The Internet loves listicles—articles of the top ten this, the world’s best that. Easy to read and easy to write, they score high in Google’s search rankings because they are easy for the algorithms to parse and the search results are easy for the viewer to scan.
Here’s my listicle: The top 7 books assigned in photography departments in US colleges. I hope you enjoy it.
On Photography, by Susan Sontag. Like many intellectuals writing on photography you get the clear impression she hasn’t attempted to make a photograph of her own—and may not even like photography. I written about Sontag and her book On Photography in a recent book review.
Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography is trip along a long and winding road, chaperoned by Roland Barthes, a French Marxist intellectual and it ends at its destination here, with these two paragraphs on page 119:
Mad or tame? Photography can be one or the other: tame if its realism remains relative, tempered by aesthetic or empirical habits (to leaf through a magazine at the hairdresser’s; the dentist’s); mad if this realism is absolute and, so to speak, original, obliging the loving and terrified consciousness to return to the very letter of Time: a strictly revulsive movement which reverses the course of the thing, and which I shall call, in conclusion, the photographic ecstasy.
Such are the two ways of the Photograph. The choice is mine: to subject its spectacle to the civilized code of perfect illusions, or to confront in it the wakening of intractable reality.
What, confront the wakening of intractable reality? Is that the right answer?
Had Barthes not been hit by a laundry van as he crossed a street in Paris he might be been impressed by his royalty checks, stretching out forty-one years now.
Liz Wells is a professor at the University of Plymouth and she speaks in intelligible sentences and writes in intelligible sentences and has written and edited a textbook, Photography: A Critical Introduction which, along with its companion website, seems intent on communicating ideas and communicating them clearly. Yes, the word “theory” and the word “critical” (as in critical theory) are key words throughout the book—nothing wrong with that as long as the author anchors their point somewhere, anywhere.
Another textbook, this one with a technical focus, comes from Barbara London and Jim Stone in their A Short Course in Photography. The chapters include all the usual suspects, “Camera,” “Lens,” “Light and Exposure,” and so forth but does it all with an art photography focus. Included at the end is a chapter “Seeing Like a Camera,” which at twenty-eight pages is long for a book like this but far too short, and a final forty-four page chapter “History of Photography,” probably long enough to give you the sense of it.
John Berger was another communist with a best selling book—and a TV series, too. His book is a groovy one with all boldface type published in 1972 to accompany his groovy BBC series of the same year and of the same name. The last two paragraphs, a summing up of the fourth and final episode of both, will give you the flavor of the whole:
Publicity is the life of this culture—in so far as without publicity capitalism could not survive—and at the same time publicity is its dream.
Capitalism survives by forcing the majority, whom it exploits, to define their own interests as narrowly as possible. This was once achieved by extensive depravation. Today in the developed countries it is being achieved by imposing a false standard of what is and what is not desirable.
To accompany this conclusion Berger has placed an image of a painting by Magritte, On the Threshold of Liberty, which depicts a room whose walls are panels of pictures, or perhaps openings to a scene beyond. A large cannon sits in the empty room, hinting of violence, suggestive of revolution.
But don’t worry, it’s only a surrealist cannon.
The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. This is going to come as a shock but many of books that are required reading in photography curriculums are written by Marxist authors. Who knew? Like all Marxists, Walter Benjamin dreamed of revolution, and Mechanical Reproduction (an essay more than a book, but it’s hard to charge for an essay—now $18.90, discounted, on Amazon and not discounted at the campus bookstore) is just such a dream.
Although usually described as being about photography, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction is really about film—movies—and how, in a Marxian analysis, the development of film as an art of the masses can serve as a weapon to defeat capitalism. Or something like that.
From the second paragraph of the preface:
The transformation of the superstructure, which takes place far more slowly than that of the substructure, has taken more than half a century to manifest in all areas of culture the change in the conditions of production. Only today can it be indicated what form this has taken. Certain prognostic requirements should be met by these statements. However, theses about the art of the proletariat after its assumption of power or about the art of a classless society would have less bearing on these demands than theses about the developmental tendencies of art under present conditions of production. Their dialectic is no less noticeable in the superstructure than in the economy. It would therefore be wrong to underestimate the value of such theses as a weapon. They brush aside a number of outmoded concepts, such as creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery – concepts whose uncontrolled (and at present almost uncontrollable) application would lead to a processing of data in the Fascist sense. The concepts which are introduced into the theory of art in what follows differ from the more familiar terms in that they are completely useless for the purposes of Fascism. They are, on the other hand, useful for the formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art.
Like I said, the development of film as an art of the masses can serve as a weapon to defeat capitalism.
You might be surprised to see so much Marx in the top photography books assigned in college photography curriculums, but you shouldn’t be. Marx’s Communist Manifesto reigns at number six on the list of all books for all degrees at US colleges. It’s in the top ten not because of economics classes as you might think, since much of his work relates to restructuring the economic systems of the world, but in history, political science, and sociology departments. Some English departments, perhaps yearning for more engagement with the exciting world of politics and protest, favor Communist Manifesto as a key textbook.
There are history of photography books further down the list and it’s not like photography departments are little revolutionary factories. This list is flawed in all sorts of ways, not the least is that there are very few photography departments left—the usual thing is to get a regular art degree and specialize in photography or, more accurately since everyone talks about multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary work all the time at art schools, you’d use photography as a tool toward some more lofty goal rather than just limiting yourself to photography.
But the list does offer a hint, a whiff, that maybe something is a little bit off in photo departments, perhaps a little bit off in art departments. The most striking thing about the list isn’t the strong showing of Marx but rather the limited breadth of the thinking exhibited—and a sense of an intolerance for points of view outside of those sanctioned.
Or maybe its nothing of the sort at all. Maybe Marx is here on this list today simply because Marx was here on this list yesterday, and the day before. Like high-school reading lists, certain books seem to go on and on of their own momentum, taught year after year not because they are still the right books to teach but because there is such a mass of supporting material for the instructor to lean upon, an invisible infrastructure holding up certain books, making them easier to study, easier to learn and, not least significantly, easier to teach.
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