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Wednesday, 09 December 2009


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There's an option missing from your poll -

"Yes, I have but gave up".

Some books I've particularly enjoyed on photography criticism and literature are: At the Edge of the Light by David Travis; Print the Legend by Martha A. Sandweiss; A.D. Coleman's classic Light Readings; and Geoff Dyer's The Ongoing Moment was a particular favorite. (As is his But Beautiful for jazz lovers like you, Mike.) Up next on my to-read list is Burning with Desire by Geoffrey Batchen. And I'm about to order (via, TOP, of course) Peter Bunnell's Inside the Photograph.

Your level of serious may be different to other's level of serious. The less you know the more you think you know and all that.

Does Gerry Badger count? The Genius of Photography is a good read.

Definitely Geoff Dyer.

Coleman, yes, and Szarkowski, Adams, Shore... Never heard of Dyer or Kozloff. Guess I haven't read enough.

Mike, Do I ever read serious writing about photography? Having read down as far as the question I just had to tick 'yes'. And of course I read ToP every night, really. Keep it up, though I dont know how you do it so well day in day out. Thelonious keeping you going? Regards.
KG. Cornwall.UK

Studied and read about photography long before I bought a camera. Still have my full collection of books, including many comprised of history, essays, criticism and the like.

I find, for whatever reason, that I tend more to pick up first edition books of images by photographers I love than to re-read the rest. The exception seems to be books that offer commentary on individual images, for instance by Loengard or Szarkowski.

Good reminder to dust off the shelf. Maybe Sontag's On Photography?

Initially I thought, "Yep, I've at least read Dyer", but then remembered that I also read Robert Adams and David Hurn, and possibly a few others. Dyer seems to divide opinion quite strongly; I thought he was great - a singular yet pertinent viewpoint - but I read a review on a forum site that was absolutely shocked by his vulgarity in discussing Walker Evans's genitals and summed him up as the kind of smartarse who shows his intellect off loudly at parties. He does appear to rub some people up precisely the wrong way.

The Ongoing Moment is a right apt title. I have been "reading" it for going on a year now!

Two in particular:
Szarkowski has an idiosyncratic voice I particularly enjoy, and Barthes' La chambre claire, which I picked up following your recommendation, is a surprisingly intimate effort to wrestle with the idea of photography, from the author of Mythologies (which was itself an important read for me last century).

Also enjoyed the essays of Gisèle Freund and Moholy-Nagy, on their own term.

And so on, and so forth...

So yeah, I enjoy reading about it, looking at it and doing it (get your mind out of the gutter, son).

Moving on from the classics that you and your readership seem to favor, "Words Without Pictures" represents the bleeding edge of contemporary discourse about photography and is one of the most urgent and engrossing books on my night table.



The New Yorker and the Economist have both picked Geoff Dyer's latest book as one of the best books of 2009. However it is not a photography book and is not even non-fiction. I thought his name sounded familiar.

I agree with previous posters on the impenetrability of Geoff Dyer. And reading Susan Sontag leaves me feeling stupid.

But I enjoyed Phillip Gefter's collection Photography After Frank -- about what modern photo-artists are up to.

And there is a wonderful collection EW 100 (Friends of Photography 1986) about a guy with those initials who made a photo or two at Point Lobos.

Robert Frank, who wrote an essay for that book that essentially said, "look at the pictures to know their author" is a writer who strikes me as very smart, widely read, and worth reading also because his own images suggest earnest deliberation over meaning.

Yes, I do, but not much or often. Like so much art crit, writing on photography seems to be mired in obfuscatory self-aggrandizement.
I would rather read some plain English that takes pleasure in the subject. Presently, blogs seem to be providing that content.

Criticism and art (photo) history are things of their own, and not especially connected to the making of photographs. As an analogy of sorts, Mike J. has quoted himself as saying, when asked what kind of photographer he was, "I'm a writer." The making of art and the writing about it are distinct processes.

Sometimes I think that reading too much history or criticism can hurt an artist, because it may deflect him/her away from a particular vision. (Don't have a particular vision? Then you're probably not a particularly strong artist.) There are a number of artists, who I won't name, who are all over the place -- they run after styles. They're working from a critical or historical perspective, rather than an internal compulsion, and it just doesn't work as well.

But then this site, perhaps, is more about photography than about photographing, and so we get 77% who read serious criticism?

I wish I shot as much as I read, the balance is all wrong at the moment. I'm reading so that I can understand photography better, I also read so I can still have photography in my life when I am not practicing it. I judge a good book on photography by how much I forget my bus trip in to work while reading.

