Study Guide

A History of Photography

A History of Photography Essay - Critical Essays

A History of Photography

The photo historian’s task, the editors write, has grown exceedingly complex. It is no longer possible to offer an exhaustive history of the 150-year-old medium because photography “seems to relate to everything: technical progress, society, art.” The editors do, however, compile a fairly comprehensive study, one that may be among the last of its kind. Soon, as the editors suggest, the history of photography will become increasingly specialized.

Jean-Claude Lemagny and Andre Rouille have incorporated the trend toward specialization into their history by commissioning essays from international experts. Lemagny explains that “only a wide diversity of approaches could convey the equivocal nature of the roles which photography has played in the history of the world.” The editors have, however, made deft adjustments to these various theses to provide an editorial continuity and coherence. Their book, therefore, has the sweep and scope one might expect from a history, but it also contains the penetrating insights and details that come from specialization.

The editors believe that the history of photography can be seen as two successive, but not entirely exclusive, movements: First, photography “came to penetrate every sector of modern life,” a nineteenth century phenomenon that spilled over into the twentieth century; second, photography became reflexive, devoting “itself to a critical assessment of its role and meaning,” a trend that has dominated the medium in the twentieth century.

The area in which this history exceeds its most notable predecessors--specifically, the histories of Beaumont Newhall, Helmut Gernsheim, and Peter Pollack--is its discussion in chapter 7 of “Photography and the State Between the Wars.” In this section, the way in which photography has been used as a tool to express nationalistic concerns of various countries is examined in depth.

The book’s more than two hundred photographs have been well chosen and faithfully, handsomely reproduced. The diligent efforts of editors Lemagny and Rouille are somewhat undermined by what may be a problem of translation (parts of the text had to be translated into French, and then the entire book translated into English for this edition) and by an often shoddy job of proofreading. Even so, this history has much to offer the reader who perseveres in spite of these annoyances.