rather than innovation.

Now that everybody has instant photography in the form of digital cameras and mobile telephones, all without the need of miracle chemistry, breakthrough optics, or costly film packs, you might conclude that Polaroid, like Kodak, was done in by digital. The reality is somewhat more complicated. What undermined Polaroid's business model was not digital photography, which emerged only after the company was already steep in decline, but the advent of the one hour minilab and inexpensive, highly automated, and small point-and-shoot 35 mm cameras. When the choice was between waiting a week or so for your pictures or seeing them right away, Polaroid had an edge, but when you could shoot a roll of film, drop it at the minilab in the mall when you went to do your shopping, and pick up the prints before you went home, the distinction wasn't so great. Further, the quality of prints from 35 mm film on photographic paper was dramatically better; the prints were larger; and you could order additional copies or enlargements from the negatives. Large, heavy, and clunky cameras that only took 10 pictures from an expensive film pack began to look decreasingly attractive compared to pocketable 35 mm cameras that, at least for the snapshot market, nailed focus and exposure almost every time you pushed the button.

The story of Polaroid is also one of how a company can be trapped by its business model. Polaroid's laboratories produced one of the first prototypes of a digital camera. But management wasn't interested because everybody knew that revenue came from selling film, not cameras, and a digital camera didn't use film. At the same time, Polaroid was working on a pioneering inkjet photo printer, which management disdained because it didn't produce output they considered of photographic quality. Imagine how things might have been different had somebody said, “Look, it's not as good as a photographic print—yet—but it's good enough for most of our snapshot customers, and we can replace our film revenue with sales of ink and branded paper.” But nobody said that. The Polaroid microelectronics laboratory was closed in 1993, with the assets sold to MIT and the inkjet project was terminated—those working on it went off to found the premier large-format inkjet company.

In addition to the meticulously documented history, there is a tremendous amount of wisdom regarding how companies and technologies succeed and fail. In addition, this is a gorgeous book, with numerous colour illustrations (expandable and scrollable in the Kindle edition). My only quibble is that in the Kindle edition, the index is just a list of terms, not linked to references in the text; everything else is properly linked.

Special thanks to James Lileks for recommending this book (part 2).

October 2012 Permalink

Greenberg, Stanley. Time Machines. Munich: Hirmer Verlag, 2011. ISBN 978-3-7774-4041-5.
Should our civilisation collapse due to folly, shortsightedness, and greed, and an extended dark age ensue, in which not only our painfully-acquired knowledge is lost, but even the memory of what we once knew and accomplished forgotten, certainly among the most impressive of the achievements of our lost age when discovered by those who rise from the ruins to try again will be the massive yet delicate apparatus of our great physics experiments. Many, buried deep in the Earth, will survive the chaos of the dark age and beckon to pioneers of the next age of discovery just as the tombs of Egypt did to those in our epoch. Certainly, when the explorers of that distant time first illuminate the great detector halls of our experiments, they will answer, as Howard Carter did when asked by Lord Carnarvon, “Can you see anything?”, “Yes, wonderful things.”

This book is a collection of photographs of these wonderful things, made by a master photographer and printed in a large-format (26×28 cm) coffee-table book. We visit particle accelerators in Japan, the United States, Canada, Switzerland, Italy, and Germany; gravitational wave detectors in the U.S. and Italy; neutrino detectors in Canada, Japan, the U.S., Italy, and the South Pole; and the 3000 km² cosmic ray observatory in Argentina.

This book is mostly about the photographs, not the physics or engineering: the photographs are masterpieces. All are reproduced in monochrome, which emphasises the beautiful symmetries of these machines without the distractions of candy-coloured cable bundles. There is an introduction by particle physicist David C. Cassidy which briefly sketches the motivation for building these cathedrals of science and end notes which provide additional details of the hardware in each photograph, but you don't pay the substantial price of the book for these. The photographs are obviously large format originals (nobody could achieve this kind of control of focus and tonal range with a convenient to use camera) and they are printed exquisitely. The screen is so fine I have difficulty evaluating it even with a high power magnifier, but it looks to me like the book was printed using not just a simple halftone screen but with ink in multiple shades of grey.

