The title of the book is The Minimalist Photographer, and it's all about what you bring to your photography, and why. Good photographs might happen as a result of just knowing how to use a camera, but consistently great images of any kind result from merging that technical know-how with some idea of what you want to convey about what you see.
Johnson clearly sets the premise for this book in the Introduction, beginning with the all-too-familiar crisis that a lot of us face after the excitement of a new camera wears off and we ask ourselves, "What now?" He came to realize that without bringing some kind of aesthetic philosophy to his photography, it would remain little more than an exercise in technical competence. He chose a minimalist, reductionist philosophical approach, and found that it works on all levels, whether as a style of art or as a conscious choice in equipment. Once that approach, that philosophy, was in place, the possibilities opened up, and interesting images could be made from nearly anything.
Developing an aesthetic philosophy begins with self-exploration, and the first chapter is appropriately titled "You." It starts with an explanation of why it is easier now to develop your own approach to photography than it was in the past, thanks to digital cameras and being able to share photos on the Internet, without worrying about meeting a pre-ordained standard set by publishers and gallery owners.
The chapter really kicks in for me, though, when Johnson poses the question, "Why do you want to take photographs?" It is a harder question to answer than it might first appear, but it is the first step toward developing your own philosophy, and you need to be honest. From there he asks, "What type of photographer are you now?" and gives examples of how certain kinds of labels, such as "landscape photographer," can be self-limiting, while others, such as as "minimalist photographer," can expand possibilities no matter what is being photographed.
The chapter concludes with, "What type of photographer will you become?" He explains that this is where having a workable philosophy can keep photography interesting and limitless: "Photography writing tends to treat the art as a top-down process. The assumption is that there is this finite amount of technical and artistic knowledge required, and when you have this knowledge, you are a master.... This approach is fundamentally wrong. Photography is a bottom-up process; it is about learning from the past, experimenting, making mistakes, and heading toward an unmapped future. This approach produces great photographers." From there he addresses temperament, our inner natures: "Possibly the hardest work that you will have to do as a photographer is to mesh your art with your own nature." Johnson stands out from the crowd on this one, warning against specializing too soon, and confusing specialization and style.
From here the book is structured from the approach to one's photography, to the basics like shutter speed and light metering, to camera types, and light sources. All of these are considered with a minimalist approach to equipment and time, of cutting to the chase. Particularly eye-opening is the section in Chapter 4 about the photography equipment industry and taking camera reviews with a grain of salt. Then comes a chapter on composition and aesthetics, with some useful ways of thinking outside of the rules.
The last three chapters give several different ways of learning from other photographers, both past and present, whether you agree with their approach or not--"to read with a critical mind." For instance, Johnson doesn't care for HDR, and he explains how he arrived at this as an example of self-analysis. Then he shows how the analysis not only works inward, but outward, as he looks at the place of HDR in the larger world of photography, the dynamics it creates in the community. Reading about others' approach to photography is crucial to developing your own; the key here is not just absorbing those approaches like a sponge, but in assessing what you read.
He goes on to show how a minimalist approach to photography evolved in the history of the camera, from its earliest days to the present ubiquitous camera phone, and through the art styles that photography influenced, such as Pictorialism and Modernism. This "selective history" (his words) shows how aesthetics in photography has further evolved from a rigid hierarchy established by the few who could afford it to today's near-anarchy, thanks to the computer and sites like Flickr. Johnson's hope that the increasing accessibility of photography, as a result of technological advances and prices coming down, will lead to a true meritocracy. It's an uplifting message for anyone who takes the art of photography seriously. As he says, "there has never been a better time to be a photographer."
This is a book I wish I'd had back when I first picked up a camera, especially a digital one. It is quite possible to use this book as a primer for the basics of photography, yet there's enough in it to get you going on a more advanced level, especially when it comes to developing your own style and aesthetics. There's tons of food for thought, all written in a casual, conversational style, and loads of great photographs which demonstrate the value of bringing a philosophy to one's art.