Art of Photography

Rob Townsend

Books roundup

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Over the Art of Photography course there’s been a lot of books I’ve bought / borrowed / downloaded, many of which I haven’t specifically written about in the form of a book review. Some of these are theoretical/critical textbooks, some are more practical, some are photobooks on a single photographer/project, others are compendiums of the great and good.

What I want to do here is summarise what I’ve got out of each of these books so far – I expect to revisit some in more detail as they become more relevant on future modules of the degree. These are roughly grouped in the following order: photographic theory; photographers; compendiums.

By the way, this is long so no need for anyone to read it unless you really want to. I’m mainly writing it up for my own benefit!

1. The Photograph, Graham Clarke

The book that came with the course notes, and so the first one I had a go at reading. As with Sontag below, I struggled at first as I needed to get into the right frame of mind for the content to really start making sense. I made notes on my initial reaction here – ‘a mix of fascinating, obtuse and pretentious’ is a reasonable summary of that early review! But it bears re-reading, and sinks in more when you have a better grounding in the overall context of photographic history and practice. Re-reading at the end of the course is highly recommended – only very small portions of the text now look obtuse or pretentious!

2. A Short History of Photography (Walter Benjamin)

I found this quite interesting on three specific points, all I think relating to the maturity of photography at the time of writing (it was under 100 years old as a medium). Firstly, he identifies aspects of photography that I believe people take for granted now, such as the ability to see what the naked eye cannot discern; secondly, he compares photography to other art forms, not simply the obvious one, painting, but also to writing and even to music – and his conclusions make you think about the medium in quite a different way; and thirdly, he writes from a standpoint that photography has already peaked, clearly ignorant of the decades of innovation that would follow! So interesting but limited.

3. On Photography (Susan Sontag)

Like Clarke, this hurt my brain at first but on second and third reading it made more and more sense – not that I agreed with everything! But you do have to read it to learn which bits you disagree with… it made me think about a photograph and what it ‘means’ more than I ever had before – and gave me a few new insights that resonated with me. See review here.

4. Understanding a Photograph (John Berger)

I’m still working through this so will reserve full judgement. It’s a collection of essays, but in a more fragmented sense than On Photography is – more of them, written over a long timespan, with disconnected themes. Some of the essays I was quite indifferent to (such as the analyses of specific photos) but the chapters on ‘Appearances’ and ‘Stories’ and the way he dissected (diagrammatically!) how good photographs work… these really resonated with me. So far I’ve found his writing to be more analytical and revealing than Sontag’s. I can see myself revisiting the chapters I’ve read, and maybe selectively reading other of the essays as they become pertinent to my studies.

5. Photography: A Critical Introduction (Liz Wells, ed.)

This, I confess, I struggled with more than any other. Very, very dry and academic, and needs a level of critical theory understanding that I’m not sure I possess yet. I’m afraid I only made it through chapter 1. I must come back to this as my studies progress…

6. The Photographer’s Mind (Michael Freeman)

Having already having read and enjoyed The Photographer’s Eye before I started my studies, I gave a copy of this follow-up to a friend as a birthday present… which I then very cheekily borrowed back recently. I’m only partway through but already I’m appreciating new levels of insight. He’s very good on ‘what makes a good photo?’ – the concepts of aesthetic norms, and what kinds of images are generally held to be pleasing to the eye – or not, as the case may be. I need to continue with this.

7. The Mind’s Eye (Henri Cartier-Bresson)

A slim volume to begin with, and 90% of the content is padding! The 10% that remains (all in Part 1: The Camera As Sketchbook) is however very insightful, as it articulates Cartier-Bresson’s philosophy to taking pictures. It stresses the importance of respect for the subject, and the need for ‘harmony’; he talks about “putting one’s head, one’s eye, and one’s heart on the same axis” when taking a picture. The big thing I took away from his world view is how he talks about geometry; he prefers the term over ‘composition’ and muses on how photography can detect (rather than impose) the rhythms, patterns and lines that already exist in the real world – “if the shutter was released at the decisive moment, you have instinctively fixed a geometric pattern without which the photograph would have been both formless and lifeless”.

8. Scrapbook (Henri Cartier-Bresson)

By far the most expensive book in my collection! And to be very honest, I’m not sure it’s worth the couple of hundred pounds that it goes for! I mean, it’s great – basically Cartier-Bresson curated by Cartier-Bresson. It’s a real education to pore over his selected images, looking for the elements that he saw in the scenes before him – the harmony, the geometry. And it’s beautifully presented. I just wish it was a bit more accessible, price-wise. More people should own this, but it’s prohibitively priced.

9. Vivian Maier: Street Photographer (Vivian Maier, John Maloof)

Fascinating insight into world of a seemingly untutored street photographer who never showed her work to anyone. Blog post reviewing this can be found here.

10. The Last Resort (Martin Parr)

The first of two recommended photo essays for the Narrative & Illustration part of the course, and this one covering a subject that resonated with me – northern seaside holidays in the 1980s! My thoughts on it are here.

11. The Americans (Robert Frank)

The second recommendation for the Narrative & Illustration, and to be honest I didn’t see the big deal of this at first. Repeated viewings of the images – and a sense of the prevailing context and photographic norms – do however reveal why this has such a groundbreaking reputation. I reviewed it here.

