Approaching Photography • Paul Hill

Approaching Photography first appeared in 1982 from Focal Press, and represents a departure for a publisher better known for its rather detailed technique books. It sits somewhere between technique and ‘criticism-lite’, affording a gentle introduction to the world of art, galleries and publication. The writing is in the Focal house-style, long-winded and slightly pompous and the print quality is not great, with blacks in the illustrations spreading and clogging up the shadows. Written in a pre-digital age, it centres very much on monochrome film practice. However, the book does what it sets out to do and I was interested to see the 2004 update.

The 2004 second edition is published by Photographers’ Institute Press, an imprint of Guild of Master Craftsmen who also publish Black + White Photography magazine. The page size and page-count have increased (126pp to 163pp) and the reproduction quality is vastly improved. The extra space allows an improved and more readable layout, together with larger images. Much of the text is the same as the 1982 edition, subject to recasting sentence structure for readability and it is only the last two chapters that appear to have changed significantly. Most of Hill’s own illustrative photographs remain but there is a new selection of images from other photographers. The thing I find most surprising is that the book still concentrates on monochrome film practice; digital techniques have only passing references, despite the book appearing at about the same time that mainstream digital cameras started to surpass 35mm film for resolution.

The early part of the book can be considered as ‘technique-plus’, chapters 1 (Seeing and Thinking Photographically) and 2 (After the Shutter is Pressed’) dealing with pre- and post-visualisation respectively and translating the 360˚ full-colour 3D world into a ‘framed’ monochrome image on paper.

Chapter 3 (Art and Communication) introduces the concept of photography as art and attempts to place it in context with the other arts. Painting is the obvious relation, and Hill notes the influence photography has had on painting (improved realism in detail, but also a spur to Impressionism) and the influence painting had on photography, particularly the influence of the Pictorialists in the early decades which Weston and others rebelled against.

Chapter 4 (How Photography is Used) starts well, making the point that context is important to interpreting a photograph; a picture of fungus means one thing on a gallery wall and another in a report on dampness in a housing estate. However it continues as a set of rather dry statements of the obvious about galleries, books, journalism and features. There is a passing reference to the internet and electronic distribution of images but the chapter was clearly written before the current explosion of social media.

The next three chapters discuss subject matter. Chapter 5 (The Photograph as Witness) discusses the way that the perceived accurate representation of a photograph affects our perception of portrait and documentary photography. This pre-dates the current cynicism about the use of Photoshop, particularly in fashion photography. Chapter 6 (Experiencing Beauty) discusses the idea of beauty, with particular reference to landscape photography – is there an objective standard of beauty or do we just copy postcards and brochures (which are photographs themselves). There is a discussion of whether landscape should be naturalistic or show man-made features, which segues into the use of photography in conservation. Chapter 7 (In Search of Self and the Metaphor) deals with abstraction and the communication of ideas, in which the subject matter is secondary to the feelings invoked by viewing the image. This chapter relies more heavily on the images than the text and finishes with a rather odd series of children in apparently uncomfortable situations, said to comment on their overdramatising play.

The content of Chapter 8 (From Printed Page to Gallery Wall) is not obviously connected with its title but has sections discussing documentary photography, surrealism and ‘topographic’ (deadpan)

Chapter 9 (Radical Changes and the Imaging Future) is – or was – an summary of the ‘state of the art’ and current controversies but, inevitably, appears dated 12 years on. It looks at conceptual art, rebelling against the idea that ‘art’ should take any particular form and using photography to document transient or temporary works such as installations. There is a brief introduction to semiotics, the use of signs and symbols in advertising and propaganda.

It is the sections of this chapter, dealing with electronic imaging and democratic dissemination of images, that are looking most dated. Although noting that modern photographs are not physical things but patterns of electrical charges, so can be reproduced and distributed easily and cheaply, it was written before the explosion of social media, thus failing to predict the way in which sites such as Facebook, Flickr or Instagram have revolutionised the way in which we take, view and consume photography.

Overall, the book is a valuable bridge between the craft of photography and the art. It also begins to introduce concepts of criticism, although without the academic rigour of other titles on our reading list. However, it has not aged well and I believe there is a need for a third edition, more fully embracing the digital revolution and social media.


Hill, P. (1982) Approaching Photography London: Focal Press

Hill, P. (2004) Approaching Photography (Second Edition) Lewes: Photographers’ Institute Press

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