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posted on 06.02.09

i dont know which descriptor i should use to precede "works" in this list of works on photography. are they "important" works on photography, "highly regarded," "essential" works, or something else? i have found that some of the works that have the most impact on me are read entirely differently by others. so how do i relate these works to you? i spose ill just say that the following works are either widely regarded as worth reading or i believe are enlightening. remember that this is opinion, and mine is certainly different than yours, but id love to know what other works you think are worth reading through. and just because i may say that some of these are good reads definitely does not mean that i agree with the authors or their ideas. in fact, id say that the best of these are the ones with which i have serious qualms. these are in no particular order, as i have no adjective by which to scale them. (the photo for this post was a part of the recent metropolitan museum of art's show "on photography" and intends to reflect on one process of photography. it is an untitled work by janice guy.)


1. camera lucida - roland barthes - i would say that this is probably the most notable and widely-read text on photography. every class reads this and should. while the entire work itself is small, it packs a seriously punch and really opens photography up (and maybe even levels it) by examining several specific aspects of photography and exploring the idea of an image anecdotally. this is the origin of such terms as 'punctum' and 'studium' in a photographic context. it should be read over and over.

2. 'photography' - lady elizabeth eastlake -like baudelaire, lady eastlake was not enthusiastic of the advent of photography. in this work eastlake draws comparisons between painting and photography, harping on the boundaries of art. in many ways, if you agree with sontag, you may agree with eastlake.

3. 'the modern public and photography' - charles baudelaire - baudelaire is awesome. he staunchly defends a prephotograhic era of art. in fact, baudelaire would not admit to a prephotographic era of art because he believes art and photography are mutually exclusive. baudelaire examines the truths of photography, its mechanical fact-bearing nature, and defends the integrity of painting and the art world from truth.

4. 'a short history of photography' - walter banjamin - benjamin's works are eaten up by many an art student, and for good reason. here he lays out his ideas of relative time: that within the frame and that of the viewer. this essay examines the theories that lie behind image-making through the lens of photography's technical nature.

5. 'the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction' - walter benjamin - this is a great essay about the limitations of art. if a reproduction of an existing piece of art has no value, then what is photography as artform?

6. 'rhetoric of the image' - roland barthes - in this essay barthes establishes more terminology in order to further breakdown the intent of images. he sees pictures as vectors of a message and the manner in which they reach us is the concern of this work.

7. 'in, around, and afterthoughts (on documentary photography)' - martha rosler - i have a very hard time reading rosler because i think that she, like sontag, is willing to make general arguments and cast down some photographers/social humanitarians based on a few points without reflecting on their entire practice while lofting others also without considering their entire process or point of view. anyways, in this essay rosler checks out documentary practice and pits it against her own project (another dissatisfying part of the essay).

8. 'the museum's old, the library's new subject' - douglas crimp - crimp is an important critic of art who speaks frankly and straightfowardly. i definitely have issues with some of what he has to say about art of the 1980s in regards to HIV/AIDS, but in 'the museum's old...' he evaluates the shift of photography as it enters the New York Public Library and what that means for the medium.

9. on photography - susan sontag - i have to be honest, i have no read this in its entirety. but it is so often quoted and so often used as a source of support in so many arguments, that it has to be on here. i frankly struggle to get through anything by sontag. someone once told me that it was clearly because i am defensive about what sontag says. sontag must be read, BUT her opinion, like any other writer's, should not be the basis of your own understanding of photography. she makes valid points, i will definitely give her that much, but she makes sweeping statements that are grounded in idealism. there are very very few things that someone can say or do to make me disregard their opinion and one of them is (solely) utilizing anything sontag has written in order to defend their stance.

10. regarding the pain of others - susan sontag - this book is not completely about photography, but it brings in photography as a way of disseminating images of violence. i do believe that this work should be read as a companion to other works on documentary in order to escape the twisted language of theory and just read a reaction to violence.

11. 'representing reality: issues and concepts in documentary' - bill nichols - this is a cool read because nichols breaks down the modes of observation. he shows that there are mulitple modes of representation and ways of observing, from observational documentary to poetic witnessing.


what other books, essay, or films do you know about? there are many many more that i havent listed, as these are really just off the top of my head. i also need more titles to read, so lemme know!

also, check out the photography reader (ed. liz wells) and essays on photography (ed. alan trachtenberg) for tons of essays and good reading on photography.

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Artists

Roland Barthes
Charles Baudelaire
Susan Sontag

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Photography

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Martha Rosler
Walter Benjamin
Bill Nichols
Douglas Crimp
Lady Elizabeth Eastlake