The result is just gorgeous. Resist the temptation to casually flip from image to image—immerse yourself in each of them and work out the perspective. One challenge is that it's often difficult to determine the scale of what you're looking at from a cursory glance at the picture. You have to search for something with which you're familiar until it all snaps into scale; this is sometimes difficult and I found the disorientation delightful and ultimately enlightening.

You will learn nothing about physics from this book. You will learn nothing about photography apart from a goal to which to aspire as you master the art. But you will see some of the most amazing creations of the human mind, built in search of the foundations of our understanding of the universe we inhabit, photographed by a master and reproduced superbly, inviting you to linger on every image and wish you could see these wonders with your own eyes.

December 2012 Permalink

Hicks, Roger and Frances Schultz. Medium and Large Format Photography. New York: Amphoto Books, 2001. ISBN 0-8174-4557-9.

December 2001 Permalink

King, David. The Commissar Vanishes. New York: Henry Holt, 1997. ISBN 0-8050-5295-X.

June 2003 Permalink

Light, Michael and Andrew Chaikin. Full Moon. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999. ISBN 0-375-40634-4.

July 2002 Permalink

Meers, Nick. Stretch: The World of Panoramic Photography. Mies, Switzerland: RotoVision, 2003. ISBN 2-88046-692-X.
In the early years of the twentieth century, panoramic photography was all the rage. Itinerant photographers with unwieldy gear such as the Cirkut camera would visit towns to photograph and sell 360° panoramas of the landscape and wide format pictures of large groups of people, such as students at the school or workers at a factory or mine. George Lawrence's panoramas (some taken from a camera carried aloft by a kite) of the devastation resulting from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire have become archetypal images of that disaster.

Although pursued as an art form by a small band of photographers, and still used occasionally for large group portraits, the panoramic fad largely died out with the popularity of fixed-format roll film cameras and the emergence of the ubiquitous 24×36 mm format. The advent of digital cameras and desktop image processing software able to “stitch” multiple images more or less seamlessly (if you know what you're doing when you take them) into an arbitrarily wide panorama has sparked a renaissance in the format, including special-purpose film and digital cameras for panoramic photography. Computers with high performance graphics hardware now permit viewing full-sphere virtual reality imagery in which the viewer can “look around” at will, something undreamed of in the first golden age of panoramas.

This book provides an introduction to the history, technology, and art of panoramic photography, alternating descriptions of equipment and technique with galleries featuring the work of contemporary masters of the format, including many examples of non-traditional subjects for panoramic presentation which will give you ideas for your own experiments. The book, which is beautifully printed in China, is itself in “panoramic format” with pages 30 cm wide by 8 cm tall for an aspect ratio of 3¾:1, allowing many panoramic pictures to be printed on a single page. (There are a surprising number of vertical panoramas in the examples which are short-changed by the page format, as they are always printed vertically rather than asking you to turn the book around to view them.) Although the quality of reproduction is superb, the typography is frankly irritating, at least to my ageing eyes. The body copy is set in a light sans-serif font with capitals about six points tall, and photo captions in even smaller type: four point capitals. If that wasn't bad enough, all of the sections on technique are printed in white type on a black background which, especially given the high reflectivity of the glossy paper, is even more difficult to read. This appears to be entirely for artistic effect— there is plenty of white (or black) space which would have permitted using a more readable font. The cover price of US$30 seems high for a work of fewer than 150 pages, however wide and handsome.

November 2006 Permalink

Miller, Roland. Abandoned in Place. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2016. ISBN 978-0-8263-5625-3.
Between 1945 and 1970 humanity expanded from the surface of Earth into the surrounding void, culminating in 1969 with the first landing on the Moon. Centuries from now, when humans and their descendents populate the solar system and exploit resources dwarfing those of the thin skin and atmosphere of the home planet, these first steps may be remembered as the most significant event of our age, with all of the trivialities that occupy our quotidian attention forgotten. Not only were great achievements made, but grand structures built on Earth to support them; these may be looked upon in the future as we regard the pyramids or the great cathedrals.

