Monday, April 11, 2011

She Likes It For The Photography, I Like It For The Sociology: American Photo

The Good: Great photography (duh!), Well-written articles, Informative, Educational
The Bad: Surprisingly addy
The Basics: Educational, well-written and packed with amazing photographs (and quite a few advertisements), American Photo is a worthwhile magazine.

As those who follow my reviews might have gathered from the recent reviews of cameras and camera equipment I have written, my wife is a bit of a photography buff. She takes artistic photographs as well as reference photos for other artists to use for manipulations and derivative artwork and she's quite incredible at it (she'll be even better when she has all of her equipment working the way it is supposed to!). My father shares this bond with her as he has been a photographer my entire life, in his spare time. So, it seemed like a pretty natural point for the two to bond over and that has now extended to my father donating his issues of American Photo to my wife when he is done with them.

As the issues have arrived, I've taken time to peruse them and American Photo is one of the more interesting magazines I've read of late. More than simply about photography, famous photographs and photographic techniques and equipment, American Photo becomes an invaluable resource for readers and photographers on the legal and historical concerns about photography. This makes it a far more interesting and valuable tool for photographers or those interested in the impact of photography on society in general, but even so the magazine is remarkably addy (filled with advertisements) and article gateways that are remarkably similar to the advertisements in the magazine. On the plus side, far more than the coffeetable book of photography one might expect American Photo to be, the magazine is pretty packed with text and it is well-written and quite engaging.

For the purposes of this review, I used the September/October 2009 issue of American Photo. American Photo is published every two months as a ninety-four page, full color, glossy publication. The subscriptions are quite reasonably priced at $15/year directly through the publisher. Given how much is packed into a single issue, this is a real value.

Unfortunately, in addition to being filled with information and great photographs, American Photo is also pretty high on advertisements or product endorsements that distract from the content of the publication. Out of the ninety-four pages of the magazine (not counting the covers, all but the front of the front cover are ads), 19 are full page advertisements. While this might not seem like a lot, there are two more pages worth of smaller advertisements spread over several of the back pages and the "Editor's Choice" section has endorsements and prices of photographic equipment that mimics the look and feel of one of the magazines earliest, text-heavy, ads. Given how professional the rest of the magazine is, American Photo's reliance on ads and contests sponsored by their advertisers is disappointing.

That said, there is much to recommend American Photo. Issue to issue, there is a strong sense of regularity as the magazine is dominated by columns that appear in each issue. Regular columns after the Editor's Note are on: Photographic icons (subjects of note), books, art, photography in print (advertisements/other magazines?), photographers (the "Witness" department), Editor's Choice (product placement!), Flickr photographs (new!), Law, Photographic techniques, and a featured photo exhibition. The columns come, for the most part, from staff writers to the magazine, so the writing style is both consistent and held to a high standard.

After a spotlight on a contributing photographer for the issues as well as an Editor's note foreshadowing the rest of the issue, the magazine is interrupted by a two-page advertisement that looks like an article for a new camera. While "Advertisement" may be seen in tiny letters, it is distracting and the dominance of text in the advertisement makes it very easy for readers to mistake the ad for part of the magazine, especially as it breaks up several large-picture ads. Getting beyond that distraction, readers are able to get to the regular columns.

The "Inside Photography" collection of columns focuses on photography and the impact of photography in the media. The "Public Eye" section this month focuses on Farrah Fawcett and the impact of a poster she made in the mid-1970s. The column is interesting in that it provides dozens of outtake photographs from the same session as well as a detailed account of what went into the final shot and why it was arguably so successful. This is followed by a page written by the photographer where he recalls the shoot as a final tribute to Fawcett and the article reads as anything but schmaltz. This is followed by columns on photographs in books (this month's featured photographs of the space race and the Apollo moon landing project) and current art project. The column on the book includes reprints of photographs from the book as well as text from it to give readers a glimpse of what the latest coffeetable photography book is like. The art piece, similarly, includes several photographs from the featured photographer's collection with accompanying text on how the pictures were taken as well as some of the intended impact of them. The text is interesting and for those not so much into art, the explanations may be invaluable.

