Photography and Society
Diana and Nikon: Essays on the Aesthetic of Photography
The Eloquent Light
Time in New England
Brett Weston: Photographs from Five Decades
Harry Callahan: Color
Moholy-Nagy: Photographs and Photograms
Eye for Elegance Company
The Art of the Great Hollywood Portrait Photographers, 1925-1940
Mrs. David Bailey
Special Collection 24 Photo Lithos
Women on Women: Twelve Photographic Portfolios
42nd Street Studio
The Best of Photojournalism, 5: People, Places, and Events of 1979
Photographs for the Tsar: The Pioneering Color Photography of Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, Commissioned by Tsar Nicholas II
Across the Rhine
Dialogue with Photography
Photography in the Twentieth Century
Fox-Talbot and the Invention of Photography
The very first book illustrated with photographs, William Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature (1844), carried as an epigraph a quotation from Virgil. Talbot, who was a learned classicist as well as a chemist clever enough to invent photography, enlisted Virgil’s aid in declaring how sweet it was to cross a mountain ridge unblemished by the wheel-ruts of previous visitors, and thence descend the gentle slope to Castalia—a rural paradise complete with well-tended olive groves. The gentle slope turned out to be a precipice and Castalia is buried miles deep under photographs. A subsidiary avalanche, composed of books about photographs, is even now descending. In this brief survey I have selected with some rigor from the recent output, which has filled my office and chased me downstairs into the kitchen.
In her book On Photography (1977) Susan Sontag darkly warned the world that images are out to consume it. Books about images are presumably also in on the feast. Hers remains the best theoretical work to date, although competitors are appearing with startling frequency. Gisèle Freund’s Photography and Society, now finally available in English, is half historical survey, half theoretical analysis. Her own experience as a celebrated photographer has obviously helped anchor speculation to reality. When the argument takes off, it takes off into a comfortingly recognizable brand of historical determinism. Thus it is made clear how the early portrait photographers served the needs of the bourgeoisie and wiped out the miniaturists who had done the same job for the aristocracy: hence the collapse of taste. Baudelaire, who hated the bourgeoisie, consequently hated photography too. These reflections come in handy when you are looking at the famous photograph of Baudelaire by Nadar. That baleful look must spring from resentment. Sontag, makes greater play with such historical cruxes but Freund gives you more of the facts.
Janet Malcolm, the New Yorker‘s photography critic, has produced a worthwhile compilation of her essays. She thinks “discomfit” means “make uncomfortable,” but such lapses are rare. More high-flown than Freund, although less self-intoxicatingly so than Sontag, Malcolm is an excellent critic between gusts of aesthetic speculation. Diana and Nikon is grandly subtitled “Essays on the Aesthetic of Photography.” Whether there is such a thing as an aesthetic of photography is a question which critics should try to keep open as long as possible, since that is one of the things that good criticism always does—i.e., stops aestheticians from forming a premature synthesis. In her essay on Richard Avedon, Malcolm assesses the April 1965 issue of Harper’s Bazaar, the one edited by Avedon, as a “self-indulgent mess.” But she insists on being charitable, against what she has already revealed to be her own better judgment, about his warts-foremost portraits of the mid-Fifties. “Like the death’s-head at the feast in medieval iconography, these pictures come to tell us that the golden lads and lasses frolicking down the streets of Paris today will be horrible old people tomorrow…. Avedon …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.