Mag Review: American Photo

Rachel Smucker

American Photo

July/August 2007, 93 pages, $4.99 USD

By Rachel Smucker

Upon reading American Photo, I have, like the little kid who wants to be a lion tamer after going to the circus, pledged to buy myself a Polaroid camera and get to shooting. Or, perhaps I should look into the 2007 Editor's Choice Canon EOS-1D Mark III D-SLR, if this is going to be my new career. I can't wait to use its special stealth mode when I'm taking pictures of squirrels in their natural habitats!

But really -- American Photo's simple layout and easy-to-read charts will have even the most novice photographer drooling. The "Editor's Choice 2007" feature takes up most of the magazine, but not without good cause. It is divided into categories of cameras and camera-related accessories, creating top-10 lists and including essential facts like price, special features, and advantages over similar products.

From camera cellphones to professional digital single-lens reflex cameras (D-SLRs) to imaging software, American Photo picks out the best of the best for every kind of photographer. Though there is one very high-priced camera in the magazine that would appeal to only professionals (the $32,000 Hasselblad H3D-39), most of the other cameras are just under four digits, and reasonably priced for serious photographers.

The other half of this month's issue was not another Consumer Reports-style product adaptation, but a creative feature on photography in the rock-n'-roll world. Music legends like Lou Reed and Mick Fleetwood have surprisingly active photo careers, while snapshots from more modern musicians John Mayer and Lenny Kravitz show promising talent.

"Visions of Rock" includes both an introduction and a foreword (why, I'm not sure) from staff writers Mark Seliger and Chris Murray, who both discuss their experience with photography in the music business. The nearly tangible emotion and high energy present in rock music has long been recorded with photographs, but rarely ever puts the musicians on the other side of the fence.

"The pleasure of photography may be greater for musicians than for other people," Seliger writes. "The process of making music is long and arduous. For a musician to go out with a camera and spend the afternoon in beautiful light taking pictures and having the immediacy of seeing the image -- that can be a special delight."

Each artist is designated a spread containing a brief explanation of their involvement in photography and a sample of their work. Some, like Andy Summers, have only one large example; here, it is "Montserrat, 1981," a striking black-and-white image of a horse and a man swimming. "The Swedish Incident," a photo capturing the sweaty masses at a 1991 Hole concert by Melissa Auf der Maur, takes up nearly two pages and is, according to editor-in-chief David Schonaur, "the single best rock photo I've ever seen."

Others have several smaller pictures that are like mini-portfolios of their work, showing as much difference between their visual styles as is present in their music. Patti Smith favors still-life images, often black-and-white and using an old Polaroid, while Perry Farrell's photos are buzzing with color and life. Some musicians, such as Michael Stipe and Auf der Maur, studied photography and art long before their music careers ever took off, contrasting with those like Lou Reed who did not take up photography until after their hectic rock-n'-roll lifestyles were over.

But despite their musical and aesthetic differences, nearly every musician likened photography to musicmaking. "In a sense, all things creative are similar," says Jakob Dylan, whose sepia-toned photos are quiet and contemplative. "The eyes and ears aren't that far apart… literally or creatively." Indeed, the photographs reflect each artist's personal talents, giving visual accompaniments to their music.

American Photo writers took a more active role in their photographers with the addition of several short interviews with some lesser-known talents in the photography world. The article on Mike Brodie, or "The Polaroid Kidd," included a brief Q & A and a few samples of his work, but was entirely too short. Likewise for the page on Taryn Simon, a slightly older, more well-known photographer whose work on the "hidden and unfamiliar" -- or, places off-limits to the American public, such as a nuclear waste and encapsulation facility -- certainly gave her enough credentials to have a larger, more in-depth article.

Because of the balance between the "Visions of Rock" feature and the "Editor's Choice" list, the magazine was evenly divided between the personal and the technical. But to throw in two interesting photographers without spilling all the details -- that's a tease. American Photo on the whole was a little short, and its 93 pages contained not a few advertisements. I would have liked to see more on the personal side of photography, or even just a little more of Brodie's and Simon's work. The writers at American Photo clearly demonstrated their ability to capture the essence of rockstar photography -- here's to hoping they'll bring their insight a little closer to home.

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