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Essentials: 7 Illuminating Books on Photography

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While the first photograph was created a decade earlier, 1839 is the year that photography was made practical by the introduction of the daguerreotype, the salt print, and other technologies. Within a decade or so, photography had become a fixture of daily life and even a form of artistic expression, though one that relied on cumbersome cameras to ape the vocabulary of painting. But during the first half of the 20th century, lighter cameras and faster films made it possible to take sharply focused images on the fly, creating a new aesthetic bound uniquely to the camera. By midcentury, the idea of photography as a fine art had been established firmly enough to warrant its own field of study. Since then, all sorts of books on the topic have been published, ranging from histories of the medium to personal meditations on the same to critical evaluations of photography’s impact on society. Our list of recommended books on photography features examples of each, and more. (Prices and availability current at time of publication.)

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1. Susan Sontag, On Photography
Susan Sontag, a public intellectual when being one was still possible, published On Photography in 1977. This was a time when the rational, modernist world view born of the Enlightenment began to give way to postmodernism—which, among other notions, stipulated that society could longer agree on a shared perception of the truth. Sontag’s book, five essays that originally appeared in the New York Review of Books between 1973 and 1977, was of a piece with the project to disassemble the ideological and phenomenological sureties of modernity, but at its core it laid blame for this state of affairs where it arguably belonged: with photography. Among other observations, Sontag describes the medium as a form of “aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted,” one that “confirms that everything is perishable,” making reality “fundamentally unclassifiable.” Written nearly 50 years ago, Sontag’s words ring truer today than ever in an age of deep fakes and social media.
Purchase: On Photography $13.79 (new) on Amazon

2. John Szarkowski, Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art
No institution has promoted fine art photography more than the Museum of Modern Art, and no person within the organization has done more to further that mission than John Szarkowski, director of MoMA’s photography department between 1962 and 1991. Szarkowski was legendary, producing 160 exhibitions over his tenure and introducing the work of Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand to the public. In 1976 he mounted “William Eggleston’s Guide,” the museum’s first-ever show of color photographs, which sparked a storm of critical controversy. In this “picture book” (as the author calls it), Szarkowski takes readers on a tour of the greatest hits in MoMA’s photo collection, with reproductions of individual images on one side of each spread and Szarkowski’s comments about them on the other. If you’re going to have just one book on photography, this is the book.
Purchase: Looking at Photographs $34.41 (new) on Amazon

3. Andy Grundberg, How Photography Became Contemporary Art: Inside an Artistic Revolution from Pop to the Digital Age
Everything seems to be taking a back seat to painting nowadays, but as Andy Grundberg observes in this book, photography was once the principal driver of contemporary art—not the sort associated with Henri Cartier Bresson et al., but a category initially linked to documenting the ephemeral performances and earthworks of early 1970s Conceptual Art. Ironically, these images began being treated as art objects themselves, and by the end of the decade, artists such as Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince had transformed photography into a conceptualist deconstruction of the medium’s role in mass media. German artists (Thomas Ruff, Andreas Gursky) followed suit, applying painting’s scale and ambition to their efforts. And well before all of this, photography was instrumental to Pop Art, as Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg used silkscreen and transfer techniques to incorporate photographic images into their work. Grundberg covers these developments in this history of how the camera came to supplant the paintbrush, at least for a while.

Purchase: How Photography Became Contemporary Art $20.01 (new) on Amazon

4. Beaumont Newhall, The History of Photography: From 1839 to the Present
When it comes to the study of photography, Beaumont Newhall (1908–1993) practically invented the subject. Newhall organized the Museum of Modern Art’s first major photographic exhibition in 1937 and became the first director of its photography department in 1940; later, he headed the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. This volume is the fifth edition of his extensive history of the medium, which surveys the individuals and technical innovations that shaped it. Newhall begins with pioneers such as Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, Louis Daguerre, and Henry Fox Talbot, then goes on to discuss some 300 works by the greatest photographers of the 19th and 20th centuries, explaining how the photograph evolved thanks to ever lighter and faster cameras. Newhall died as the internet was being born, so he was unable to cover the impact of the camera phone and social media on photography. Still, his comprehensive and beautifully illustrated magnum opus remains a must-have reference book.
Purchase: The History of Photography $14.92 (used) on Amazon

5. David Campany, Art and Photography
Examining the intersection of photography and contemporary art, David Campany covers territory similar to Andy Grundberg’s, though he takes the story farther back in time. He notes how photography was both dismissed and feared by culture’s gatekeepers from the start: dismissed, because how seriously could one take a medium that captured reality so readily? And feared, because the camera could do just that with a fidelity that bested that of even the ablest artists. Later, as photography became the tool for disseminating art through books and postcards, Walter Benjamin wrote that “mechanical reproduction” robbed artworks of their aura. Benjamin’s point has proved to be somewhat debatable over time, and in any case, abstraction freed art of its mimetic function, allowing photography to become an undisputed aesthetic genre. Eventually the tension between the two resolved into a dialog with developments such as photorealism and appropriation art. Campany smoothly recounts all of these trends in this essential addition to any photo library.
Purchase: Art and Photography $20.45 (new) on Amazon

6. Vilém Flusser, Toward a Philosophy of Photography
Photographs are produced by cameras, obviously, with the quality of the former depending on the quality of the latter. A Leica’s results are different from a Brownie’s, though most people only look at a photograph for what it is—a unique image. But according to Vilém Flusser (1920–1991), these mechanics underscore the fact that the photograph isn’t a stand-alone artifact, but rather part of a chain of causality going from the camera to the factory making it to the larger industrial sphere in which the factory operates. To Flusser, then, this overriding context supersedes the character of a camera, which is itself is of a piece with technologies “robotizing all aspects of our lives, from one’s most public acts to one’s innermost thoughts, feelings, and desires.” Writing in 1983, Flusser was limited to discussing analog photography, but his sentiments ring even truer now in the age of digital images.
Purchase: Toward a Philosophy of Photography $20.00 (new) on Amazon

7. Steven Edwards, Photography: A Very Short Introduction
Though the title of Steven Edwards’s book suggests a brief how-to for newbie shutterbugs, it’s actually a philosophical primer on the nature of photography itself. Edwards questions what a photograph means and what its relevance to society is. He also wonders just what a photograph is, anyway. Edwards observes that since modern society is veritably soaked in photographic imagery, it’s necessary to understand the medium’s history and the various functions flowing from it—which, according to the book, start with two broad categories: documentation and artistic expression. The first is presumably objective, while the latter is subjective, but our own individual perspective of a photo swings back and forth between the two, depending on where we find the image—on a National Enquirer cover, say, or in a gallery. So perhaps this is a how-to book after all: a guide to the role photography plays in the world and the ways we can make sense of it.
Purchase: Photography: A Very Short Introduction $11.95 (new) on Amazon

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