Top 5 Photography Books

My Choice Of Photography Books

A personal selection of photography books that are not the typical technical text books on photography, some aren’t even on photography at all, but they are all books that have proven to be influential books that have changed how art and fine art photography can be approached and thought of. You won’t find Ansel Adams’ text books on photography here, because even though they were influential, they are more technically oriented, nor will you find the obligatory coffee table books on photography. My objective with this website has always been providing the reader with original information, that I personally find valuable and that goes beyond technicalities only.

My choice of books, was to give you insight into the more abstract and artistic philosophical considerations of art, and how artistic vision is a result of those considerations and not just the result of technical excellence. A part that is often neglected in the understanding and creation of art. Furthermore to give insight into the mysterious muses and intimate moments of furious passion, that accompanied the artists when creating their brilliant art and insights. That is perhaps more valuable than ‘how-to’ technical information that anyone can teach and learn.

Books are mentioned in no particular order.

1. Just Kids by Patti Smith

Patti Smith (December 30, 1946) and Robert Mapplethorpe (November 4, 1946 – March 9, 1989), today they are two well known artists. Patti Smith is famous for her music. Her album “Horses” is considered to be one of the greatest albums of all times. Mapplethorpe is often thought of as one of the big names in photography. Back in the late ’60’s however they were two unknown entities roaming the streets of New York, penniless.

“Just Kids” by Patti Smith is a book that details the relationship between Smith and Mapplethorpe, how they met in ’67 and their rise to international stardom. This book offers a fascinating insight into their lives and how, almost by chance, Mapplethorpe became the famous photographer who earned a place in photography history and how Smith became the protagonist of punk-rock and how they motivated and encouraged each other to become the monumental artists they are considered now.

Smith and Mapplethorpe always loved art. With New York City being one of the cultural centers of the world, art museums were easy to come by. Money for entry fees however, were scarce. Often when they visited a museum one of them had to wait outside. This didn’t discourage Mapplethorpe at all. “One day we’ll go in together, and the work will be ours,” Mapplethorpe told Smith on one of those occasions. He was broke and jobless when he said that. He never doubted his or Smith’s abilities.

Early work of Mapplethorpe demonstrates that he used a multitude of mediums in creating his artwork. He would cut out photographs from magazines and use pastels and coloured pencils and assemble it in his collages. An example of this is shown in the image above, dated circa 1968. Mapplethorpe needed photographs for his collages but never aspired to be a photographer, he didn’t dream of it, he only knew he was an artist. He lacked the patience for developing and printing the images. This all changed when Smith gave him a Polaroid SX-70 in 1971 because she insisted that it would be better than cutting out photographs from magazines that would have his critical approval, to be used in his collages. There was no need to develop pictures in a darkroom. Press the shutter and just wait sixty seconds. “The immediacy of the process suited his temperament,” as Patti Smith put it. Film was pricy though ($3 dollars for 10 pictures), so Mapplethorpe couldn’t experiment as much as he’d liked. That was the start for his love of photography, and we have Patti Smith to thank for that.

In 1972 Mapplethorpe was introduced to John McKendry, at the time a curator of prints and photographs at The Met. They would discuss about photography as an art form. Mapplethorpe was convinced photography should be as highly regarded as paintings and sculptures. Although McKendry agreed, it was not his place to reform the nations opinion. He did manage to land Mapplethorpe a grant from Polaroid, giving him unlimited access to al the film he wanted. This was a big step in Mapplethorpe’s photography career. In 1973 he had his first solo exhibition (“Polaroids”) at the Light Gallery in New York City.

A Polaroid camera is obviously very limited in its abilities. A basic point and shoot camera, with no interchangeable lenses. It’s difficult to exactly get the result that you want. Once Mapplethorpe came in possession of a Hasselblad, through his friend Sam Wagstaff, there was no holding him back.

Mapplethorpe photographed many portraits of his partner Patti Smith. What struck me about how they would go about that is that Mapplethorpe always used natural light and never asked Smith to strike a specific pose. Mapplethorpe only was interested in the light for his portrait, while Smith would assume the pose that she knew Mapplethorpe would like. There was a silent and telepathic understanding while shooting the portraits. In the book it becomes clear that both contributed to the beautiful portraits Mapplethorpe took of Smith.

Just Kids is an entertaining book that gives insight in how one of the most revered photographers of the 20th century found his calling in a rather accidental way.

2. Interaction Of Color by Josef Albers

If you’re a color photographer and want to use colors in a more thoughtful, deliberate and effective way in your photographs, then this is the book you should have at hand on your bookshelves.

