Reading List: The Theory of Photography

As my Mom often likes to point out, all I ever know is something I got from reading something or other. This is more often true these days than not. I cannot have much to say or write on any topic before my mind begins to be flooded with the true sources of my various pronouncements and dictums. Moreover, the idea for initiating such a blog came from an assortment of readings over the course of a lifetime.

Soul Pictures and the Talking in Pictures projects were always about a lot of other books I've read before, a lot of music and most importantly a lot of pictures. Most especially, I just love picture books, or illustrated narratives of any kind, no matter how slim the narrative, and sometimes no matter how perfunctory the illustrations.

I hope to include here some of my bibliographical lists of photographs and photography books in some kind of a link off to the side, where you can refer to it or ignore it as inclination dictates. Some of the more iconoclastic writings on photography have been extremely influential in my thinking.

In some cases, it may be necessary to explain how I got from the readings to issues of race because works such as Roland Barthes's Camera Lucida, Susan Sontag's On Photography or even James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men seem opaque to some readers on these issues. Although I do not agree, I've run into the confusion enough to know that it is real.

I try to teach these texts when I do the course on Talking in Picture. In fact, in most cases it is simply impossible because the photographs they took the course in order to think about, or write about, or look at again or whatever leads some place else first, and by that time the course is over. It would be a pity to divert them to Barthes or Agee where they might simply be turned off on the whole project. I think of the process of taking the steps he or she needs to connect with photography as entirely unique for each student each time I teach the course. It is even private in a sense.

As I move further into the conceptualization of Soul Pictures, which is my series of photo-essays about the women in my family (in particular Mme. Willi Posey, Faith Ringgold and myself), the impulse toward turning photography into a critical expertise becomes less and less compelling, and my attachment to the model of Walker Evans and William Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men becomes less tenacious. But what I really liked about what Agee did with Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was all the exhaustive lists and inventories, not that I want to do the same with my topics, the women in my family, but lists and inventories are, in fact, one of the ways you can begin to conquer your unfamiliarity with the unknown or the unfathomable. That Agee chose this approach is all the more strange because he was, himself, a Southern male although of a different class background. Did he do it this way in order to bring them closer or in order to create more distance?

Whatever may be the case, his process, which still fascinates me to this day, helped de-mystify for me the relation between photographs and words, a relation that is often taken for granted as automatic and invariable.

Agee isn't highly respected in the literary world these days, or he hasn't been thus far, but there seems no doubt to me that he is an immensely important figure in understanding developments in American Literature and Culture, and its intersections of race and gender. For understanding race in American Culture in the 20th Century, he and his book provide invaluable clues about the meaning of the word race both when it is mentioned and when it is not mentioned.

On Photography by Susan Sontag is perhaps even more important as a concise guidebook on the transformation of photography into some version of an art historical canon. Her judgments are conventional yet visionary because at the time she is making them (1977), she is ahead of the curve. What's astonishing to me, in retrospect, is how durable her judgements have turned out to be (in the canonical sense). She writes for a general audience who might or might not be interested in the intellectual roots of the discourse on photography. 

Whatever her initial political motivations might have been worries me a great deal less than they do some. In academia, why we read and pay attention to some things and not others always boils down to some half-baked notion of the political intent of the author.  She was kind of like a Margaret Mead (to mention another difficult figure for some) for her time. She bravely and triumphantly straddled that fence between the general audience and intellectual scholarship until the very end.

She seems to have known a good deal about what to pay attention to and why, at the same time serving to create some of the most enduring stereotypes about the emotional and historical limitations of photography, a topic on which she followed up on in Illness as Metaphor, Regarding the Pain of Others and AIDS as Metaphor. I don't agree with everything by any means but I don't think that's my purpose in recommending the reading of this work.  Rather the purpose is to provide me or you with a starting point for our own investigations.

As for Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida, Barthes is from time to time one of the best writers who ever put pen to paper. He has his turgid impulses, like most academic writing, but when he is on it, such as he was, for instance, in S/Z, he is on it. Camera Lucida is a stunning book, a brilliant work in which I find something new every time I read any portion of it. The first thing I love is that the whole little book comes out of an engagement with a photograph of his mother whom he adored and who had recently died. And then he goes from there in order to weave a singular encounter with what we can and cannot know about a photograph we are looking at. The photographs he picks to talk about and how he situates them has enormous power, but I will admit it took me at least ten years of the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune," to grow into this relationship to the book.

