I just finished a first read-through of a lovely new book I got for Christmas, "The Last Photographic Heroes: American Photographers of the Sixties and Seventies" by Gilles Mora (Abrams Books, 2008). It is, as admitted by the author, a very subjective selection of "heroic" artists, those who devoted their lives to expanding the medium, most of whom I was unfamiliar with. I am always hungry to see new images, something presented that catches my eye or makes me think in a different way.

Prior to the mid-to-late 20th Century, photography was not particularly considered an art form, save for a few famous pioneers such as Ansel Adams and Alfred Stieglitz. Working photographers more or less did illustrative work or plain photojournalism -- taking pictures of dresses or socks or toasters or lawn mowers for print ads,or of the burned-out house from last night's 3-alarm fire or a baby next to Farmer Brown's giant pumpkin for the Daily Bugle. Photographs were to always be properly lit and composed and in perfect focus, conveying only the very surface of what was being photographed.

Post-WWII America was ready to break free of what was, finally able to because people weren't out in the damn fields with Farmer Brown all day hauling pumpkins and spreading manure. There was just enough freedom and opportunity and time and energy for new kinds of expression to flourish -- rock n' roll, Beat writers, multi-media painters, and photography, which slowly opened up and accepted the work of those who made provocative images, which often took time and effort to understand and appreciate.

As I expected, I had mixed feelings about the book -- some of the images were clever, disturbing, beautiful, amusing, some of the work very interesting to me, and some I simply did not see as genius. I know I found the book too verbose and too laden with art critic terms for my taste; I would rather have seen more images and less text telling me about the bickering insularity of the art world. I just really want to see the pictures, and think about them in my own way, and I think most artists want people to do just that.

How photography has changed, even since I began taking little Instamatic photos as a kid, more than I think anyone could have dreamed. I think I got into taking pictures because I saw my dad digging it -- he had all kinds of odd little cameras. Even though he stopped taking pictures by the time I was about 8, it made an impression on me, the magic of freezing time, seeing how that looked, always different than you recalled. But taking pictures is really only part of the process of producing an image, as I found; the work done in the darkroom makes a huge difference in how the picture is perceived. Ask anyone who has done it -- you could spend forever tinkering with a single image in the darkroom, changing this or that, endlessly printing and reprinting while breathing in those chemicals, the smell of which I can still bring up on call in my olfactory memory.

Now -- now! -- with the advent of high-quality digital cameras and incredibly-powerful computer imaging programs, photography as a true art is available to nearly everyone. Things that used to take hours in the darkroom now take seconds in Photoshop. If you don't like what you did, you click Undo, and all is saved. Fantastic. That doesn't mean at all that everyone has the talent or ability or innovation to be a Great Artist, but how marvelous it is that so many more people have the opportunity to try, or even just explore the ideas of photography at their leisure.

Art, in whatever form, is the heartbeat of humanity. It shows the range of the human soul, things that take us to a higher level, to contemplate for a moment another's way of seeing the world. It is a gift when someone can touch people, many people, with their art.

The recent award-winning HP commercial featuring The Kinks' "Picture Book."