Photography: A Critical Introduction • review part 1

This is the first introductory textbook to examine key debates in photographic theory and place them in their social and political contexts (Publishers note)

With the manifesto set out at the top of the first page this book, although said to be introductory, dives into (for me) some pretty deep waters and requires careful reading and several re-readings. This is the first of an occasional series of postings which will each concentrate on a chapter or two. I am working from the 2nd edition (2000)

The book is arranged in seven major chapters, each with its own bibliography, together with an extensive introduction, indexes, glossaries etc. In this posting I will be looking at the ‘topping-and-tailing’ material and at the first chapter, ‘Thinking about photography‘ by Derrick Price and Liz Wells.

The introduction signposts the structure of the book chapter-by-chapter, setting out its arrangement and purpose. I initially found the section, ‘How to use this book’ rather patronising but, after a foray into chapter 1, I began to see the point.

The end material will probably be the part of the book that I refer to most in my future studies with OCA as it seems to be a jumping-off point for research. In addition to the (expected) index and bibliography (14 pages!) we get a glossary of key terms and lists of archives, journals and websites.

Chapter 1 Thinking about photography

It must be said that this chapter makes heavy reading; the language being both dense and ‘technical’, particularly some of the late 20th-century pull-quotes. Having a scientific/engineering background and being exposed to ‘Pseuds Corner’ and Monty Python’s caricature art critics (example here at 3:47) it came as a culture shock to encounter similar language used in serious technical discourse, which leads me to consider  the reasons for it.

I am aware (from use in my own primary profession) that jargon has two uses, to obfuscate or (more properly) to serve as a form of shorthand between practitioners in a specialist field. I believe Price and Wells are using it in the latter form and it is a privilege to be allowed into the discussion at that level even if it means diving into the glossary at regular intervals. The first part of the chapter is particularly difficult because it is trying to introduce a theory of criticism and ‘art theory’ from scratch, without resorting to circular definitions. This is analogous to the sort of pure mathematics text that introduces number theory (“what, precisely do we mean by ‘two’ anyway?”). We all learned to count in primary school; most of us use numbers every day without thinking about then, but it is sort of comforting to know that they have a valid foundation.  Similarly with art criticism, it is useful to have a framework to work within and comforting to know that it has a firm basis, even if we do not consider it from day to day.

The chapter is arranged in four main sections. The sections are subdivided but I found that there was not a great correlation between the subheadings and the text.

‘Aesthetics and technologies’ eschews the standard list of inventors  but instead looks at the evolving technology in the mid-19th century and asks (but unfortunately doesn’t answer) why the need to produce and fix an image became an active field of research at the time. Once the technology is in place, it became adapted to social uses in a variety of ways, not all of which were intended by the original inventors. This appropriation and subversion of the technology continues to the present day in such forms as social media.

The “is it Art” debate is aired by quoting opposing views from Baudelaire (quoted on pp.13-14) who said that photography would corrupt or supplant art (by which he appears to mean painting) and should serve only as a ‘handmaid’ to the arts and sciences, and Lady Elizabeth Westlake (quoted on pp.15-16) who considered that a good thing. Photography was not ‘Art’ but would displace the old structures of Art.

Outside the ‘high art’ world of galleries and salons, we see the proliferation of jobbing photographers, mainly portraitist but also producers of views and postcards, springing up in most towns, which upset the painters (presumably, the jobbing portrait painters) with their improved speed, accuracy and quality control.

This accuracy, together with ease of reproduction makes photography a very democratic medium and valuable in documentary uses. However, there is some debate about whether a photograph shows us more than the surface appearance of a subject.

We move forward to the modern and post-modern eras with the rise of ‘straight photography’ presenting a new way of seeing the world. Moholy-Nagy (quoted on p.19) wants us to see what is ‘optically true’ rather than the pictorial framework erected by individual painters. In other words, he wants us to see what is really there, rather than what we have been taught is there.

Contemporary debates‘ looks at the development of ‘photography theory’ out of ‘art theory’ in the early 20th century and the shift in emphasis from techniques to a reading of the image as image, with a brief reference to the more recent approach through semiotics.

Price and Wells consider that the ‘great masters’ approach found in other branches of art criticism does not fit particularly well with photography (although it is traditionally used) because of its democratic nature and the difficulty of separating ‘masters’ from movements. This is a theme repeated in several places in this chapter.

The realism debate compares Sontag’s view of photographs as objective traces of the subject with Kozloff’s view of the photograph as a ‘subjective witness’ with the possibility of misunderstanding or partial information.

The major part of this section is a case study showing alternative readings of a particular image, Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant mother’. The image is seen as a testament to an event and a period of American history, although the title was changed (‘Seasonal Farm Worker’s Family’ has an entirely different meaning) and there was some minor retouching (part of a hand holding the tent flap was removed). We see that other images from the same set were not used, and Lange posed the subjects, giving the iconic ‘madonna’ impression that we now know and which has been appropriated or subverted into different forms.

The context of the image is important; we would get one reading from its placing in a report on farming conditions, properly captioned, and quite another when seen enlarged and out-of-context on a gallery wall.

Histories of photography‘ notes Martin Gasser’s 1992 classification (Wells, 46) classification of photographic histories into (1) the priority debate, (2) the development of equipment and techniques and (3) histories of the photograph as image. The first two are dealt with fairly swiftly with a warning against taking contemporary and early 20th-century accounts at face value. Nationalistic factors come into play with, for instance, French accounts giving the daguerrotype more importance than I consider a blind alley deserves.

Viewing the history of the photograph as image became the the predominant approach after the Second World War. This section compares the contributions of Beaumont Newhall and the Gernsheims and the later 1989 works by Mike Weaver and John Szarkowski which marked the sesquicentenary of photography (both works starting as exhibition catalogues for the Royal Academy and MoMA respectively). Price and Wells note that all of these histories ultimately tend toward a ‘grand masters’ approach.

Photography and social history‘ moves away from ‘grand masters’ and the gallery wall and considers the review of ‘popular photography’ meaning the postcard, the family album, the records of clubs and societies, etc. In other words the sort of images encountered or used by most people. In noting the use of photography as a testament to history (initially by the popular medium of television, rather than by traditional historians) we are warned that context and provenance are important but can be difficult to determine.

There is also a short section on ‘categorical photography’ noting that photography was implicated very early in issues of surveillance and control. This, of course, is an issue that concerns us today with the proliferation of CCTV and other monitoring technologies. Control issues include the Victorian attempts to categorise races, social classes, criminality etc by means of ‘typical’ or composite photographs (introducing a point that will be covered in more detail in chapter 5)

The final part deals with photographs viewed out of context, on the gallery wall or in forms of history other than that for which they were taken. Again, provenance is important but there is a concern that images are often selected for aesthetic reasons, ignoring their original context, and thus becoming unreliable witnesses.

The final paragraph is a teaser for chapter 2 on documentary and chapter 3 on personal photography.

Overall, the chapter was a fascinating insight and a good introduction to a more serious approach to viewing and reading photographs and their contexts. I look forward to reading and reviewing further.


Wells, L (ed.) (2000) Photography: A Critical Introduction (2nd edition) London: Routledge


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