Not quite sure at this moment what was initially off putting. He does deal with race on a number of occasions in this text, albeit in order to suggest that race is always "myth," and not in a useable form. Of course I don't agree with that. First and foremost, I would need to insist that "myth," however you may define it, it must be regarded as useable. Second, he was just wrong, even naive, about myth versus history. Maybe there is a tendency if you disagree with him (and I think a lot of people would) to put the book down and not pick it up again. But there was so much other writing of his that bowled me over. He bowled me over when he got specific about The Family of Man exhibition composed by Edward Steichen at the Museum of Modern Art, which toured the world, about the significance of the black soldier as defender of French patriotism on the cover of Paris Match, about the photography of August Sanders whom I might never have connected with if not for his fascinating introduction to his series of photographic studies of the French population of the 20s, 30s and 40s.

Through the doorway made by his beautiful writing, his beautiful mind, he provided a major link for me intellectually between the Modern and the so-called Postmodern if you care (which I felt as though I had no other choice but to care) because so many people whose ideas I cared about and care about were into it.  

But I recommend all three of these authors on photography and lots of others to those who are starting out on their investigation into the philosophical elements operating in photography in the 20th century. Just that if you want to do race and photography, you should be sensitive to the fact that three of the key authors on the topic of photography aren't likely to give you much help in this area. It is almost another course, depending upon whether you want the long version or the short version. In the short version (which is the typical semester), you want to read these books on your own during the summer or after your graduation or whenever and wherever it suits you but when your mind is relaxed and fertile.

You've got to get up on the horse somehow and thus far I've found academic and scholarly accounts of the history of photography singularly suffocating and sometime positively unendurable for my purposes. This is precisely how I find myself at this point, ten years after having begun my first investigations into the topic, having run out of external inspiration but not yet able to leave it as I found it. I've got some things to say about one or two things I think. Beyond what I've seen anybody else say, at least certainly in the context of race in America. At any rate, we will soon find out if that's so or not.

Nobody seems to know nearly enough for me about the potential power of photographs: the power of that window into the past, into the soul, into interiors, landscapes, objects whether made by man or god. And this is regardless of whether or not the window or the mirror is true. It simply doesn't matter given the alternative, which is nothing and pure nothingness. By power, I mean psychological power (about which I have only the most minimal knowledge), or what goes on between the eye and memory when it encounters the images made possible by the photographic instrument. So that's my thing.

Haven't got any time anymore to load my head up with a lot of information not relevant to where I am heading. Most of these commentators, historians of photography, whatever you want to call them, are never going to get anywhere near any racial material or any African American photographers, except perhaps to name one or two photographers such as perhaps VanDerZee and Gordon Parks, and to point to one or two photographs only in order to substantiate ever more deeply how marginal that whole body of work (together with whatever it's formal or institutional roots may be) is to where the action really is in photography as history, as art, as political document. Why this is the case I don't know. I think it may be force of habit.

Oddly, in American photography, this negative estimation of race in photography spans over the reputations not only of African American photographers, in general, but it can also include African American life as the subject of the photograph even if the photographer is not black. If the photographer is also female, so much the worse for her historical importance. Something different may be happening with African photography but if so, it probably stems from the fact that European photography is so much more inspirational and true in its relation with the African body and its landscape. To over emphasize the role of the history of photography in Europe in the subsequent formation of American photography is to make it all the more difficult to see and understand the crucial role and singular role race has played in the unfolding of American photography before the onset of the digital revolution. Of course, the digital revolution is what makes this discussion even possible.

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I am a writer and a professor of English at the City College of New York, and the CUNY Graduate Center. My books include Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman (1979), Invisibility Blues (1990), Black Popular Culture (1992), and Dark Designs and Visual Culture (2005). I write cultural criticism frequently and am currently working on a project on creativity and feminism among the women in my family, some of which is posted on the Soul Pictures blog.