Photography History Essay Introduction

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Photography is so broad a history that few single-authored overviews have been attempted. Only in the earlier years of the discipline could Gernsheim and Gernsheim 1969 or Newhall 2009 (originally published in 1949) conceive of writing something like a complete history. They contain inevitable omissions and frequently concentrate on European and North American movements and sources to the exclusion of all else. Nonetheless these overviews have a disproportionate weight in classroom teaching, and have influenced the history and historiography of photography a great deal so they bear mentioning together with textbooks often used in practical photography courses at undergraduate level, such as Wells 2009, compilations of art photography such as Szarkowski 1989, and the more recent multiple-authored revisionist histories such as Frizot 1998, and the Exposures Series. More and more attention has fallen on the historiographic element of photographic history, and this is nicely summed up in Nickel 2001.

  • Frizot, Michel, ed. A New History of Photography. Cologne: Köneman, 1998.

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    Originally published as Nouvelle histoire de la photographie in 1994, this broad-ranging overview is also translated into German and Russian. Both undergraduates and advanced students will find compelling reading in the forty-one essays covering photographers, cultural history, technology, social history, and more and including not only general articles as introductions to subjects but also more specific short entries.

  • Gernsheim, Alison, and Helmut Gernsheim. The History of Photography from the Camera Obscura to the Beginning of the Modern Era. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1969.

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    Although the first edition appeared in 1955 titled The History of Photography from the Earliest Use of the Camera Obscura in the Eleventh Century up to 1914 (London, New York: Oxford University Press), the 1969 revised edition is more common and complete. This is a useful overview for newcomers to the field, emphasizing technological history. It resembles earlier Technical histories of photography such as Eder 1978.

  • Hamilton, Peter, and Mark Haworth-Booth, eds. Exposures Series. London: Reaktion.

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    The Exposures series of books introduces readers to subjects in photographic history including photography and cinema, science, Italy, Africa, anthropology, China, Egypt, archaeology, Japan, literature, travel, Ireland, Italy, and death. Each micro-history contains an overview of the subject and current scholarship in the area.

  • Marien, Mary Warner. Photography: A Cultural History. London: Lawrence King, 2010.

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    While this book is still heavily informed by art-historical narratives, it does give a broad account of photographic history, including photographic artwork motivated by social, cultural, and political concerns. Now in its third edition, this is a popular text with undergraduates due to its mixture of art photography and social documentary.

  • Newhall, Beaumont. The History of Photography: From 1839 to the Present. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2009.

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    This standard textbook has been frequently translated and revised with English versions published in 1949, 1964, 1983, 1993, and 2009. Originally a catalogue for the 1937 exhibition at the Modern Museum of Art in New York, it retains exhibition catalogue features with numerous illustrations that broke with earlier textual histories. Its concentration on photographic history in the United States, makes it similar to many of the National/Regional Histories.

  • Nickel, Douglas R. “History of Photography: the State of Research.” Art Bulletin 83.3 (2001): 548–558.

    DOI: 10.2307/3177242E-mail Citation »

    Nickel gives a useful overview of the origins of histories and historiographic articles previously written in English. Despite its title it is a summary of the state of research in the United States only.

  • Szarkowski, John. Photography Until Now. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1989.

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    An overview of art photography, with an emphasis on the modernist style, that still serves as an introduction to canonical art photographers and main movements in art photography.

  • Wells, Liz. Photography: A Critical Introduction. 4th ed. Abingdon, VT: Routledge, 2009.

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    The only textbook currently available in English that keeps abreast of scholarship and distills it for undergraduate students of photography and photographic history. It incorporates discussions of scholarly theories with social, cultural, and political history and theory. It represents a break with Newhall 2009, although it contains similar biases toward largely English-language photographers, sources and debates.

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