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Wednesday, 10 April 2019


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Surely it ought not to be a book, but something on-line? Constantly evolving, with ever-changing curators, millions of comments, and all the commentators furiously arguing with each other.

Because the democratisation of photography, via the smartphone and the internet, means that anything written in a book (!) will be out of date before it’s published....

Similarly, I was more interested in photographic history when younger and first learning about all things photographic. Post fifty, one concentrates on what still needs to be done, acknowledging that your own history will soon be completed...

But, outside of fine art circles, Frank Frazetta has probably had a greater cultural effect than Eakins and Hockney...

Hey now! Why the Frank Frazetta hate? I spent many an hour reading fine literature with his artwork on the cover.

I think it's a clowder of cats, definitely not a herd.

Knowing about the history of photography is more important to me than a single volume that tries to summarise it, that way you can get an overarching impression rather than one person's viewpoint. History is written by the victors, so they say.

I first learned about the history of photography from the volume The Art of Photography in the Time-Life series, back in the early 1970s. Around the same time, I bought a Penguin books paperback titled, simply, Photography. It, too, had a pretty good synopsis of the history of the art form.

I have Beaumont Newhall's book which is decent. I also have the superb Bystander: A History of Street Photography by Colin Westerbeck and Joel Meyerowitz, which is a treat to read, if you happen to be interested in that type of photography. I think many of your readers are, Mike.

Speaking of William Mortensen, I bought from eBay, without knowing anything about him, three of his books, titled The Model, Pictorial Lighting, and Outdoor Portraiture.

I found his style to be simultaneously grotesque and kitschy (and very off-putting) but he had his followers, back in the day. Ansel Adams and Edward Weston hated him, though.

I've been trying to get rid of the books ever since, and if anyone wants them for free, I'll mail them to you from Singapore.

Here are a couple of essays on Mortensen. Warning: NSFW, which is typical of many of his images.



PS: Mike, my apologies. I don't know how to link those book titles to the Amazon site in a way that ensures that TOP gets credit.

“Do not go gentle into that good night.”
Dylan Thomas

The problem with the history of photography books is not the quality of the edition or the selection... is the quality and the depth of the concept and thinking: what you say, and not how you say it or show it.

There are great books on History of Art or History of Painting with a few illustrations.

The key points should be a careful periodification, a clear idea of the specificity of photography as an art and how it evolved. Not easy task.

I tried a sketch here:



Lartigue's picture of the Grand Prix de l'Automobile de France still makes for some serious head-scratching amongst the novice.

"Most of the photographs were "made into art" in some ostentatious or obvious way"

Yes. I'd call it horrible. You'd call Mortensen horrible: I'd never heard of him before, and I'd say banal... if you find him horrible, well, maybe that says more about the critical frame of the critic :-)

There's the thing: any attempt to write a linear history of photography is doomed by the need to prune away the huge mass of work that the editor and authors feel to be uninteresting, redundant, of poor quality... or maybe even horrible. With the exponential increase of photographic production (and I use that adjective in its full technical, Malthusian horror), it is simply impossible to select in an objective way: if you allocated space in proportion to images produced, everything of last century would have to be represented by two images, if the current explosion was to fit in 500 pages.

Moreover, there would certainly be no "American" (nor French nor European) in the title...

Mike, Concerning your PS, could you sometime write up a criticism of Mortensen? I'm not sure how many here would like to hear your side of the story, but I, for one, would be very interested. Maybe with a few opening comments about whether your "root teacher" Clarence White was "good" or not, as well.

I still wouldn't buy it.

I only buy - now and the rare again - monographs. Hardback ones. I'm interested in photographers whose work grabs me, not in all the stuff (and stuffing) that surrounds.


Mike, thanks for mentioning the Time/Life series on photography. It would be great if they could revisit/update that. My original first edition was subscribed to by my mother when I started my photography classes at PCA in Phila. As a family, we were already subscribing to Life magazine, and I remember saving quite a few copies because of their historical and photo content. The T/L library gave me a nice perspective all round, with a unique printing quality I haven’t seen too much of. I think the black and white reproductions were done in a gravure printing on a silver ink base? I can’t find the production notes, but this made the photos have an extra depth and tone. It was done only in the larger, cloth-edged first edition. The second edition was not printed this way. I try to emulate this when I print the multiple blacks on my Epson 3800. And, a small connection with the series was when my down-the-hall dorm friend, George Obremski, got a photo in one of the volumes. The series still holds its own this day and age for some of its aspects. I’d recommend getting a hold of a set before they disappear...

Tom Burke suggested an on-line publication and I agree. But what about a PBS/Ken Burns (for example) series with companion book and on-line features?

Suggest a different approach: try Jeff Curto’s “History of Photography” podcasts; or, Coursera’s “Seeing Through Photographs” online class. Both are free and cover this ground well.



