Photography books

Bunny (Brooklyn)

I have a lot of books on photography and I keep on accumulating and accumulating them. I think about is as a path that I am building for myself. Since there is so much to learn about, I sometimes tend to get a bit overwhelmed by the amount of information that I want to absorb and I keep on going back to books I read in the past realizing that they make way more sense to me after that other book I just read. Despite my weird approach, I like sharing things that I find useful for myself and that have helped and still help me understand photography, its roots, its development, its most important figures. So here is a small list of books that I found particularly interesting. I will spare you the “obvious” ones, such as the must-have Sontag books, Benjamin and Barthes.

Lately I’ve been reading “Photography after Frank“: basically a collection of essays by Philip Gefter, who worked for the New York Times for more than fifteen years. It’s a good book and I recommend it (it would not have hurt to have more photographs in the “illustrative” section but it’s fine I guess). Among my favorite essays “The Imagist’s Eye – on Henry Wessel”.

Long Life Cool White – Photographs and Essays by Moyra Davey“. There are many reasons why I love this book. It could be the reflective writing, the personal photographs or simply how it feels in my hands.

Unmarked. The politics of performance” by Peggy Phelan. This was a happy discovery and I have to say it’s not the easiest of the books I have but it is fascinating and I keep on going back to it. It is a very sharp analysis of visibility through a feminist point of view, through the examination of works by Mapplethorpe and Sherman (to list some). A very good way of describing the focus of this book is, I think, a sentence on page 27:

“Umarked concentrates on the broken symmetry between the self and the other, and the possibilities this break affords for rehearsing the political consequences of an acknowledgment of a failed inward gaze. Precisely because the gaze is “not-all”, representation cannot be totalizing. Representation always shows more than it means: in the supplement one can see ways to intervene in its meaning”.

Illuminations. Women writing on Photography from the 1850s to the Present” by Liz Heron and Val Williams is also a very interesting book that I bought a while back. The title is pretty self explanatory.

Also, a good reference book for those who are interested in Surrealism, “Photography and Surrealism. Sexuality, colonialism and social dissent” by David Bate. I have to say it is rather hard to find books on photography and surrealism without having to buy a big expensive ouvrage. This one is clear and with a rich bibliography (which is great if, like myself, you start reading a book by looking at the bibliography).

An all time favorite of mine, although it is not too much of a theory/analysis oriented book, is the Phaidon’s 5-book collection of Women photographers, “Five Great Women Photographers“. I bought it when I was still in university and that’s how I discovered Mary Ellen Mark, whose work I admire and respect so much.

Also a monograph, “L’Hôtel” by Sophie Calle, a book (in French) that was not so easy to find. If you are familiar with Calle’s work you will know about this series, for which she took a temporary job as a maid at a Venice hotel and then snapped photographs in guests’ rooms. The idea (or the “game” as Calle calls it), came while emulating the fictional character of Maria, a character in Léviathan, by Paul Auster, to whom the author imposes a rather rigid set of rituals (such as eating food of one separate color each day, living a day based on a letter of the alphabet). Calle did the same and then published it all in a series of books, of which “L’hôtel is number 5.

That’s it for now. I will dig in my library and see if I find more books I can suggest. Happy discovering!


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