It’s been more than 50 years since Interaction of Color by Josef Albers was first released. The book is announced by the author himself as ‘a record of an experimental way of studying color and of teaching color.’ Josef Albers (March 19, 1888 – March 25, 1976) was an educator and painter and by many considered to be ‘the teacher of artists’. His color theories and teachings are instrumental up to this date, in how is thought and taught about color in art education and practice, and in the development of art movements such as the American Abstract Expressionism.

Albers developed a theory on colors that goes beyond traditional theories on color and how colors are perceived and used in art. Interaction of Colors was unprecedented and generated a lot of controversy and negative criticism, at the time of its release, but ultimately the work became a bestseller and was and is highly praised.

What Albers demonstrated in a clear way in his book, was that color is very relative. Albers says:

In visual perception a color is almost never seen as it really is — as it physically is. This fact makes color the most relative medium in art.

And furthermore:

In order to use color effectively it is necessary to recognize that color deceives continually.

The book consists of 26 chapters, all with a theoretical premise, in, again, very clear language, and all premises are accompanied by so called ‘plates and commentary’ sections, to explain visually, through colorful illustrations and examples, what the premise entails.

I’ve included a few scans of the book to give you an idea.

Hopefully you can get a good impression of what this book entails but whether you’re a color photographer, a black and white photographer or a visual designer, this book has resulted in quite a few new insights that I applied in my color and black and white photographs.

3. Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes

There are only few books written by art, literary and other critics and theorists, who aren’t artists themselves, that had a deep impact on the acceptance and the understanding of photography as we have come to know it. One of them is Camera Lucidaby French philosopher, critic and theorist Roland Barthes. The other one is On Photography by Susan Sontag that is also included in this top 5.

Roland Barthes (November 12, 1915 – March 26, 1980) wasn’t a photographer but had an interest for photography. Camera Lucida is basically an eulogy to Barthes’ late mother. The main character of the book, if one could call it like that, is one specific photo of his mother as a young child, called the Winter Garden Photograph. How this photo looks like, no one but Roland Barthes himself (and perhaps a few insiders) knows. The book is full of other photo examples but the photo itself isn’t presented in the book, nor can it be found anywhere else on the Internet. Yet, through a beautifully written analysis of this specific photo Barthes takes us to some very interesting conclusions on the nature and meaning of a photograph. It is one of the photography books that I can highly recommend. The most interesting, rather theoretical, explorations in Camera Lucida are about two concepts that Barthes introduced as Punctum and Studium.

Studium is a concept that describes what creates interest in a photograph. Barthes elaborates that the idea or intention of the artist will have a photographic result that the observer needs to interpret to get to the message behind the photograph and that often this idea or intention is culturally, linguistically and politically determined. A photograph with a studium will be liked but not so much loved. A photograph will also be loved if the photograph not only contains a clear studium but also a punctum. A punctum is described by Barthes as an object in the photograph, often a small detail, that jumps out to the viewer as by accident.  Something that ‘pricks’ the viewer and disturbs the studium and has an aberrant quality. But this aberration should be unnamable. If it can be named it’s not a punctum and it cannot ‘prick’ the viewer. Barthes explains these concepts by analysing various photographs in the book in a clear way.

But of course this book isn’t only on Studium and Punctum, there’s far more to it. To conclude this short report I would like to present a quote from Barthes that explains in a beautiful and profound way why black and white photography has his preference.

“Perhaps it is because I am delighted (or depressed) to know that the thing of the past, by its immediate radiations (its luminances), has really touched the surface which in its turn my gaze will touch, that I am not very found of color. (…) I always feel (…) color is a coating applied later on to the original truth of the black-and-white-photograph. For me color is an artifice, a cosmetic (…). What matters to me is not the photograph’s life (a purely ideological notion) but the certainty that the photographed body touches me with its own rays and not with superadded light. (Hence the Winter Garden Photograph, however pale, is for me the treasury of rays which emanated from my mother as a child, from her hair, her skin, her dress, her gaze, on that day.) (…).”

4. On Photography by Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag (January 16, 1933 – December 28, 2004) arguably wrote one of the most influential critiques on photography. Her book On Photography is a collection of essays touching on “the meaning and career of photographs” as the author herself describes it. Just like Barthes, Sontag wasn’t a photographer but a writer and political activist. The book first appearance was in 1977, a time before the advent of digital photography but the content transcends time and technology.

The book starts with her most famous essay ‘In Plato’s cave’. And the following quote is the start of an analysis of the nature of a photograph and how it is generally conceived:

What is written about a person or an event is frankly an interpretation, as are handmade visual statements, like paintings and drawings. Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire.

She then takes us through beautifully written contemplations to the conclusion, and I concur with her, that photographs, not only as a practice, but also in the way we think about it as an art form, are always interpretations, at best isolated objectivity. You can’t photograph the whole universe or even part of a world in one single photograph; the moment you choose  a frame and choose to exclude the rest, it is already destined to be an interpretation.