American Photo

I don't much feel like reading this morning, so the pix-o'-the-year issue of American Photo arrives at precisely the right moment. Heck, journalist-type people have written hundreds of thousands of words about the "Mona Lisa" and "The Scream" and "Dogs Playing Poker." How hard can it be for me to write 600 about a puny magazine?

As it turns out, not hard at all. Hooray for me! Double hooray for American Photo! Boo for words and coherent thought!

I quite like the mag, actually. Maybe I've caught it in the right month -- after all, any "Images of the Year" spread should, almost by definition, appeal to a broad audience -- but the publication stands as one of the rare enthusiast titles eminently enjoyable by mainstream readers. While the January/February issue may devote considerable space to photographers unknown to the masses, the images American Photo presents are sufficiently enthralling to sidetrack casual newsstand browsers... like me. I grabbed it while killing time before a matinee of the new Bond flick (thumbs up until the weepy, protracted ending) and decided to purchase it when I was still reading 15 minutes later. After I complete this opus, I'll probably pass it along to a pal, which will make American Photo the first Magazine Rack subject in several months to avoid my recycling bin of despair.

I'm not sure how much an aesthetic ignoramus like me has to say about the mag's photos. They're quite, uh, pretty. Certainly they rank right up there with the best pix I took last year, including prize-winners like "Greg drunk at the rotisserie football draft" and "Isabella and Evan enjoying the loot which their favorite uncle has recently gifted upon them."

Not surprisingly, "Images of the Year" serves up the issue's most visually alluring fodder. American Photo divvies up the piece smartly, varying its layouts and reproducing the shots in a way (read: not stamp-sized) that allows viewers to enjoy their nuances. The thematic division works as well, with the portraits subdivided into categories that allow for a broad range.

I'm not as sure about the decision to place a second major feature, "State of the Art," in the same issue with the images piece. It smacks of high-concept overload, even as the "Innovators" mini-profiles (on the founders of Flickr, gallery prexies and even the Dallas Morning News' director of video) in "State" collectively offer welcome perspective on where the photography world may be heading.

The piece on the year's best photography books, on the other hand, spreads itself too thin. Rather than giving the rub to ten titles and showcasing a smattering of photos from each, the mag would have better served its readers with more in-depth looks at five. That said, I dig the subtly literate headlines within it, such as "A Room of One's Own Imagining" (for an item about feminist photog icon Francesca Woodman).

The "Tech and Vision" tips on Photoshopping and effective use of light are lost on me, and the brief front-of-mag Q&As with a trio of photographers pass along precisely nothing of interest to novices. Of course, I doubt even the most ardent Karen Kuehn devotee would be blown away by the following question/answer exchange: "Any regrets?" / "Some, honestly. But what's important is that I have found I love photography more than ever." A noted photographer who loves photography? Have we alerted the Guinness Book, folks? The lesson, as always: just because a smart or interesting person says something doesn't mean you have to print it.

I do, however, feel edu-ma-cated enough to suggest that somebody oughta pump a few bucks into American Photo. Every week, I receive two or three obscure, arty magazines printed on the finest stock; their pages are thicker than slices of pastrami and they beam like a starlet's depimpled forehead. Given the photo-tastic content and the skill with which the mag presents it, American Photo deserves this uber-luxe treatment. Step up, Hachette.

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