Or maybe not. The launch pads, gantry towers, assembly buildings, test facilities, blockhouses, bunkers, and control centres were not built as monuments for the ages, but rather to accomplish time-sensitive goals under tight budgets, by the lowest bidder, and at the behest of a government famous for neglecting infrastructure. Once the job was done, the mission accomplished, the program concluded; the facilities that supported it were simply left at the mercy of the elements which, in locations like coastal Florida, immediately began to reclaim them. Indeed, half of the facilities pictured here no longer exist.

For more than two decades, author and photographer Roland Miller has been documenting this heritage before it succumbs to rust, crumbling concrete, and invasive vegetation. With unparalleled access to the sites, he has assembled this gallery of these artefacts of a great age of exploration. In a few decades, this may be all we'll have to remember them. Although there is rudimentary background information from a variety of authors, this is a book of photography, not a history of the facilities. In some cases, unless you know from other sources what you're looking at, you might interpret some of the images as abstract.

The hardcover edition is a “coffee table book”: large format and beautifully printed, with a corresponding price. The Kindle edition is, well, a Kindle book, and grossly overpriced for 193 pages with screen-resolution images and a useless index consisting solely of search terms.

A selection of images from the book may be viewed on the Abandoned in Place Web site.

May 2016 Permalink

Parker, Ian. Complete Rollei TLR User's Manual. Faringdon, England: Hove Foto Books, 1994. ISBN 1-874031-96-7.

December 2002 Permalink

Shull, Jim. The Beginner's Guide to Pinhole Photography. Buffalo, NY: Amherst Media, 1999. ISBN 0-936262-70-2.

March 2002 Permalink

Simmons, Steve. Using the View Camera. rev. ed. New York: AMPHOTO, 1992. ISBN 0-8174-6353-4.

April 2002 Permalink

Spira, S. F., Eaton S. Lothrop, Jr., and Jonathan B. Spira. The History of Photography As Seen Through the Spira Collection. Danville, NJ: Aperture, 2001. ISBN 978-0-89381-953-8.
If you perused the back pages of photographic magazines in the 1960s and 1970s, you'll almost certainly recall the pages of advertising from Spiratone, which offered a panoply of accessories and gadgets, many tremendously clever and useful, and some distinctly eccentric and bizarre, for popular cameras of the epoch. The creation of Fred Spira, a refugee from Nazi anschluss Austria who arrived in New York almost penniless, his ingenuity, work ethic, and sense for the needs of the burgeoning market of amateur photographers built what started as a one-man shop into a flourishing enterprise, creating standards such as the “T mount” lenses which persist to the present day. His company was a pioneer in importing high quality photographic gear from Japan and instrumental in changing the reputation of Japan from a purveyor of junk to a top end manufacturer.

Like so many businessmen who succeed to such an extent they redefine the industries in which they participate, Spira was passionate about the endeavour pursued by his customers: in his case photography. As his fortune grew, he began to amass a collection of memorabilia from the early days of photography, and this Spira Collection finally grew to more than 20,000 items, covering the entire history of photography from its precursors to the present day.

This magnificent coffee table book draws upon items from the Spira collection to trace the history of photography from the camera obscura in the 16th century to the dawn of digital photography in the 21st. While the pictures of items from the collection dominate the pages, there is abundant well-researched text sketching the development of photography, including the many blind alleys along the way to a consensus of how images should be made. You can see the fascinating process by which a design, which initially varies all over the map as individual inventors try different approaches, converges upon a standard based on customer consensus and market forces. There is probably a lesson for biological evolution somewhere in this. With inventions which appear, in retrospect, as simple as photography, it's intriguing to wonder how much earlier they might have been discovered: could a Greek artificer have stumbled on the trick and left us, in some undiscovered cache, an image of Pericles making the declamation recorded by Thucydides? Well, probably not—the simplest photographic process, the daguerreotype, requires a plate of copper, silver, and mercury sensitised with iodine. While the metals were all known in antiquity (along with glass production sufficient to make a crude lens or, failing that, a pinhole), elemental iodine was not isolated until 1811, just 28 years before Daguerre applied it to photography. But still, you never know….

This book is out of print, but used copies are generally available for less than the cover price at its publication in 2001.

June 2010 Permalink