Author: Susan Bright
Publisher: Aperture Foundation
Review by Conrad J. Obregon
Even the author Susan Bright admits in her introduction that Art Photography is hard to define. (Some aestheticians even claim that photography is not an art.) She appears to offer an operational definition. If it’s taken with a camera and people are willing to pay for it and hang it on a wall then it is art photography. The problem for Bright is that that definition includes images by artists ranging from Annie Liebovitz and Art Wolfe to the most extreme of the post-modernists and it is clear from the pictures in the book that that is not what Bright is presenting. Instead she seems to be aiming at some middle ground.
Her book is divided by genre into chapters on Portrait, Landscape, Narrative, Object, Fashion, Document and City. After a brief introduction she presents one to four pages on each individual photographer, with good sized images from each. Along with the pictures, Bright offers quotations from the photographers that I presume are meant to give us insight into their works. Most of the images show good control of the technical side of photography, unlike the work of many post-modernists who seem not only to challenge the meaning of a photograph, but also to reject established techniques.
Although she mentions the most famous and accomplished of photographers in the chapter introductions and shows a few of their pictures, like those of Jeff Wall and Cindy Sherman, many of the photographers, while known, are not from the most famous. All things being equal, getting an introduction to photographers with whom we are not familiar is a good thing. Unfortunately all things are not equal.
A photography book, just like an exhibit, works best when it has a theme that helps us to understand the works. A book can reveal the work of one photographer, or one school of photography, or one subject. This book gives us a potpourri of unrelated photographs that leaves the meaning of most of the pictures as enigmatic. From the title, the book suggests that it will provide some kind of insight into the state of the art. But it doesn’t. The chapter introductions appear trite and merely a recitation of the artists contained in the book and their subject matter.
People who read this book probably want to get their arms around the meaning of modern photography. It’s possible for a book to do this. As witness, look at Charlotte Cotton’s “The Photograph as Contemporary Art”. Although nowhere as extensive in content as “Art Photography Now” Cotton provides a taxonomy within which to consider pictures that makes it easy to understand how they fit into a larger scene. It’s true that she only examines post-modernists, but even examining that school (or really, schools) can give us a better understanding of photography.
It’s too bad for the photographers whose works appears in this book. Some of them are worth our attention. You just can’t tell it from this book.