The interest in photography as manifested in the number of pictures taken has grown enormously in the last few years but the deluge of images does not necessarily represent a better understanding of the art of photography. So how can you get an overview of how photography has developed? Where can you find examples of good photography that will help you gain a better understanding of the art?
The Photography Book from Phaidon Press, edited by Ian Jeffrey, is an introduction to 500 well known and not so well known photographers from the mid-19th century to today, each represented by a single image. Ian Jeffrey has written about the history of photography and about photographers like Bill Brandt and Josef Sudek. In The Photography Book he gives a brief analysis of each image and presents the photographer in a few words.
The book includes images that have become iconic in the history of photography including, to mention just a few, Daguerre’s famous Paris view from 1838, Henri Cartier-Bresson’s image of a man trying to jump across a puddle, Elliott Erwitt’s advertisement for boots with the legs of two dogs and a woman, Bob Willoughby’s portrait of Marilyn Monroe, Edward Weston’s Nude on Sand, Andy Warhol’s Self-Portrait, Nick Ut’s Children Fleeing an American Napalm Strike, W. Eugene Smith’s Country Doctor, Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother, Yousuf Karsh’s Winston Churchill, Robert Capa’s Death of a Loyalist Soldier and Lennart Nilsson’s image of a human foetus in a womb against a background that looks like a starry sky.
These are all famous images but the book also introduces less known photographers, and Ian Jeffrey has done a great job presenting them and their work. Whether renowned or more obscure, their photos get an insightful analysis that inspires the reader to look at photographs with a fresh eye and gain a deeper understanding of them.
Since the photographers are presented in alphabetical order, there are some interesting and sometimes striking juxtapositions of images. A self-portrait in colour by Arnulf Rainer sits opposite a monochrome pastoral scene from Glyndebourne by Tony Ray-Jones with a couple having a champagne picnic in a field of cows. The Beatles are looking out from a window in a colour image by Angus McBean opposite Don McCullin’s black and white photo of a dead North Vietnamese soldier with some of his belongings strewn around him, of which a photo of a girl stands out as a representation of life and, as Jeffrey points out, a representation of the vision for what the soldier was fighting. Paul Strand’s portrait of a young boy forms a pair with Christer Strömholm’s Barcelona portrait of a man made up as a woman; youthful innocence against tired debauchery but their lips have the same Cupid’s bow.
Sometimes, however, opposite pages complement and strengthen each other. Richard Avedon and David Bailey both picture fashion models, but while Avedon shows his model wearing an elegant Dior dress standing between two elephants, Bailey’s image shows Jean Shrimpton in a crumpled man’s coat on Tower Bridge.
Each image has cross-references to other photographers working in the same field or style. At the end of the book there are glossaries of technical terms and of movements, groups and genres as well as a comprehensive directory of museums and galleries around the world.
This is not a book to read cover to cover but a good reference book to return to again and again. The book comes in hardcover and paperback in different sizes and is very reasonably priced.