My Choice Of Photography Books
A personal selection of photography books that are not the typical technical text books on photography, some aren’t even on photography at all, but they are all books that have proven to be influential books that have changed how art and fine art photography can be approached and thought of. You won’t find Ansel Adams’ text books on photography here, because even though they were influential, they are more technically oriented, nor will you find the obligatory coffee table books on photography. My objective with this website has always been providing the reader with original information, that I personally find valuable and that goes beyond technicalities only.
My choice of books, was to give you insight into the more abstract and artistic philosophical considerations of art, and how artistic vision is a result of those considerations and not just the result of technical excellence. A part that is often neglected in the understanding and creation of art. Furthermore to give insight into the mysterious muses and intimate moments of furious passion, that accompanied the artists when creating their brilliant art and insights. That is perhaps more valuable than ‘how-to’ technical information that anyone can teach and learn.
Books are mentioned in no particular order.
1. Just Kids by Patti Smith
Patti Smith (December 30, 1946) and Robert Mapplethorpe (November 4, 1946 – March 9, 1989), today they are two well known artists. Patti Smith is famous for her music. Her album “Horses” is considered to be one of the greatest albums of all times. Mapplethorpe is often thought of as one of the big names in photography. Back in the late ’60’s however they were two unknown entities roaming the streets of New York, penniless.
“Just Kids” by Patti Smith is a book that details the relationship between Smith and Mapplethorpe, how they met in ’67 and their rise to international stardom. This book offers a fascinating insight into their lives and how, almost by chance, Mapplethorpe became the famous photographer who earned a place in photography history and how Smith became the protagonist of punk-rock and how they motivated and encouraged each other to become the monumental artists they are considered now.
Early work of Mapplethorpe demonstrates that he used a multitude of mediums in creating his artwork. He would cut out photographs from magazines and use pastels and coloured pencils and assemble it in his collages. An example of this is shown in the image above, dated circa 1968.
In 1972 Mapplethorpe was introduced to John McKendry, at the time a curator of prints and photographs at The Met. They would discuss about photography as an art form. Mapplethorpe was convinced photography should be as highly regarded as paintings and sculptures. Although McKendry agreed, it was not his place to reform the nations opinion. He did manage to land Mapplethorpe a grant from Polaroid, giving him unlimited access to al the film he wanted. This was a big step in Mapplethorpe’s photography career. In 1973 he had his first solo exhibition (“Polaroids”) at the Light Gallery in New York City.
A Polaroid camera is obviously very limited in its abilities. A basic point and shoot camera, with no interchangeable lenses. It’s difficult to exactly get the result that you want. Once Mapplethorpe came in possession of a Hasselblad, through his friend Sam Wagstaff, there was no holding him back.
Mapplethorpe photographed many portraits of his partner Patti Smith. What struck me about how they would go about that is that Mapplethorpe always used natural light and never asked Smith to strike a specific pose. Mapplethorpe only was interested in the light for his portrait, while Smith would assume the pose that she knew Mapplethorpe would like. There was a silent and telepathic understanding while shooting the portraits. In the book it becomes clear that both contributed to the beautiful portraits Mapplethorpe took of Smith.
Just Kids is an entertaining book that gives insight in how one of the most revered photographers of the 20th century found his calling in a rather accidental way.
2. Interaction Of Color by Josef Albers
It’s been more than 50 years since Interaction of Color by Josef Albers was first released. The book is announced by the author himself as ‘a record of an experimental way of studying color and of teaching color.’ Josef Albers (March 19, 1888 – March 25, 1976) was an educator and painter and by many considered to be ‘the teacher of artists’. His color theories and teachings are instrumental up to this date, in how is thought and taught about color in art education and practice, and in the development of art movements such as the American Abstract Expressionism.
If you’re a color photographer and want to use colors in a more thoughtful, deliberate and effective way in your photographs, then this is the book you should have at hand on your bookshelves.
What Albers demonstrated in a clear way in his book, was that color is very relative. Albers says:
In visual perception a color is almost never seen as it really is — as it physically is. This fact makes color the most relative medium in art.
In order to use color effectively it is necessary to recognize that color deceives continually.