I'll often take something by Robert Adam's, he seems such a generous man and at peace with himself and his own place in photography. Other times it's Bill Jay or Bresson's The Mind's Eye. I've still not finished Susan Sontag's On Photography, she's rode the bus with me a few times but I don't think she was ever a bus kinda girl. I've read Geoff Dyers The On Going Moment and it's made it back on to the bus, which is the best critique I could give it.

There are other books that are too big for the cramped conditions. Danny Lyons Memories Of Myself or John Szarkowski's Looking At Photographs/The Photographer's Eye, are some of them. Dorothea Lange's new biography will be taking a trip with me next week.

My favorite photography writer: http://theonlinephotographer.typepad.com/photos/uncategorized/2007/06/02/picture_19.png

Dyer?? Man, can he turn a phrase! A few pages into Amazon's free excerpt, I encountered this one:

The only time I take a picture is when tourists ask me to take one, with their camera. ( These rare works are now dispersed around the world, in private collections, mostly in Japan.)


"And don't get me started on Sontag. What a tedious little book that is...."

A shameful complex has been lifted from me at last... I also found her as entertaining as filling tax forms, and never dared to own it up!

The books that I repeatedly pull off my bookshelf are by Robert Adams, John Szarkowski, Stephen Shore, and Mike Johnston (The Empirical Photographer). All lucid and intelligent. When writing is obstruse, I figure the author hasn't made the effort to get his/her thoughts together and likely is blowing a lot of hot air. I also appreciate the very fine introduction Sarah Greenough wrote for the big Alfred Stieglitz book published by Callaway Editions and would look forward to reading other work by her.

Heh, thanks Simon G. [*blush*]


I totally agree with oronet commander about Sontag. Definitely the most boring and unuseful book on photography I've ever read.

Whereas Camera Lucida, by the French semiologist Roland Barthes, is the most interesting and fascinating ever. And a real pleasure to read, promise.

For my money, Vince Aletti at the New Yorker (formerly at the Village Voice, I believe) is one of the most perceptive and skillful writers on photography. Although I haven't read any of his books, his (unfortunately) short articles in the New Yorker are a joy to read and reread. Many are available online. Be sure to check out the one on Paul Graham entitled "Ordinary Magic".

I've returned more than once to Janet Malcolm's Diana and Nikon . Strong collection of essays, combining history and criticism.

Hi the ToP team,

Lets not forget Minor White. Especially in 'Mirrors, Messages and Manifestations'. Doors are opened for us, scales are lifted, even if only partialy. The rest is up to us.

KG. Cornwall.UK

I'm a cultural historian and professor of environmental studies. Images are a big part of what I use in my work, so I have to be willing to engage with the weightier theoretical writings on image production and consumption on occasion.

As a photographer, of course, I get something different out of the experience, but I like being able to shift hats, depending on circumstance. Combining brainwork with instinct and aesthetics is almost always a pleasure for me.

I have Sontag's On Photography under my bed. Puts me to sleep in five minutes. My Photo:Box on the other hand makes me want to read about just one more...

I think Geoff Wittig should write a book if he hasn't already. Great review of the critics. I see Robert Adams has a ton of books via the link, any one in particular a good place to start? And what's up with some of the prices for Coleman's books via the Amazon link.

I read Susan Sontag's essays from beginning to end and was thus cured. No more serious reading about photography.

"I read Susan Sontag's essays from beginning to end and was thus cured. No more serious reading about photography."

Is that like reading "Mein Kampf" and deciding you're not going to give Jefferson a try?

(I mentioned Hitler, I lose.)

I'm not even willing to do that WITHIN one writer's work, much less dismiss an entire field on the basis of one book. I tried "Ulysses," therefore I'm never reading "Dubliners." I tried "Civil Disobedience," so no "Walden" for me....


You're too kind.
For Robert Adams, Beauty in Photography and Why People Photograph are his classic works of criticism; the latter is probably the more approachable of the two, and a good place to start. Adams can seem a bit vague or cerebral at first glance, but well worth digging into once you see where he's going.

<< Is that like reading "Mein Kampf" and deciding you're not going to give Jefferson a try? >>

Yes, it probably is. I would not normally have read Sontag, either. I read her because I felt that I "should"—just so that I would know for sure.

I think my position grows out of my personal interests. I'm very interested in doing photography. I'm interested in looking at photographs—and at other works of visual art. And I'm interested in reading the opinions and comments of others who like doing photograpy and looking at photographs. (That's why I'm a daily reader of TOP.)

On the other hand, I am not interested in whether photography has "meaning" in the wider world or in what its meaning might be. This tends to steer me away from books of criticism and philosophy related to photography. (I also makes me alergic to most "artist's statements.")

Just personal preference.


Fair enough.


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