The Photography Reader edited by Liz Wells

Published by Routledge

Review by Conrad J. Obregon

As the editor Liz Wells remarks in her introduction, this book is concerned with histories of ideas about photography. Even though Wells herself falls into the trap of referring to the materials in this book as photography criticism, this is a book of readings in critical theory of photography, and as such is concerned more with history, sociology, semiotics, aesthetics, and epistemology. All of the works in the book were created after 1930 and include the writings of many of the great public intellectuals, like Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag and Umberto Eco.

After a general introduction by Wells, the book is divided into several parts, each of which deals with a particular aspect of photographic critical theory. Again Wells sets the scene and then a number of voices are heard from, either offering original theory, or analyzing a theory, or finding fault with a theory. For example, the general section offers selections from Barthes, Sontag and Walter Benjamin as well as articles by authors who clarify the thoughts of these writers. Thus W.J.T. Mitchell’s article on Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” made explicit for me the basic conflict between Benjamin’s respect for the aura of the original work of art and his optimism about the ability of mechanical reproduction to make art available to the public.

The book covers a number of subjects in critical theory, such as photography and postmodernism, where several authors explain what the postmodern is in photography (I hasten to add “in photography” since the nature of postmodern seems to vary amongst the arts), and for me at least, explained what elements distinguished postmodernism from what I perceive to be the main stream of art photography. There is even a section on digital photography, which spent a great deal of print on an old question, how real is photography?

There is nothing about photographic technique here. In fact one question that is regularly on my mind when I read photographic critical theory is “how much use can this work be to the photographer?” Some photographers will find the discussion of the nature of images interesting, but I was hard pressed to understand how all of the broad theory will help in making a single image that better expresses the photographer’s vision of his work. (Interestingly, photographic critical theory may have diverged in this respect from literary critical theory where knowledge of some of the theory might help an author write a more effective work.) Moreover, except to the extent that photographic critical theory has identified certain broad philosophical trends in images, I’m not certain that all of this theory will help a single viewer to come to grips with a single photograph.

Many of the concepts in this book are hard to grasp and I expect that many of the selections will require several readings to understand. However, as I’ve said elsewhere, reading the originals of the articles that Wells has assembled is probably the best way to come to terms with the deep roots that photography has sunk into modern culture.

Join the conversation! 3 Comments

  1. Thanks, I will have to take a look at this book. I can use all the help I can get

  2. I’ve struggled with Barthes, Sontag and Benjamin and agree it stretches the brain muscles but I find it fascinating. I can suggest one possible practical use – improved ability to critique own and other’s work. Experience grappling with semiotics, æsthetics, etc. even if only to stand by and watch some of the greatest minds of our century do their thing provides a broader frame of reference, a richer vocabularly and sense of the history of these kinds of ideas. It might even inspire or help generate some new ideas that would raise the reader’s ability to critique photographs above the level of “I like this, I don’t like that” or purely technical suggestions for improvement.

    It also provides some heft when discussing those age-old questions. I’m sure that a direct line between struggling with these difficult ideas and producing better photographs wouldn’t be easy to draw, but just like going to museums to look at great paintings helps train the eye, wouldn’t you think this helps train the brain – with surprising and unpredicable but positive results to follow?

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