Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Introductory texts

There has been recent debate on the student forum regarding the textbook issued by OCA to accompany The Art of Photography.  Graham Clarke’s “The Photograph” stirs mixed emotions as far as broad accessibility of the text is concerned, and I certainly found it quite hard work to read, steeped in classic ‘artistic’ English and flowing prose as it certainly is.  I think it does however deal very well with the historic development of photography and with the major photographers who have contributed to the development of the still image, although I do find the intensely detailed (and I think entirely speculative) interpretations placed upon some of the photographs difficult to rationalise.  The Diane Arbus image “A family on their lawn one Sunday in Westchester, New York, 1969” seems to me to be a shot of just that, yet Clarke (on page 31) attributes “a larger condition, at once cultural, social and in this instance, psychological” and a whole plethora of interpretations based around elements of the image.  I just don’t see it and it reminds me of English lessons at school when I was taught about how Shakespeare must have been feeling when he penned certain scenes in Macbeth ..  However, the image recently sold for $91,000, so I guess I must be wrong !!
I have looked at a couple of other texts that delve into the history of photography and consider the photograph as contemporary art.  These were “Photography : a cultural history” by Mary Warner Marien (2002) and “The Photograph as Contemporary Art by Charlotte Cotton (2009).  Cotton is a concise work that is clearly subdivided into photographic cultural genres although retains some of the feeling of Clarke (2007) in terms of the linguistic devices used, but Marien is far more accessible, at least in my view, in terms of the language deployed to discuss the history of photography as an art form.  However, and it is a big however, Marien is a massive tome the size of a telephone directory, with 532 pages of small font, although with significantly larger pictures (it is a bigger book!) than the other two offerings.  Overall, I think Clarke is a good introduction in terms of its concise nature and its focus on the ‘classic’ images and photographers, and I can understand why it was chosen by the OCA, but Marien achieves more for those with time on their hands or wanting to dip into it without necessarily following the structure imposed by the author.

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