Perception and Imaging, by Richard D. Zakia

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: I like reading textbooks.

The Long Version: There are a lot of photography books out there that are really about cameras. 'Beginner' books, like the excellent National Geographic Guide To Etc., mostly talk about how to choose a camera and what to do with it in the first few weeks. More advanced books, like Understanding Exposure, talk about the decisions to make when moving buttons. Others, branching out a bit, will talk about the decisions to make when moving buttons on speedlights or computers. Getting into the more refined audience, there's a huge number of books about where to point the camera - and what buttons to press when you get there.

This impressive tome by Richard Zakia is about none of those things. Its subject is exactly what it says: Perception and Imaging. The word 'camera' appears only once in the entire table of contents, and by the time we get to it, we've already studied figure-ground relationships, gestalt, and the influence of memory. The brief discussion of 'camera' turns out to be about how its position influences the depiction of space; really, it's just an exhortation to choose different vantage points for their influence on the depiction of space. We quickly get back to more typical subjects like anisotropicity, the Munsell colour system and its descendants, and the Necker cube. The physiology of the eye, semiotics, rhetoric, and the significance of theriomorphic forms all find a place in this simultaneously advanced and eclectic mix.

Perception and Imaging is about 350 pages, with a single main column of text and/or images coupled with a narrow column of supplemental images or quotations on each page. I'm a sucker for well-sourced quotations, making Perception and Imaging a joy to flip though - Richard Serra, John Cage, and Joseph Campbell all make an appearance; Ansel Adams and Ludwig Wittgenstein even appear on the same page. The layout style is more typical for graphic design books, and the result is engaging and can give respite from the sometimes heavy subject matter. The book is populated with line drawings, diagrams, advertisements, and colour photos that provide additional material, but make no mistake: this is mostly a text book, complete with excercises and notes at the end of each chapter.

While I've only been 'into' photography for less than a decade, I'm a bit technical in my approach, and read as much as I've been able to get my hands on. While I've yet to find a way to translate technical information into art, ability, or vision, I'm very happy to find a button-pushing book that teaches me things that I haven't read before. To pick up a book that hits me with new concepts right from the second page has been reinvigorating. Perception and Imaging absolutely won't tell you what mode to use, but if you're ready for the psychology of seeing, this is a book that can provide a much broader and stronger foundation to your thinking.

Translating that into art, naturally, remains an exercise for the reader.


  1. I love books that go beyond the technical. The mechanics of the camera are quite simple, it's the conceptual that is deceptively deep.
    And this is the type of knowledge that will never be obsolete. I picked up Freeman Patterson's "Photography and the Art of Seeing". It was written in 1979 and is every bit as valuable and relevant today as it was 30 years ago.

    I've seen the photo on the front before, I remember hearing a podcast interview with the photographer. Who was the photo by?

  2. The cover image is "Push" by Pete Turner. It's also used as an example of 'shared contours' and its effect on pictorial space in chapter 5.

    I have several of Freeman Patterson's books, and while I'm not much of a nature photographer, his approach to textural images is one that I'm coming back to. He has certainly been influential in how I think as a photographer.

  3. Aha! He's the guy that did those classic New York traffic lights in the snow and *countless* Jazz album covers. That great interview with him is here: http://thecandidframe.blogspot.com/2007/02/candid-frame-27-pete-turner.html

  4. Thanks for the link, I'll definitely check it out. I didn't know any of Mr. Turner's work until now, but it's very intriguing. Time to go broaden my education - again.


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