Next came the "In Print" section which was a fairly ridiculous column. This month's feature was a model with a photographer talking about what he uses to make her look sexy. No, it's not just film, but it pretty much boils down to that. It's easy to make women who are the ideal look like the ideal when you're the one helping to create or reinforce that idea. Grumble. The article, though, includes some laughably ridiculous quotes, like the pretentious photographer Verglas stating "If you want a woman to look relaxed in a picture . . . you cannot put her on a cement floor" (29). I guess that's what separates the amateurs from the pros! "Hey honey, get that model off the middle of the road; the reason she's not looking relaxed is that she's on asphalt!" Sigh. I could be a pretentious Italian photographer of naked women. I guess I need to learn Italian. But I digress. . .

After an article that suggests keeping beautiful women comfortable during a shoot by putting them on a rug instead of concrete and a much more insightful lighting diagram for the photoshoot, comes the Witness column. This column follows photographers and what it takes for them to get the shots they make. This issue's feature was on a photographer capturing pictures of war-torn Afghanistan and the pictures and the stories of what it took to get some of his shots are engaging. Some of the pictures are heartwrenching and reading about the dangerous conditions the photographers work in to get the pictures is interesting and well-documented.

This is followed by the Editor's Choice column. This is a collection of new products for photography, from lenses and cameras to cardreaders and digital picture frames. These are mini-reviews of the products (about 200 words each) and include the prices, so they feel addy, despite being reviews. Because only the best are included, readers are left unsure exactly what was weeded out by the editors in many cases. This column is now followed by a new column focusing on Flickr and allowing photographers who post their works there to have a chance to get into the magazine. In addition to a featured shot, a featured photographer gets a centerfold on the front side of an advertisement. This is a nice column which supports the idea that cameraphones and the like have turned everyone into photographers, but it is rewarding those who do it best.

"The Law" column is a one-page article which is exceptionally detailed on specific legal issues for photographers. This month's issue explored the Orphan Works law and that was surprisingly interesting and specific. This becomes an invaluable tool for photographers looking to get their works printed or those looking to reprint the works of others. "The Law" is authoritative, well-documented and essential for photographers these days.

The final two regular columns are "Master Class" and one that features an image from a current exhibition and tells readers where to go see the entire series. The "Master Class" section has photographs from an acknowledged expert in the field along with instructions on how to make similar works for those getting the hang of techniques. The artist describes what went into making the artistic shots and recommends products, settings and techniques to take your own photographs. This is useful and informative for photographers looking to experiment in different ways with their cameras.

American Photo also fearlessly explores the effects of photography through a feature article each month. The feature in the current issue was an exploration of controversial photographs. The series was interesting, as it included all of the memorable photographs, as well as text on the effect of the shot when the photograph was taken, published and now. Unfortunately, the essay was very biased toward contemporary photographs. And while the power of controversial photographs of Abu Ghraib are indisputable and naked pictures of a ten year-old Brooke Shields are interesting for the legal and sociological questions they raise, the impact of a Bennetton advertisement of a kissing nun is far less obvious. The fact that that photograph was included but neither of the two most famous photographs from the Vietnam War or even the National Geographic covershot of the woman without her veil were not is a surprising oversight. While there are two World War II era photographs, that the photography of the Vietnam War era is absent, but Princess Diana's last photograph is present makes for a less credible article.

That said, the feature story is interesting, does an excellent job of illustrating the thesis in words and photographs and makes for a good read. In fact, despite having a lot of advertisements, American Photo is a very good read and a worthwhile magazine for anyone who loves photography or is interested in the history or sociology of photography and its impact.

For other magazine reviews, please check out my takes on:
Pillsbury Classic Cookbooks
Popular Photography


For other book and magazine reviews, please check out my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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