Just curious—has anyone read Max Kozloff's The Theatre of the Face? I'd be interested to know what you think of it.
I found Kozloff too weighty and impenetrable when I first encountered him. Lost to memory is whether that was because of the particular piece I ran up against, or should be put down my own jejune unformed intellect of the time. More recently I've been enjoying dipping into my copy of Lone Visions, Crowded Frames, which is slowly winning me over to Mr. Max. (Mad Max? K? I daren't be too flippantly familiar, because he's out there, and he could find me....) Take this intro to one essay, for example:
By and large, artists aren't widely heard of in our culture unless their work is priced off the charts or they're censured for sexy subjects. War photographers don't typically enter the news unless they get shot. Hearing of such deaths, we may feel momentarily shocked, as if we had been impudently denied our natural right to reportage from dangerous areas....
How could anyone not keep reading that?
Dipping into PHOTO:BOX at random (and, as an aside, what do people think of that?) from time to time reminds me that it's been a long time since I really read much photography criticism for pleasure, or indeed for any other reason than self-improvement. I read out of duty, now, mostly.
[UPDATE 11/19/12: Vizu Polls closed down, so I've taken a screen shot of the poll results and substituted it for the live poll. Best I could do to preserve the post. —Ed.]
I feel a distinctly old dog: most of the books that formed my own education are long out of print, dusty and uncontemporary. There are a number of books (such as The Theatre of the Face) that I'm curious about, but often not, it seems, quite curious enough to actually read them. I've reached that stage where I know enough to merely argue with authors I read, in my head. Maybe I should revisit some of the books that influenced me when I started out, and see what I think of them now.
Featured Comment by Jez: "While I love reading about photography, I usually don't get much further than introductions to monographs as I find most writing on photography dry and humourless. Having said that, Dyer's Ongoing Moment that you linked to above is absolutely fantastic. I've read it twice already and find myself dipping back in from time to time. If only more people could write about photography like that. And don't get me started on Sontag. What a tedious little book that is...."
Featured Comment by Yuanchung Lee: "I love A.D. Coleman. He's among my favorite writers on photography, next to Robert Adams, Szarkowski, and Papageorge. Definitely my favorite non-photographer writer. (Coleman, by the way, shows up in that terrific documentary about Shelby Lee Adams which was recently shown on Ovation. Great film; made me love S.L.A. even more.)
"Geoff Dyer, not so much—a bit smarmy, not enough editing. But I have the book, and have been planning to re-read it, so may change my mind. Sontag, no. (Coleman's critique of On Photography is devastating, and right on). Barthes, a big fat no. (Though I confess that despite a master's in philosophy, i only understood about 35% of what he wrote)."
Featured Comment by Geoff Wittig: "I want a book of photo criticism to make it worth my while to to read it closely. I lose interest if it doesn't quickly make a valid point or follow a logical thread.
Some have struck me as very worthwhile because they were brilliant, or perhaps reasonably perceptive—or at very least entertainingly catty. Geoffrey Dyer's The Ongoing Moment falls into the latter category; he's certainly not a member of the "academy", and some of his judgments are questionable. But he doesn't beat around the bush with his opinions, and sometimes says what the rest of us are thinking. (I chuckled at Dyer's analysis of Stieglitz's nudes of the much younger O'Keefe: hey, look who I get to sleep with.)
A.D. Coleman's books are wonderful; erudite, insightful, strong opinions backed by solid evidence. His brilliant essay on the very deliberate erasure of William Mortensen from photographic history by Beaumont Newhall et al. should be required reading. It sharply demonstrates how artificial and incomplete the 'canon' of photography-as-art really is. The late Bill Jay's collected musings are warmly entertaining, but really don't rise to the level of criticism. I'd much rather read a collection of David Vestal's pithy commentary, which sadly is not available in book form.
Among current photo criticism titles, Terry Barrett's Criticizing Photographs is a very approachable introduction to the conventions and jargon of criticism for interested amateurs, and it's often used as a college level text on the subject. After reading it at least you'll know what academics are talking about. Michael Fried's Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before is a turgid, tendentious book-length essay arguing that huge cinematically constructed photographs by Jeff Wall, Gregory Crewdson et al are the most significant art on the planet. Hookay.
Photography After Frank by Philip Gefter is a cut-and-paste collection of old articles and new essays that tries to connect Robert Frank's The Americans to subsequent "post modern thought" and confections like Jeff Wall's; the corpse doesn't quite fit into the coffin, but some sections are interesting. Ian Jeffrey's How to Read a Photograph: Lessons from Master Photographers turns out instead to be more like "how I personally read a photograph," wherein the author draws all sorts of unsustainable or frankly imaginary conclusions from "readings" of images famous and obscure.
I read 'em so you don't have to.
A few others: Frank Van Riper's Talking Photography (2002) is a bit dated now, but contains some very enjoyable essays on photographic craft and art. Vicki Goldberg's Light Matters is a collection of her essays across several decades; some are really good, others not so much. Overall they lack the elegance and coherence of A.D. Coleman or the deep thought behind Robert Adams' essays.