Photography: A Very Short Introduction
I must have been mad to agree to write this book; not least, because the combination ‘very short introduction’ with ‘photography’ seems like an oxymoron. The three or four standard histories of the medium are all huge volumes. The problem is simply that photography runs in all directions, permeating diverse aspects of society. Indeed, it is difficult to find an area of modern life untouched by it. (Even the cover of this book, ostensibly an abstract painting, is photomechanically reproduced.) The critic John Tagg once suggested that there was no single characteristic, or practice, that represented the fundamental essence of the medium. Trying to account for photography as a whole, he suggested, was akin to attempting a history, or a museum, of writing: all that could be done was to trace the uses of photography (or writing) in the institutions in which it was put to work – the law courts, medicine, advertising, art, and so forth. Even if we reject a strict version of this argument (it seems to me that there are powerful ideologies underpinning the uses of photography), attempting to write an introduction to this dispersed field feels like a vain task. The quite distinct versions of photography’s history unravel attempts to tell a coherent story. This is one of the things that can make thinking about photography so fascinating, and so challenging.
In this short book I have not even tried to provide anything like a comprehensive account: some of the most important aspects of the field – advertising, for instance – barely figure here. Instead, I have tried to address some constitutive conditions that give rise to the values we typically associate with photographs. This approach means emphasizing the division between art and documentary. I have also adopted a thematic, rather than chronological, organization for this book; information on the development of photography, for instance, is scattered throughout the pages. My aim has been to embed specific information in a wider frame – I hope this approach results in a livelier introduction to the subject, but the reader may need to actively look for connections. Chapter 1 takes the theme of forgetting as a way of introducing photography. Chapters 2 and 3 form a complementary pair, providing a survey of issues and themes associated with the division between ‘documents’ and ‘pictures’. Chapters 4 and 5 go over some of the same ground, but with a more theoretical emphasis. The final chapter returns to the uses of photography, advancing some thoughts on commodity culture and memory. I felt that I could not leave the book without a short coda on the ‘digital image’ and its impact on established photographic culture.
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