Good Writing on Photography (an Appeal)

My first creative efforts were as a writer. Other than 2point8, Unphotographable, and a currently unpublished project, I haven’t written much in the last year. Instead, I’ve been scouring essays, reading biographies, and raiding libraries to find good writing on photography.

When I got my MFA (in poetry) a few years ago, I felt (and still feel) that modern American poetry is mostly in a conversation with itself. A varied and fascinating discussion, but insular nonetheless. Poets write books for other poets, mainly. Press runs for books are stunningly low, and sales are, well…

By contrast, photography has risen to a higher level of respectability within the culture. One thing that helps me take photography seriously (it’s hilarious, no?) is to consider it the artistic equal of any of the widely-accepted arts (including poetry) by treating it as such, in words.

To that end (I’m getting there), I’ve been surprised by the lack of good, strong writing about the experiential side of photography’s impact – from a viewer’s perspective or from a creator’s perspective. Which is why I need your help.

Please leave a comment or get in touch if you have any examples (other than the ones below) of great writing about photography. I’m less interested in essays or biographies that explicate photography’s history, as in, “X took pictures like this, and then X took pictures like this…”

I’m seeking sharp insight and brave criticism. I’m mainly looking for examples of writers who can show what it means to love photographs as much for their mystery and inability to speak, as for what photographs potentially communicate. I prefer essays by photographers, and I steer away from the lit-crit, po-mo, dissertation-type doldrums.

  • Any or all of John Szarkowski’s essays (particulary the one on from “Figments from the Real World“) are tops
  • Robert Adams’ book “Why People Photograph” is excellent; the quips and quotes on the wall of his recent “Turning Back” exhibition at SFMOMA were more engaging (for me) than the photographs themselves
  • Parr’s preface to History of the Photobook vol. 2 is a good example of a photographer who can write, but the Gerry Badger paragraphs within the book are a graduate lecture on how to quickly say something of value and weight
  • Any Luc Sante fans?
  • Sophie Howarth’s “Singular Images: Essays on Remarkable Photographs” looked good, but most of the essays leaned toward the biographical and historical, rather than examining the singular image itself
  • I’m currently reading Andy Grundberg’s “Crisis of the Real” and it’s admirable, but again, quite biographical and historical
  • Sontag

I know this is a tilted list. In short, I’m looking for essays about photography that steer toward the experiential, rather than the biographical/historical. Lend some ballast if you can. I need to right this ship.

30 thoughts on “Good Writing on Photography (an Appeal)”

  1. Well of course there’s the obvious, Sontag, though I find her essays a bit dated. You can also go back to the classics like “Classic Essays on Photography” by Trachtenberg. Then there’s “Camera Lucida” by Barthes. And I haven’t read “Light Readings” by A.D. Coleman, but it’s been highly recommended…

  2. I’m too surprised Barthes’ book is left out of this list.
    I haven’t read the rest from the list, but in my expirience “Camera Lucida” was the most impressive reading about photography.

  3. I prefer reading the photographer’s point of view.
    Edward Weston’s Daybooks is the best memoir I’ve read, by far!
    David Hurn’s “On Being a Photographer” was also good…

  4. Don’t forget Joel Meyerowitz and Colin Westerbeck’s “Bystander: A History of Street Photography” and Geoff Dyer’s “The Ongoing Moment”.

  5. Scenes of Wonder and Curiosity by Ted Orland is a collection of letters between Orland and Sally Mann during the 70’s and 80’s and it is incredibly romantic towards photography and the real world drudgery of it, and that “when will I ever get there feeling.”

    Another collection of letters from the photographers point of view is Letters to my Parents, by Brassai.

  6. I enjoyed Dyer’s book, but his book on not writing a biography of D.H. Lawerence is the best, though not about photography. Bystander’s pretty great. Meyerowitz is a strong writer – I’ve enjoyed all the things I’ve read by him – there’s a collab interview book between him and Westerbeck as well.

    I’ll look into the others, above.

    For completeness, a few recommends from email: Charlotte Cotton; a book called “How We Look”; all of the Szarkowski essays; all of the Robert Adams essays.

  7. Photography Speaks/150 Photographers on their Art, Brooks Johnson is particularly good.

    Photographers on Photography, Nathan Lyons

    Visions and Images, Barbaralee Diamonstein

    All books with insightful essays by photographers.
    All worth looking at.

