PHOTOGRAPHY, A Very Short Introduction
by Steve Edwards
I have a real thing for small books that come in series. (The Penguin Great Ideas books are, at the moment, my real obsession.) It was this love, in general, that led me first to notice, then to covet and promptly lift* from a close friend’s book shelf a copy of Photography by Steve Edwards, published by Oxford University Press as part of their intelligent (though not as visually exciting as Penguin’s) A Very Short Introduction series. I’m so glad I did.
Not only is Photography by Edwards (Oxford University Press, 2006) small and (part of a series), but it’s by far the most brilliant short—very short—introduction to a topic as broad, culturally impactful and deeply loved and debated as photography. Not to mention it’s my own field.
“Trying to account for photography as a whole [John Tagg] suggested, was akin to attempting a history, or a museum, of writing: all that could be done was to trace the uses of photography (or writing) in the institutions in which it was put to work—the law courts, medicine, advertising, art, and so forth.”— p. xi
Edwards, who I was not familiar with but who has authored various critical histories, is a lecturer at London’s Open University. His Very Short Introduction is wildly ambitious as well as perfectly succinct, qualities that he deftly weaves together.
He takes “photography” at its broadest, accounting for the commercial, institutional and popular uses of the medium as well as the issues underpinning what we have come to call “art” and “documentary” photography. It is not a comprehensive accounting, but admittedly so. With a scant 24 illustrations in this 160-page book, I found myself thoroughly engaged—the more I mark up a book, the more I can tell that I want to participate in the dialogue.
Photography is structured into 6 chapters, with a brief afterword to address digital photography: 1) Forgetting Photography, 2) Documents, 3) Pictures, 4) What is a photograph?, 5) The apparatus and its image, 6) Fantasy and remembrance.
“In 1864, Dr. Hugh Diamond—editor of The Photographic Journal, and pioneer photographer of mental illness—wrote the report on the International Exhibition of 1862. In this assessment of the state of photography, he claimed there was ‘scarce a branch of art, of science, of economics, or indeed of human interest in its widest application, in which the applications of this art [photography] have note been made useful.’”
He goes on to list ethnology, natural history, microscopy, archaeology, antiquary, history, architecture, engineering, law, manufacturing and astronomy as fields affected by photography.
The approach Edwards adopts early on is to look at the invention/emergence of photography in the broadest possible terms, and to identify the ideologies and cultural frameworks that underlie both the beginnings of photographic image-making and the current cultural approaches. He is most adept at delineating histories of debate surrounding “documents” and “pictures”, ie documentary photography vs. fine-art photography (and how the argument is essentially moot).
The book is brilliantly structured and would work well for any seminar-type class for photographers at either an undergraduate or graduate level (with the structure lending itself for supplementary material).
* Of course I’ll replace it, since it’s widely available. But this should serve as fair warning to all hosts that invite me for dinner…;)