Most of the photographers I have worked with know of the importance of reading texts that are pertinent to their work: you need to know the general context and the discussions that are already happening. You will place more work into that context, and your work might become part of such discussions.
But there is more to reading than it being an acquisition of knowledge. While knowledge itself is good, it’s of limited utility until/unless it is applied. Reading texts can help photographers with their own work by indirectly shining critical light on work that has not been seen by anyone, yet. As a photographer, you can take criteria that were already applied to other people’s work and see what happens in the context of your own work. To put it simply, reading makes you a better photographer.
That said, reading texts that deal with one’s work and its context is only the absolute minimum you can do as an artist (regardless of whether you’re a photographer or writer). After all, there can be incredible discoveries made in texts around work that has absolutely no connection to one’s own interests.
This type of reading — the less directly utilitarian one — offers an enrichment of one’s own ideas and sensibilities. In a nutshell, you can kick start your own creativity in ways that you’re unable to foresee, which offers avenues towards becoming a better artist. You thus avoid becoming trapped in a bubble of your own making, where you know the discussions for your type of work well — but nothing beyond (this is a common problem).
In the following, I want to recommend a number of books that I have enjoyed over the past few years. I should note that this list is not intended to be complete. There are many more books that I like, and I will probably regret that I forgot to add some other book. In this site’s archives, there are articles about other noteworthy books; with one exception, I didn’t include any of them below.
I want to start off with a series of books called Documents of Contemporary Art. Each book in this collection contains a large number of texts that address a specific topic or theme. This is an incredible and very convenient resource. For example, if you’re a landscape photographer then you obviously want to read The Sublime. Not all of the texts in that book might be relevant for your work. But the ones that are will enrich your own understanding of it, and they might direct you to other readings (or pieces of art to look at).
For me, the real treasures in the collection have been books like Boredom or Translation. How or why could it possibly be interesting to read 225 pages of text about those topics? Well, it just is. For example, boredom itself is an incredibly rich topic that has produced a huge number of utterly fascinating writing. I had no idea. I bought the book on a whim. That’s the thing with writing: while there is no guarantee that a book will enrich your life, treating the act of reading as an investment scheme where the time spent better result in something gained or else is a terrible idea.
Next up is a book that also is a collection of texts about a specific topic. But here the topic is a piece of art that generated a huge amount of writing around it, as is evident from the title: Critique in Practice: Renzo Martens’ Episode III: Enjoy Poverty. This book is essential because of the sheer breadth and depth of the discourse, with dozens of very diverse contributors.
It’s also a book that many photographers might want to look at because it deals with photojournalism and the various problematic aspects of it when it happens in Africa. And it’s a book that ultimately does not come to one fixed conclusion, which only proves that when art tackles complex issues it might not be possible to find the ideal solution.
In many ways, Critique in Practice: Renzo Martens’ Episode III: Enjoy Poverty shows what can be gained from a deeper engagement with a piece of art that addresses problematic issues. The first essays in the book are the very first published reactions to Martens’ Enjoy Poverty. Later contributions then dive more deeply into various aspects of the work, and they manage to unearth a lot of insight.
Unfortunately, in the world of photography too often discussions end at the former stage (immediate responses), or the latter stage happens only in academic circles (and thus ends up hidden behind obtuse tedious language and the paywalls of academic journals). How there can be more efforts such as this book isn’t clear to me — someone would have to commission them.
Hito Steyerl’s The Wretched of the Screen contains some of the artist/thinker’s most relevant essays. This includes In Defense of the Poor Image, which as a contemporary photographer you simply to read, regardless of whether you agree with its ideas or not. Intersecting art, technology, and politics, the book directly addresses a number of pressing issues that are missing from most photography-centric discussions.
In a very similar fashion, Culture Class by Martha Rosler focuses on one of the most pressing issues facing artists today, namely their role in and relationship to neoliberal capitalism: “With the market pressing in on one side and near-poverty on the other, how might artists’ long-standing tendency to identify not with their patrons but rather with the relatively voiceless in society be expressed or suppressed?” (quoted from the publisher’s website)
Twenty nineteen and 2022 saw the release of books by Mark Sealy, namely Decolonising the Camera: Photography in Racial Time and Photography: Race, Rights and Representation. While there appears to exist a more widespread awareness of the topics explored in the books, the same probably cannot yet be said for an understanding for why and how they matter. Reading Sealy will get you there.
For example, in Decolonising the Camera, a chapter entitled Violence of the Image dives deeply into how photographs can indeed inflict considerable violence. “Like powerful music,” Sealy says in a conversation in Photography, “photography must take us somewhere beyond the act of seeing.” (p. 13)
I’m still making my way through Luis Camnitzer’s One Number Is Worth One Word. The book focuses on art, its role in society, and how art can be taught in ways that solves some of the problems in traditional art education. Photographers who are not interested in teaching might not be particularly interested in this book, even as it contains quite a few nuggets to think about. But there are many photographers who make at least some of their money teaching. They might want to have a look at this book.
Lastly, Wendy Lower’s The Ravine: A Family, a Photograph, a Holocaust Massacre Revealed is a very different book than the ones mentioned above. Instead of talking about the roles of photographs, their functions, or a photographer’s responsibility, it dives into a single photography, to unearth an incredible amount of details from it: protagonists are being located, the site in question is found, and the larger circumstances of what has been termed Holocaust by Bullets is made clear. The book is a brilliant example of how the very careful reading of a single photograph can lead to tremendous insight.
Robert Capa is often quoted as having said “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.” Many decades later, there should be an update: If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t reading enough. Reading makes you a better photographer.
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