  8. There’s an older literature from sociology that is not about the “art” of photography so much as about how we incorporate photography into our perception of reality and how we incorporate our socialization into our use of the medium. The best of these by far (IMO) but probably hard to find, is Erving Goffman’s “Gender Advertisements” originally published in a pretty neat journal called “Studies in the Anthropology of Visual Communications” in 1976 and then published in book form by Harvard University Press in 1979.

  9. And I meant to add that I’m so impressed with your MFA in poetry. I so wanted to be a poet when I was in high school, and I still have my pile of rejection letters from journals and magazines, some of them very nice and chatty. (Of course that was 1972 or so…)

  10. It’s been mentioned but “On Being A Photographer” by david Hurn w/Bill Jay is excellent. I also subscrive to Lenswork as much for the writing as the photography.

  11. Janet Malcolm’s Diana & Nikon. It’s my fave by far, if partly because it was one of the first books of criticism I read (before Sontag, which I appreciate, but…), and the first edition was given to me by a mentor. But it’s still vibrant.

    These essays are all from the seventies, when Malcolm was a young staff writer at The New Yorker. She was already a fine writer, but honed her craft on this beat, which she just sort of fell into. It’s very fresh: inquisitive, challenging assumptions, very experiential in descriptions. She explores Stieglitz, Weston, Penn, Avedon, the snapshot aesthetic, Evans, Frank, Eggleston, and others.

  12. May I suggest the following:

    John Berger – Ways of Seeing

    Martha Rosler – In, Around and Afterthoughts

    Essays in the following books: River of Colour by Raghubir Singh, and perhaps more importantly, Travelogue by Harbutt

  13. Also, William Klein has designed all his major photobooks such that there is running personal commentary on virtually *every* individual photo, usually funny and quite insightful. I had the fortune to acquire an English version of ‘Close Up’; and if you know your French or German it may makes things a lot easier with his other books as well (unfortunately I don’t)!

  14. I enjoyed Bruce Davidson’s short memoir in “Bruce Davidson Photographs.” As a memoir, it is naturally about his experience of being a photographer, not the experience of being a photographer, but that distinction is probably too academic because Davidson’s stories are fascinating. I couldn’t get the English printing where I was living at the time, so suffice it to say it’s longest thing I’ve ever read in French.

  15. Although it’s not solely about photography, “Art & Fear” by Ted Orland and David Bayles says a good deal about the process of photography as individual endeavor. I go back to it time and again because it never fails to encourage and revitalise my puny efforts….. in fact I think I can feel a chapter coming on right about now…..

  16. How about Stephen Shore’s “The Nature of Photographs”?I also found the journal entries and letters reproduced in “Diane Arbus Revelations” to be really insightful, and I’m not even a big fan of her work.

  17. I used to read Julia Scully’s thoughtful and insigthful articles on photography in Modern Photography throughout the 1970’s and 80’s, and still remember them to this day as some of the best writing on photography I have ever come across. She was editor of the magazine too, for twenty years, and was also the co-discoverer of the photographic portraits by Mike Disfarmer.

    Quite by chance I came across her book ‘Outside Passage’ some years ago which is a rivetting read about her extraordinary childhood. Highly recommneded.

    An example of her outstanding writing was an article on Robert Frank, co-authered with Andy Grundberg, in the October 1978 edition of Modern Photography. This article was referred to and discussed at Tate Modern’s ‘Robert Frank Symposium’ in 2004
    as an example of one of the best pieces ever written about the photographer.

    As an aside, this was not the only interesting article in this October edition of 1978. There was a Herbert Keppler’s first look at Pentax’s wonderful 110 Pocket SLR with interchangeable lenses, a bit about Vivitar’s new 35-85mm f2.8 Series 1 lens, (wow), another article by Julia Scully, this time reporting from the 9th Annual Photographic Festival in Arles, France, and much, much more.

    You won’t find a magazine covering such breadth and quality these days, which is a shame. Perhaps there’s a blog out there doing it now. Some please tell me of it.

  18. I’m reading a book titled, “The Education of a Photographer”, a collect works piece. I think you’ll find some outstanding pieces in the book by some some very talented people.

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