The book consists of 26 chapters, all with a theoretical premise, in, again, very clear language, and all premises are accompanied by so called ‘plates and commentary’ sections, to explain visually, through colorful illustrations and examples, what the premise entails.
I’ve included a few scans of the book to give you an idea.
Chapter IV – A color has many faces. Explaining that how we perceive colors is all relative and depends on the specific situation.
Chapter XI – Transparence and Space Illusion. When a color is read as appearing above or below another, an illusion of space is created.
3. Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes
There are only few books written by art, literary and other critics and theorists, who aren’t artists themselves, that had a deep impact on the acceptance and the understanding of photography as we have come to know it. One of them is Camera Lucidaby French philosopher, critic and theorist Roland Barthes. The other one is On Photography by Susan Sontag that is also included in this top 5.
Roland Barthes (November 12, 1915 – March 26, 1980) wasn’t a photographer but had an interest for photography. Camera Lucida is basically an eulogy to Barthes’ late mother. The main character of the book, if one could call it like that, is one specific photo of his mother as a young child, called the Winter Garden Photograph. How this photo looks like, no one but Roland Barthes himself (and perhaps a few insiders) knows. The book is full of other photo examples but the photo itself isn’t presented in the book, nor can it be found anywhere else on the Internet. Yet, through a beautifully written analysis of this specific photo Barthes takes us to some very interesting conclusions on the nature and meaning of a photograph. It is one of the photography books that I can highly recommend.
Studium is a concept that describes what creates interest in a photograph. Barthes elaborates that the idea or intention of the artist will have a photographic result that the observer needs to interpret to get to the message behind the photograph and that often this idea or intention is culturally, linguistically and politically determined. A photograph with a studium will be liked but not so much loved. A photograph will also be loved if the photograph not only contains a clear studium but also a punctum. A punctum is described by Barthes as an object in the photograph, often a small detail, that jumps out to the viewer as by accident. Something that ‘pricks’ the viewer and disturbs the studium and has an aberrant quality. But this aberration should be unnamable. If it can be named it’s not a punctum and it cannot ‘prick’ the viewer. Barthes explains these concepts by analysing various photographs in the book in a clear way.
One of many photographs in the book accompanying and visually explaining Barthes’ concept of Punctum.
“Perhaps it is because I am delighted (or depressed) to know that the thing of the past, by its immediate radiations (its luminances), has really touched the surface which in its turn my gaze will touch, that I am not very found of color. (…) I always feel (…) color is a coating applied later on to the original truth of the black-and-white-photograph. For me color is an artifice, a cosmetic (…). What matters to me is not the photograph’s life (a purely ideological notion) but the certainty that the photographed body touches me with its own rays and not with superadded light. (Hence the Winter Garden Photograph, however pale, is for me the treasury of rays which emanated from my mother as a child, from her hair, her skin, her dress, her gaze, on that day.) (…).”
4. On Photography by Susan Sontag
Susan Sontag (January 16, 1933 – December 28, 2004) arguably wrote one of the most influential critiques on photography. Her book On Photography is a collection of essays touching on “the meaning and career of photographs” as the author herself describes it. Just like Barthes, Sontag wasn’t a photographer but a writer and political activist. The book first appearance was in 1977, a time before the advent of digital photography but the content transcends time and technology.
What is written about a person or an event is frankly an interpretation, as are handmade visual statements, like paintings and drawings. Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire.
She then takes us through beautifully written contemplations to the conclusion, and I concur with her, that photographs, not only as a practice, but also in the way we think about it as an art form, are always interpretations, at best isolated objectivity. You can’t photograph the whole universe or even part of a world in one single photograph; the moment you choose a frame and choose to exclude the rest, it is already destined to be an interpretation.
Although there is a sense in which the camera does indeed capture reality, not just interpret it, photographs are as much an interpretation of the world as paintings and drawings are.
Another topic she touches on, is surprisingly very much up to date and it starts with her saying:
Recently, photography has become almost as widely practiced an amusement as sex and dancing—which means that, like every mass art form, photography is not practiced by most people as an art. It is mainly a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power.
