Photography books (with the privilege of hindsight)

"Music" (1980) by Jan Saudek

A friend of mine received a stash of old books from a retired photographer and invited me to take my pick among them. It was an interesting experience to get a glimpse of what was thought to be the best practices in photography back then and compare what of those old ideas has withstood the test of time. And wow, I’d say that photography and our attitudes towards it surely have changed! If you could have any photo-related book from 30 years ago, would you have gotten any?

If you go to a random Barnes & Noble today and ask for the photography books, you’ll be directed to two disparate sections of the bookstore. One will be labeled “Digital Photography”, the other simply “Photography”. The former will occupy two whole bookshelves and will be located next to the computer manuals; the second one, most probably rather small, will be part of the “Art” area along the wall. This is not retail disarray. It’s an organizational clue to two different philosophies of understanding and using photography.

The first section came to existence with the advent of digital technology in everyday life: the need for manuals explaining digital cameras and related computer programs. It gradually morphed into a “how-to of photography” in general, explaining the technical side of it all, from f stops to focusing distance. Today, we are many steps further: there are myriads of books published on issues such as how to do digital black & white, creative uses of photoshop or HDR. That section now also holds also manuals on how to photograph people, starting new projects and playing with toy cameras. This is truly a section for instruction manuals on how to do photography, to which, ironically, even film-oriented books are now added.

The other section, originally older, is just a collection of books with photographs by iconic photographers. And maybe some essays on theory by the likes of Roland Barthes. Few people go there, but if you have some extra dollars, you better visit that place and buy something out of its shelves.

But how and why did this ideological break happen? It’s all due to photography’s transformation into a democratic art, accessible to be mastered by everyone. Yes, how-to books existed before – the greatest example being Ansel Adams’s series on the camera, the negative and the print. But fewer people were taking pictures back then, certainly fewer were interested in mastering those skills or were even confident they would be able to do that, in order to support this kind of deluge of handbooks. Digital technology has made new tools within reach to everyone along with new creative possibilities. Learning how to take better pictures is now an accessible  everyday art just as the art of fine home cooking.

This is not necessarily a bad process. On the contrary, it means photography is now a mass practice and not an art to be primarily consumed. And it still leaves a niche for photography as high art as well. It’s actually beneficial in spurring art photographers in new directions and different levels, just like the invention of photography 150 years ago changed the direction of painting.

But this book divide is telling of a new illusion taking hold.  The emphasis those craft books put on the technical ability to work a camera promotes the illusion that photography is all about controlling said camera. The divorce of these technical issues and canned “creative” advice from the haunting images of Keith Carter in the other section perpetuates the idea that art photography is simply a matter of a technical recipe complete do in a few steps – and is the reason of the mediocre stream of trite images unleashed upon us.  And that ultimately affects the appreciation for high-end art photography, too.  Those books do a very bad favor to photo enthusiasts giving them the impression that canned prescription on composition equals art.

That’s what struck me while I was browsing through the old books in the retired photographer’s collection. There were a few “how-to” books in the pile – one on how to do glamour photography, for example. It looked ridiculously outdated, its reasoning outright silly for today’s taste. But it seems the old photographer found it useful in producing glamour photographs and he probably churned out a lot of those run-of-the-mill images of the day. I didn’t pick that book and I actually regret it, if only as a reminder not to trust those instruction manual too much.

The book I got though was Photography Year 1982, published by Time-Life. Although it did include some reviews of the latest photo gear at the time, like cameras that have long since disappeared, it basically consists of the images that made the most impact that year. You can find photojournalism of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, Mary Ellen Mark’s psychiatric ward series and others by not so well known photographers whose work was nevertheless stunning and, turns out, timeless. These images would still wow today as they did then.  My favorite was Czech photographer Jan Saudek (see above) whose amazing style has definitely withstood the passage of time and looks highly relevant today. Check out his website for more images of those years.

Next time you visit a flea market or happen at a garage sale, check if there are any photography books on sale and see how you feel about them. You can’t find them in libraries because craft books get old so quickly that they are frequently replaced. And compare them to today’s photography handbooks.


2 responses to “Photography books (with the privilege of hindsight)

  1. Pingback: Old photo magazines | Parasol Photography

  2. Pingback: Hand-colored photographs | Parasol Photography

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