12. The Photograph as Contemporary Art (Charlotte Cotton)

I really liked this! It gave me a brilliant insight into the huge range of activity happening under the very broad heading of ‘contemporary photography’. It works really well as a counterpart to the ‘usual’ photography book, full of revered black-and-white prints from the acknowledged masters – this book shows how people are continually pushing at the edges of what photography is / can do / can mean. The nature of the majority of the work covered here falls into what I would call ‘staged’ subjects – as opposed to ‘found’ subjects (and to be honest this isn’t my preferred genre of photography; I am fundamentally more attracted to photography that finds ways to capture what’s there than I am to manufacturing something that I envisage will look good in a photo…) but you can’t deny the imagination on show here. It demonstrates one of the concepts that I picked up from Sontag actually: that the distinctive way of seeing that a photographer has is, in itself, something to admire – over and above individual images or even collected sets.

13. Street Photography Now (Sophie Howarth & Stephen McLaren)

For me this does for street photography what the Cotton book does for more ‘made’ photographic art: it shows the breadth of imagination and vision under one so-called genre. And frankly this kind of subject matter is more my cup of tea. The cliches of street photography – black and white, US cities – are augmented by a vast array of styles and subjects. Colour seems to dominate, abstract shapes and juxtapositions emerge, and the diversity in locations is testament to the ever-widening definition of ‘street’ photography. Very inspiring. Think I’ll come back to this a lot during People & Place.

14. Magnum Magnum (Brigitte Lardinois, ed.)

This is a fantastic compendium of Magnum photographers’ work, with an interesting twist: each photographer has their work curated and evaluated by another Magnum member. so it serves not only as a thorough (if eclectic) guide to the works of these acclaimed practitioners, it also gives an insight into what great photographers think makes a good photograph – what they see in the work of their peers or predecessors. So in each short chapter you feel like you’ve learned something about two photographers – the subject and the author.

15. Magnum Contact Sheets (Kristen Lubben, ed.)

Recommended by my tutor, this was possibly the biggest eye-opener to me. Up until getting this book, I had always assumed that the great photographers got it right in camera more often than not… but the truth, as demonstrated here, is that they shoot as many exposures as they think they need, and pore over the contact sheets (physical or digital) to identify the one where they ‘got it right’. This book taught me that no-one gets it right all the time, not even half the time, so keep shooting! It’s not a review as such, but I did note my favourite photographers’ quotes from the book in this post.

16. Photo Box (Roberto Koch, ed.)

A Thames & Hudson compendium of historic and contemporary photographers, this is themed into subject genres: reportage, war, portraits, nudes, women, travel, cities, art, fashion, still life, sport and nature. Each photographer gets one representative image per category (some are in multiple categories) alongside a brief biography and analysis of their work. Like ‘100 Ideas…’ this is a mainstream ‘dip-in-and-out’ book rather than a serious work of photography history or critique. I’ve found it useful for both inspiration and for filling in gaps in my knowledge. I expect to come back to this book on and off during my People & Place studies in particular.

17. 100 Ideas That Changed Photography (Mary Warner Marien)

This book is a compendium of 100 innovative aspects of photography since its inception, and plots the development of the medium – some technical, some idealogical, some about subject matter, some about usage – in a very digestible, ‘bite-sized chunk’ way of presentation. It’s not a history of photography per se – it doesn’t follow a timeline, and in this respect it’s a book that one can dip in and out of rather than read cover-to-cover. I can see myself coming back to this one many times.

18. Photographs Not Taken (Will Steacy, ed.)

A quirky one, this. It’s a collection of short (1-2 page) anecdotes from contemporary photographers, all on the theme of the photo they didn’t take. Sometimes they didn’t have their camera, sometimes the camera broke, sometimes they were scared, sometimes they were being respectful, sometimes they chose to experience the moment rather than record it, and sometimes they just messed up the shot. Each vignette only takes a few minutes to read. In a sense they’re almost like photographs themselves – capturing a moment, but in words not images.

  1. Clarke, G. (1997) The photograph. New York: Oxford University Press
  2. Benjamin, W. (1931) A short history of photography. 1972 English translation. Oxford: Oxford Journals
  3. Sontag, S. (1979) On photography. London: Penguin
  4. Berger, J. (2013) Understanding a photograph. London: Penguin Classics
  5. Wells, L. (2009) Photography: a critical introduction. London: Routledge
  6. Freeman, M. (2010) The photographer’s mind. Lewes: Ilex
  7. Cartier-Bresson, H (1999) The mind’s eye. New York: Aperture
  8. Cartier-Bresson, H (2006) Scrapbook. Paris: Thames & Hudson
  9. Maier, V & Maloof, J. (2011) Vivian Maier: street photographer. New York: Powerhouse
  10. Parr, M. (2012) The last resort. Stockport: Dewi Lewis
  11. Frank, R. (2008) The Americans. Gottingen, Germany: Steidl
  12. Cotton, C. (2009) The photograph as contemporary art. London: Thames & Hudson
  13. Howarth, S & McLaren, S. (2011) Street photography now. London: Thames & Hudson
  14. Lardinois, B. (2009) Magnum Magnum. London: Thames & Hudson
  15. Lubben, K. (2011) Magnum Contact Sheets. London: Thames & Hudson
  16. Koch, R (2009) Photo Box. London: Thames & Hudson
  17. Warner Marien, M. (2012) 100 ideas that changed photography. London: Laurence King
  18. Steacy, W. (2012) Photographs not taken. North Carolina: Daylight



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