Book recommendations about looking
March 8, 2023 10:54 AM   Subscribe

I really love texts where someone looks at something very closely and describes it, often in some surprising, poetic, or counter-intuitive way, with the text usually including an image of the described object. This is not exactly art history or criticism, in that it's less conceptual, closer to the perception of the representation. A few examples might include David Hockney's book about the Camera Obscura, Hyatt Mayor's books on prints, and John Berger's Way of Seeing (the documentary more than the book). What are other books that do this?
posted by johnasdf to Media & Arts (22 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
The Rings of Saturn by W G Sebald; although the pictures are deliberately bad, it's a great book.
posted by altolinguistic at 11:09 AM on March 8 [1 favorite]

You might be interested in the French nouveau roman, especially the work of Alain Robbe-Grillet.
posted by derrinyet at 11:25 AM on March 8 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I like Rings of Saturn (and have read most of Sebald) and the nouveau roman folks, but this is not exactly what I'm looking for. I'm not interested in word/image combinations or objectifying prose but a sense of supple looking, where the image is described or analyzed in detail--sometimes in very poetic/interpretive ways, as in Berger, but other times in more technical ways, like Mayor talking about printmakers developing different forms of shading, etc. (In some ways, this was more common in pre-theoretical art criticism.) I think what I like about it is this conjoining of more abstract/theoretical musing upon a highly anchored surface to keep it grounded in the act of seeing and sensation.
posted by johnasdf at 11:31 AM on March 8

Does the described thing need to be an art object? If not, Moby-Dick might scratch your itch, especially (but not exclusively) Chapter 94, 'A Squeeze of the Hand'.
posted by inexorably_forward at 11:36 AM on March 8 [3 favorites]

diary of a young naturalist by Dara McAnulty might fit the bill.
posted by pepcorn at 11:38 AM on March 8 [3 favorites]

Maybe not what you have in mind, but I thought of John Ashbery's Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror.
posted by pinochiette at 11:42 AM on March 8 [1 favorite]

Best answer: How To Read Water
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 11:49 AM on March 8 [3 favorites]

Best answer: George Perec's An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (review) doesn't contain any pictures, but is just this. Over three days the author occupies various spots in a square in Paris and attempts to exhaustively describe what he calls the 'infra-ordinary'—the quotidian, the habitual, the ordinary, the passing of buses, the movements of pigeons and passers-by—that happens during this time.
posted by tallus at 12:08 PM on March 8 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Ooo - looking forward to the answers here.

If you like the cultural dissections of images, Donna Haraway does fantastic work in Primate Visions.

If you are open to the depths of seeing in the natural world, Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a gift.
posted by Silvery Fish at 12:12 PM on March 8 [3 favorites]

Best answer: In the same lane as Hyatt Mayor -
William Ivins' How Prints Look
William Crawford's The Keepers Of Light
Estelle Jussim's Visual Communication and the Graphic Arts
posted by niicholas at 12:21 PM on March 8 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It's a series of web essays, not a book, but the nytimes's Close Read series is exactly this.
posted by theodolite at 1:13 PM on March 8 [1 favorite]

Maybe Rebecca Solnit's River of Shadows? It's about the development of the first movie cameras and if I remember correctly talks about how the image transformed the observer in a couple of different places.
posted by crossswords at 1:25 PM on March 8 [1 favorite]

John Szarkowski, Atget. (Presents 100 of Atget's photographs with short commentaries on each one; review here, Google Books preview here.)

Geoff Dyer, The Street Philosophy of Garry Winogrand. (Follows the Szarkowski formula, with 100 of Winogrand's photographs and short commentaries; reviews here and here.)

These books are a great way to teach yourself how to look at photographs. Study the image first, with your hand over the facing page so your eye won't stray to the text. Then -- and only then -- read the commentary. Almost always, Szarkowski and Dyer will show you some crucial detail that you missed.
posted by verstegan at 4:10 PM on March 8 [2 favorites]

It has been a long time since I've read How to Use Your Eyes by James Elkins, and I can't remember if the tone he uses aligns with what you're seeking or not, but I believe the mechanics of the book itself do.
posted by sigmagalator at 5:17 PM on March 8 [1 favorite]

The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard
Job's Body by Deane Juhan
posted by headnsouth at 5:44 PM on March 8 [1 favorite]

I haven't read it, but it's been on my list for ages: Alexandra Horowitz's On Looking.
posted by xenization at 7:08 PM on March 8 [1 favorite]

Every Picture Hides a Story

A little pop culture version of art history, but with deep dives into the images and symbolism in about 90 paintings.
posted by icy_latte at 7:21 PM on March 8 [1 favorite]

Perhaps much more fictional than you were intending, but I've always found Nicholson Baker to be the king of close observation and uniquely capturing familiar elements of the everyday.

"At some earlier point in the morning, my left shoe had become untied, and as I had sat at my desk working on a memo, my foot had sensed its potential freedom and slipped out of the sauna of black cordovan to soothe itself with rhythmic movements over an area of wall-to-wall carpeting under my desk, which, unlike the tamped-down areas of public traffic, was still almost as soft and fibrous as it had been when first installed. Only under the desks and in the little-used conference rooms was the pile still plush enough to hold the beautiful Ms and Vs the night crew left as strokes of their vacuum cleaners' wands made swaths of dustless tufting lean in directions that alternately absorbed and reflected the light."
posted by redsparkler at 9:14 PM on March 8 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: These comments are great! Will respond more in-depth later and trying to favorite all comments, but here are a few thoughts.

@Silvery Fish - I haven't read that book, but I love this insane Donna Haraway TV Show/theory performance she did which I think is a dramatization of that book. Includes gorilla mask!

@niicholas - You're clairvoyant because the reason I created this thread is that I chanced on an old copy of William Ivins' How Prints Look and thought to myself, it'd be nice to read more books like this.

@theodolite - Yes, the NY Times Close Reads is exactly what I'm interested in. If only I hadn't read all of them!
posted by johnasdf at 5:18 AM on March 9

Perhaps The Art of Looking Sideways by Alan Fletcher
posted by guessthis at 6:55 AM on March 9

haven't read it yet but perhaps affinities by brian dillon?
posted by inire at 8:22 AM on March 9

It sounds to me like you're describing the genre of ekphrasis. No specific recommendations to share, but perhaps perusing the list of examples on the Wikipedia article will prove helpful?
posted by the tartare yolk at 8:30 AM on March 9

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