And elaborating on this I particularly like the following phrases:
It seems positively unnatural to travel for pleasure without taking a camera along. Photographs will offer indisputable evidence that the trip was made, that the program was carried out, that fun was had. […] Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter. Unsure of other responses, they take a picture. This gives shape to experience: stop, take a photograph, and move on. […] Photography has become one of the principal devices for experiencing something, for giving an appearance of participation.
This is what Sontag wrote in 1977, and if one would think that back then, that this prophetic observation was a bit exaggerated, then in today’s world of social media, there’s no doubt about that observation anymore.
Finally, as to underscore the broad scope and depth of her analyses in In Plato’s Cave:
To suffer is one thing; another thing is living with the photographed images of suffering, which does not necessarily strengthen conscience and the ability to be compassionate. It can also corrupt them. Once one has seen such images, one has started down the road of seeing more—and more. Images transfix. Images anesthetize.
In Plato’s Cave is not the only essay worth reading. As for me personally it was the essay “The Heroism of Vision” that inspired me to rethink my personal view on what photography actually is and how I approach photography these days. Here’s one important quote from that essay.
But for all the ways in which, from the 1840s on, painters and photographers have mutually influenced and pillaged each other, their procedures are fundamentally opposed. The painter constructs, the photographer discloses. That is, the identification of the subject of a photograph always dominates our perception of it—as it does not, necessarily, in a painting.
A statement by the way I don’t agree with. If anything, a photographer first deconstructs a given reality and then reconstructs. Both painter and photographer are constructing. But it’s only through this book, I could get to this insight.
5. The Artist’s Reality – Philosophies Of Art by Mark Rothko
Mark Rothko (September 25, 1903 – February 25, 1970) was one of the leading figures in the American Abstract Expressionism movement. Of course this is a movement in painting, not in photography, as there are no real movements in photography. Mark Rothko is famous for his color field paintings, but he personally didn’t refer to them as color field paintings himself. Apart from being a painter Rothko was also a thinker who had the ability to write about art in a profound and meaningful way. And for this reason I included Rothko in my list of books to read as a photographer. If you’re not interested in using photography as an art form, then you won’t find any reason to read this. But if you’re serious about your intentions as a fine art photographer then you should have a look into the mind and thinking of this artist. Because he wrote about things that are applicable to any art form, including photography. His work and thinking contributed largely to how I think about photography as an art form and how I, as a photographer try to create something that could be considered art, and how I should approach photography. If I have to name one book that influenced me more than other books, then this is the book.
“The Artist’s Reality” is a book that had first been released in 2004, 34 years after Mark Rothko’s death in 1970 and had been compiled and edited by Mark’s son, Christopher Rothko. Mark Rothko didn’t intend to publish his writings to the public and the existence of the manuscripts was even unknown to Rothko’s children for many years. Mark Rothko left behind unfinished and incomplete manuscripts containing philosophical explorations on art, that give insight into the thoughts of one of the most important artists of the 20th century. Why Rothko? With his abstract paintings, Rothko was an explicit painter of ideas. And it’s the idea, the abstract thought behind art, and how one could get to that, that I find fascinating and useful to create more meaningful photographs myself.
Rothko wrote about many things he deemed important in the process of creating and perceiving art, sometimes in a polemical way, other times in a more philosophical way. The role aesthetics played in art was one of his main topics. What is beauty? A topic that should interest photographers and Rothko has very specific ideas on that. He starts with saying the following:
[…] the perception of beauty is definitely an emotional experience. That does not mean exclusively the human emotionalism of sentiment or sensuousness (as has already been shown), but instead that the process involves an exaltation which is communicated to us through the emotional system. This exaltation is usually composed of sentiment, sensation, and, in its highest state, intellectual approbation.
Does beauty have to do with skills? Only partly, and surely not decisively:
[…] Therefore skill itself is not an index to beauty. Of course, the artist must have sufficient means at his command to achieve his objective so that his work becomes convincingly communicative. But clearly it is something else which the art must communicate more than this […].
