Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Book review : The Genius of Photography: Gerry Badger

Gerry Badger’s The Genius of Photography is a book that I have been dipping in and out of throughout the time I have been working on TAOP and was one that I first came across when watching the television series of the same name a few years ago.  Essentially, it is a book that covers the various photographic movements through the twentieth century and explores developments via the key events, people and photographs that defined the era.  The evolution of photography from the earliest images by Niepce to the end of the century and slightly beyond (2006) is covered in a succinct way and the social context of the imagery thoroughly explored and exemplified with around twenty key images in each section. 
The historical coverage was the major element in the book for me and the treatment of the development of social documentary photography and the start of photography as a political and propagandist tool especially so.  The third chapter, Some decisive moments (maybe?), gives an interesting appraisal of (mostly) war images from Robert Capa (Loyalist militiaman ..etc), Lee Miller and her post-war documentation of the Holocaust and its victims, Don McCullin in Vietnam and Luc Delahaye in Iraq and discusses points around how photographs can be tailored to a cause via the way they are taken and edited, and indeed how events in war can also be manipulated to suit photography.  Face to Face looks at portraits and how they developed in an historical context and how they can generate and channel emotional responses, and Badger very succinctly states that a portrait “ … is capable of immortalising and creating myth.  It can confer acknowledgement and bestow dignity.  It can also stereotype, debase and dehumanise.”  The chapter starts with Nadar’s photograph of Sarah Bernhardt from 1863 as a fairly uncomplicated image and travels a path through Paul Strand and Walker Evans and others, concentrating on the ‘reading’ of the images and what could potentially be derived from them other than just the face in the portrait.  Nudity gets quite short treatment and seems to focus mostly on where the images taken have been sympathetic and often taken in an apparently willing collaboration, although he does briefly cover the uncomfortable looking subjects of Diane Arbus and self-portraits of Jo Spence as she explores the demonisation of the aging female form.
There are two sections at the end of the book which I found especially useful and interesting.  Firstly, there is an historical timeline of the development of photography to the modern day paralleled with major world events which occurred at the same time set alongside, and secondly a glossary of the terms used over the years to describe different print processes.  So, if you want to know the differences between your gum bichromate print and your palladiotype, then this is the place to look.
The book is quite a large format (23 x 20cm) and the images are clear and well set out, although I did find the sudden appearance of large bold font in the titles of some of the images quite strange.  It is a book that has been well reviewed elsewhere and one particular quote from Martin Parr caught my eye “An excellent primer and leads us through the complexities of understanding what makes a great image .. Badger’s book lays out the debates in a clear, authoritative way.”  I’d certainly agree with that, and I found the book immensely readable and engaging throughout and will be a resource that will doubtless find use again as I progress.


  1. It is a good book Dave and I'd actually forgotten I had it! One thing I'm going to have to do this year is to remember to look through all the books I have on the practice of photography when I'm talking about photographers - particularly in exhibition write-ups.

    Thanks for reminding me and so giving me the prompt.

  2. Thanks for review, it was excellent and very informative.
    thank you :)