Here is a good, albeit humorous, video on the history of photography https://youtu.be/zI1JzDFHVh4

Well, there is one image by Mortensen that I think is worthy, and it's one that haunts me to this day: -- HUMAN RELATIONS 1932


What would you put in a photographic history? I know what I'd put in up to about (say) 1975, but after that, the possibilities seem to grow increasingly limited. I go to photo shows when I can, but in the past couple of decades, there really hasn't been much that I was interested in seeing. At some point, that I wouldn't try to specify, but probably in the late 19th century, photographs became good enough that they could be used to do legitimate artistic exploration. (I'm having to use some shorthand, here, like "artistic", so give me a little rope.) We could see things that hadn't been seen before, at least not in the way photographs could do it. Among the most important things that photos did was to break down cultural barriers to certain kinds of expression; and it also allowed photographers to explore what at one time was called the "sublime."


So, photographers explored the human body in ways that had never been done before. In 2019, do we need more nudes, when virtually every crevice of the human body (both sexes, all races) has been explored to the microscopic level, and imaging machines like CT scans can expose the smallest bits our our interiors? You can now watch, in high definition, any kind of sexual activity you care to see, on the Internet. We now have billions of landscapes; do we need more? Do we need more wildlife photography? More dance photos? More architecture? More exploration of color? More cat photos?

When was the last time somebody on this forum actually saw something in a photo show that went beyond eye-catching, and made them *think* about what they were seeing?

The only real categories where I see possibilities are in various versions of documentary photography -- street, war, possibly fashion. In other words, photography that might be of some historical interest (as opposed to artistic interest) in the future. Okay: James Nachtwey has conclusively demonstrated that even the most brutal war photography can be done with an aesthetic eye, but what else is out there? You could write a history of the machines we use, of sensors, of lens development, or printers, but what about photographs themselves?

To get back to my original question, what would you put in a late 20th Century/21st Century history of photography (or more properly, history of photographs) that would have any significance to anyone other than a bunch of cork-sniffers?

Curiously enough, after you mentioned the Life Library, whose Spanish edition I have and now was nearly forgotten in the remotest nook of my brain, I reflected on it and realized the huge impact it had in my fisrt steps in photography. I've dusted several volumes just to peruse its pages for remembrance sake. A new Library would -and should- be very different, indeed.

I realised just now that I know when I'm reading John Camp before I reach the credit line.

That is a compliment.

And regarding his post, he's right. Unfortunately. I believe it's the end of good photography as it used to be: at least a craft, and at best an art. This began, certainly, during the early 80s and before digital turned the economic tide on pro photography. I base this upon my experience in stock shooting which was where I hoped to enter the slowing down lane as the commissioned work began to slow a bit and I grew somewhat basé about what I was doing. I contacted BAPLA, the stock agency body, seeking advice, and they told me London was already drowning in stock images of everything. The Image Bank, in an interview, announced they held thirty-six thousand images of the Eiffel Tower... you want to invest your own money in shooting no. 36,001?

In a nutshell, photography has lost its cachet, and even as a profession, only the stars need think of a reliable, kinda, future.

Please do not bring up Time-Life books anymore. I was such a snob about them when they were originally released because they were book club books. But when I find one in a thrift store I’m always astonished at the depth of the information and excellence of the visuals and I’m ashamed of my youthful arrogance.
The photo annuals in particular are a source of wonder because they describe the huge amounts of courage, cunning, and creativity photographers had to put into some of those iconic images from the 1960s and 1970s.

I think perhaps the term photography and it's meaning is over. Data capture is perhaps more relevant now. With the rise of computational imaging and sensor development we are entering a new age.

The latest example just appeared in the popular press yesterday. the first "image" of a black hole. It was made from 12-16 not camera devices and a very intensive set of super computers. algorithms. It that really a photograph as we now use the term?

Call it what it is: you seem to be talking about "A history of curation of photography as art"

I'd suggest it has been relatively unimportant in the evolving practice of photography, compared to photojournalism and fashion photography.

Otherwise, the youtube link by Eric Rose is excellent :-)

Not to be provocative but...

I’ve long wondered what value such histories (or really any histories) genuinely deliver beyond idle entertainment.

Re Time-Life: I had the complete set via the book club and thought they were well-written and informative. I held on to them for many years but passed them on the local library when I thought they had become out of date.

I have read a number of photography history books and have a bunch on the shelves. Many are reprints of older histories.

Two things about the Ang book, which I have not seen:

First, any book that declares itself to be "definitive" (or ultimate, for that matter is not. It is almost certain that short shrift is given to many aspects of photography, even in a ~500 page tome.

Second, this one was published four years ago. It is already out of date, reinforcing the first point.

And one gratuitous comment: not to besmirch Mr. Ang, but the blurb on Amazon calls him a world renown photographer, writer, and broadcaster. I don't recall ever seeing any of his photos (at least none that stick in my mind), his writings appear to be mostly for DK on various photography how-tos, and if he broadcasts I don't think the signals go much further than the borders of the UK.

I just ran into this. Made my day ;)


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