Overviews of Photographic History

In my last post, about the person who wanted to “take better pictures,” I mentioned Beaumont Newhall’s classic book, The History of Photography: From 1839 to Present, and Edward Steichen’s The Family of Manas two books that influenced me heavily when I was younger. While I love monographs of individual photographers, histories of photography fascinate and and delight me, and I thought it might be worthwhile to mention a few more that I have loved over the years; most of these have found their way into my permanent library.

  • The Photographer’s Eye, by John Szarkowski. Another classic book based upon an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. Szarkowski was director of photography at the museum from 1962 to 1991, and was one of the major critical forces in the medium during those years. While he was a historian and lover of the traditional black-and-white art photography—of which this book is a beautiful contribution—he was a primary driver in the recognition of color photography as an art form in and of itself. Another of his books, Looking at Photographs, is as wonderful as The Photographer’s Eye. I heartily recommend having both in your library.
  • Photography Until Now, also by Szarkowski, is a large-format, more complete survey of photography from the 1800s through the 1980s, and another of those books I found in a used bookstore. If you want one big, tome with tons of photographs and strong text, this one—or Fixing a Shadow, below— is a great place to start building a collection.
  • The Art of Fixing a Shadow, by Sarah Greenough. This is one of my favorites. It is a beautiful, rich book, full of great photos—many from photographers I hadn’t heard of—and a well-written narrative that runs from the 1830s up to the mid 1980s. I bought a ragged hardcover copy in a used bookstore for $8 about 20 years ago, and have read it from cover to cover at least three times, and I still dip into it when looking for a connection to the past. You can find used paperback copies on Amazon for less than what I paid for it, and decent hardcover copies for not a lot more.
  • An American Century of Photography: From Dry-Plate to Digital, by Keith Davis. Another excellent overview, taken from the extensive Hallmark Photographic Collection (now part of the great Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City). I saw an exhibition upon which this book is based, and it was phenomenal, presenting many photos rarely seen in public, and from a wide range of photographers. Big, beautiful, and reasonably priced on Amazon.
  • A World History of Photography, by Naomi Rosenblum. A very good, and expansive, overview from the beginnings of Niépce, Daguerre and Talbot to the the present day.
  • The Photograph as Contemporary Art, by Charlotte Cotton. A smaller, but no less rich, volume that focuses on contemporary photographers from the past few decades.
  • Photography: The Definitive Visual History, by Tom Ang. A mid-size (480 pages) book that is engaging, full of beautiful photos and solid critical commentary. Published by DK Books, it has that poppy, overblown layout that is their trademark; some people might find it too much, but it’s a good solid intro to the history of photography.

One of the things we hope to do regularly here at Complete Digital Photography is write about some of the photographers we love, both historical and contemporary. While it’s good to understand the fundamentals of light and composition, it is also worthwhile to look at the masters of photography, from the 1800s through today. Getting a sense of what makes the great ones great—and how they affect the way you think about taking photographs—is one of the best ways to improve your photographic eye.

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