The Library

Books on photographic theory and art history

A list of photography and art-history related books. I love books, and started to build up a nice little collection for my own interest in photography, Art history books as part my Open University study, and from my girlfriends Masters degree, and recently my own Masters degree. All the books below I own or have read at some point.

Since starting on my Masters, I have a huge reading list of very interesting and often in-depth books on photography, visual culture and critical theory. I will post up a list of the books I’ve read in due course.

When many people think of ‘photography books’, they often think about the technique or picture books. However, while those do have a place, especially if you’re starting out in photography or want to look at pictures on a specific subject, they don’t really tell you the why of photography. This is where a lot of these books come into play. Many photographers may not be too concerned with this, and that is completely fine, but others may want to delve deeper into the theories that underpin and ground many aspects of photography. From my point of view, reading the theories behind photography and learning about visual culture and art history, has given me a greater appreciation for it. I hope this will inform my own practice, leading on to creating better, more meaningful images.

If you like the look of a book and wish to buy it, please click on the links as they will link to the book on Amazon. Pro Tip: many of them are available very reasonably second hand through Amazon (how I by most of mine).

Ways of Seeing

John Berger, 1972, BBC/Penguin

Based on the 1972 T.V. Series, this is an easy read and a good introduction into the world of critical art thinking. This was the first book I read on the subject and started me down the rabbit hole.  It can be read in a couple of hours, and has proved useful as a quick primer on lots of concepts such as ‘the gaze’. The actual text is a bit odd – looks like its written in bold, and being black and white some of the images aren’t as clear as they could be, however the actual content it worth picking it up for any image-based study.

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On Photography

Susan Sontag

On Photography by Susan Sontag is probably one of the most well known and foremost books about the nature of photography. Naturally is was top of our reading list at University, and naturally I didn’t read it. Returning to it post-university with a greater appreciation of the theory, it made me think a lot about what it means to take photographs. I found some of the ideas talked about very eye opening. If there are two books to recommend about the nature of photography, one would be this (and Camera Lucida the other).

There are some critics of this book, mostly concerning the language used, however if you can look past this (the essays were written in the early 70’s) then it’s a really good read, if a little wordy at times.

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Camera Lucida

Barthes, 2000, Vintage

This is a great book, if initially a little hard to understand the underlying concept which is to discover the ‘essence’ of a photograph.  I found myself having to re-read a few things to make sure I understood it. The chapters are short so a good book to dip in and out of. It’s definitely a must-read, especially if you’re studying photography at degree level. (It will be on the reading list anyway). There is a slight melancholy running though the book as one of the photos Barthes discusses throughout is a treasured photo of his mother which makes the text very personal. I think this allows us to relate a lot of the ideas formed to understanding our own personal photographs.

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Criticizing Photographs

Terry Barrett, 1999, Mayfeild

When I was looking for books on photography, this one kept popping up and with good reviews, so I bought it and I’m very glad I did. Despite (just about) being able to hold my own with critical theory books, a lot of them can be quite dry and require some previous knowledge of key theories (not to mention a dictionary). With Barrett there is no need. He is very easy to understand, and explains things well with no overly complicated language which makes it a joy to read. I’d recommend this as a must read to anyone starting out in the world of photographic theory.  I’d also have a pen and paper handy as the number of photographers he mentions is vast, and many of them I was unfamiliar with requiring extra research.

The book I have, and so the Amazon link and cover image are of the third edition. The 4th and 5th editions are available, and I would assume a similar content, just updated. Still has a dog on the cover!

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From Life: The Story of Julia Margaret Cameron and Victorian Photography

Victoria Olsen, 2003, Aurum Press

I borrowed this book from the Carisbrooke Castle Museum library where I volunteer for my Julia Margaret Cameron essay. This is not only a book on Cameron and her work, but also frames this within the wider Victorian photographic world. It’s a very good read and does discuss some interesting issues, especially on things like the reception of Cameron’s photographs based on her gender. There is a brief biography of her life in Ceylon, as well as detailed accounts of the background behind a lot of her famous works, her relationship with Tennyson, Herschel, and her family. The book gives a very good view of Cameron and her relentless pursuit of her hobby from letters and personal correspondences. From constantly verging on bankruptcy and life within the ‘Freshwater Circle’. There are a small selection of plates in the book, but this is not a catalogue of Cameron’s works. If you only read one book on Cameron and her work, then make it this one. Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in Julia Margaret Cameron or Victorian photography as a whole.

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The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Walter Benjamin

This is a short essay, which while not directly concerned with photography, brings up some interesting thoughts on how mass media – film, audio recording and photography – impacts on how we view and value art and culture and what this means socially and politically. It was written in 1935 but a lot of the ideas are relevant in today’s digital world where the ability to copy and reproduce is easier than ever.

Its definitely a must read for those pursuing a more critical view on photography or media studies, as well as being very thought provoking.

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