Thursday, March 1, 2012

Book Review: A Visual Inventory, by John Pawson

Architects are visual artists who work in three dimensions, controlling the experience of movement through space defined by line, texture, light, color and tonality.  British architect John Pawson has amassed more than a quarter of a million photographic images for his own personal inspiration and reference.  A selection of 270 of these appear in his latest book, A Visual Inventory, published by Phaidon.

It's hard to tell Pawson isn't  a photographer by profession. The images in the book reveal a mastery of composition. Though all are in color, many are nonetheless monochromatic, with one hue dominating.  Repeating patterns of lines and shadows resonate like drum beats on some pages.  Negative space bears the weight of dominant masses on others. In every image, there is the achievement of balance of one kind or another.

Not only is each individual picture a study in itself, the layout of the book teaches much about design.  It is stark in its uncomplicated simplicity. Understatement rules. There are few words on each page to accompany the image, and every word used is indispensible. Each pair of images, facing each other, works as a couple in a dance or embrace.

Just look at a representative two-page spread here. One color dominates each image. Texture is primary. There is an internal balance of visual weight. The two images form a complementary set. The two could be hanging on a wall next to each other, they work so well together, so thoughtfully juxtaposed. Turn the page, and the next pair works the same way. 

Anyone who has an interest in or familiarity with the approach to photography described in The Practice of Contemplative Photography, by Karr and Wood, would immediately see similarities.  Pawson's images catch an emotional moment connected to his vision, a non-cognitive reaction to and interaction with his subjects.  And he seems to successfully capture on the printed page what is the equivalent to what he sees and reacts to.

There is much to learn from this book.  How to see.  How to design. How to organize a book of images.  And most significantly, we learn something about the author himself.

This book belongs in the collection of every serious photographer. 

View a sampling of Pawson's images at Phaidon and at Amazon.  The book may be purchased from the same sites.

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