Rothko brings up several theories for the qualities that evoke emotional exaltation when perceiving their beauty, that all great works of art have in common. He describes a psychological theory, a functional theory and he brings up the Platonic definition of beauty. He doesn’t reject any of them, but he rejects a more recent, scientific attempt to describe the qualities of beauty:
[…] Recently there has been an attempt to define, more scientifically, the parameters and mechanisms of this abstraction by applying dynamic symmetry, which is the mathematical study of spatial placement in works of art. Here it has been demonstrated that the satisfaction—which we call balance—in a picture conforms in all works of art to a proportion of arrangement based upon geometric progression of masses. […] They help demonstrate only the existence of an abstraction of relationships whose achievement can produce the exaltation of beauty. They are useless because neither the world of mathematics nor the world of words and sounds is interchangeable with the plastic elements through which beauty is achieved. […]
In other words, rules of composition like the rule of thirds, the Golden Ratio, are useless in Rothko’s view as they are based on ‘mathematical study of spatial placement’. Rothko, of course, discusses various interesting aspects of beauty that makes you reconsider the beauty we try to create in fine art photographs, but I want to highlight one last thought on what according to Rothko, beauty is, or not is, when he makes a distinction between illusory and tactile (or ‘plastic’) beauty, of which illusory beauty is rejected and tactile beauty is the true beauty of a work of art. He starts with an example of illusory beauty:
[…] Now if this painting is, let us say, of a woman, our sense of beauty would be satisfied if the woman in the picture were beautiful. In other words, what we enjoy in the picture is the notion of a beautiful woman. […] In other words, the beauty of the picture is dependent upon the beauty of what it represents. […] The point of reference here, then, is outside of the picture itself. […]
Then Rothko brings on tactile beauty (note that the term plastic is a technical term in this context):
[…] The tactile plasticist, however, wants the picture in itself to be beautiful. In other words, the picture in itself is his object—that is where beauty resides—whereas the object of the other artist is to paint a picture of something that is beautiful. To this end, the tactile artist’s plastic components must so interact with one another that the manifest relationship will in itself provide that exaltation. […] Therefore, the tactile painter, in painting a portrait, would want you to be moved by the actuality, the tactile sensation of the image. The sensation here is one of actual life—not to be confused at all with real life. In other words, a new being has been created in the terms of plastic invention. […]
In other words, if the beauty of your picture is dependent upon the object, like a model for instance, and everything else in that picture contributes to the beauty of that model only, then that is illusory beauty. But if on the other hand what you created as a whole, the model or object you depict, its surrounding, the canvas, the paint and even the frame, all contribute to the beauty of the picture, then that’s a tactile beauty. One that Rothko approves of.
You can read more on this and other relevant ideas that make you reconsider your ideas on what a beautiful photograph should be and what it should communicate, in this book that I can highly recommend.
Photography, the first moment it appeared in the 1800s had a profound impact on the way we see the world and think about it. And it still does. Understanding this and understanding the nature of a photograph will make you a better photographer. Not just learning new technical skills. We all want to be better photographers, we all want to make meaningful photographs. You can’t do that if you don’t know what a photograph actually is. These photography books, and of course there are more, will help you understand what photography is. Additionally, art is on another level. Photography can be part of the elusive dimension where art resides. Decisive in that is the authenticity of the vision behind the photograph. An authentic vision, or the authentic artistic intention, is not just the result of looking at other photographs, and at other art. That will only result in an effective visual style. An authentic intention however is formed, can only be formed, by thinking about it in a critical way. And for that, looking at other photographs and acquiring technical skills only won’t suffice. You need the thoughts of other critical minds to be able to do that.
A few more books I didn’t include in this list but are worth reading as well:
- The agony and the ecstasy – Irving Stone. A very enjoyable book on Michelangelo’s life and passions. His obsessions. If you want to learn how one of the most famous artist’s of all time came to his creations and what it means to be obsessed when creating something an artists believes in, then this book will give you insight and inspiration.
- Understanding a photograph – John Berger. A collection of essays on the same level and just as insightful as Camera Lucida by Barthes and On Photography by Sontag.
- And of course, and last but not least, I can highly recommend the eBook From Basics to Fine-art that I wrote in collaboration with co-author Julia Anna Gospodarou and includes both technical-practical and theoretical information.
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