American Photo

Let's say you're a niche publication. You've accepted that your mission in life is to serve a certain select audience and that audience alone. You don't bother with drippy lifestyle content, and you confine your product/gear hype to those items that are 100 percent relevant, as opposed to on-the-go satchels and slip-on footwear. So the obvious choice for the cover of your first 2006 issue is... Angelina Jolie?

Granted, the fetching Ms. Jolie graced a mere 272 covers in January, a 41 percent drop from her December "she's eating for two... maybe three!" pinnacle. But such a flashy choice suggests a lack of confidence in the selections--hopeful-eyed children! llamas!--that usually adorn the cover of niche photo publications. The cover portrait may be artistic; I still doubt that regular readers will be swayed by this cheap tactic, especially with arguably more striking shots of lesser celebs (notably Christopher Walken) and natural landscapes displayed inside.

American Photo doesn't need the lift. Proudly niche everywhere else, the January/February issue focuses its efforts on legit shutterbugs. While newbies armed with megapixel camera phones might find plenty to like inside, the mag tosses them only the occasional bone (a review of a lower-end camera here, a Photoshop primer there). The rest of us? Meh. I wouldn't expect to see this on too many doctor's office waiting-room tables.

Let's get this out of the way up front: yes, of course American Photo boasts a veritable smorgasbord of glimmering images, ranging from a sea of workers in a Chinese chicken-processing plant to a shot of at-play Americans in the 1970s. Of the featured subjects and photographers, Art Wolfe's photos of animals camouflaged by the setting around them piqued my interest most. Of course, this is largely a matter of personal preference: you say "to-MAY-toe," I say "bacon CHEESE-burger," etc.

But if it's purty pictures you want, you can find any number of 80-pound photo books at your friendly neighborhood book depot. What elevates American Photo is its ability to deconstruct those shots, offering a range of how-tos (in "tech notes" boxes) and insights from the people who snapped them. Along those lines, the entire "Technology & Vision" section is a must-read for those with Ansel Adams or Herb Ritts aspirations (um, except for the being-dead part). As opposed to the reworked press releases that find their way into many a product section, the mag features sharp-elbowed comparisons of high-end gear as well as specific recommendations ("a good choice for available-light photography").

Not surprisingly, American Photo comes up a little short on the words front. While I doubt anybody expects The Atlantic Monthly's editorial dexterity from an image-first title, it might not hurt to import a headline/caption disciple or two. The Jolie cover tease of "Those Lips! Those Eyes!" comes across as vaguely stalker-ish, while I don't understand what "Katy Grannan explores the possibilities of portraiture by getting to know people" is trying to tell me. Something about blind dates, maybe?

As for the terse stories, sometimes the wordplay gets a little too yay-everybody! for my taste. The piece on pro skateboarder/photographer Todd Jordan ends with a borderline embarrassing summation: "Happily, his dual passions have resulted in a wholly original perspective." So stay away if you insist on a side of clever wordplay with your pictorial entrée.

All things considered, though, American Photo does the niche model proud. I'm not a photo guy--I tend to let somebody else chronicle the Icarus-like highs of Aunt Enid's 65th birthday blowout--but I can't imagine any camera buff not being wowed by the comprehensive information offered here.

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