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Book of the Week: Selected by Brian Arnold

Book Review On Photographs Text by David Campany Reviewed by Brian Arnold "My interest in the new book by David Campany, On Photographs, stems precisely from this. It is clear and accessible enough for beginner students, and yet full of insights and information beneficial to photographers of any maturity..."

On PhotographsBy David Campany.
On Photographs
Text by David Campany

The MIT Press, 2020. 272 pp., 6¾x8½".

I’ve been teaching beginning and intermediate photography to undergraduate students for 20 years. In the early stages of photographic education, I always try to impress upon my students how to read photographs as much as, if not more than, how to make them. So, in putting together a curriculum for an early photographic course, I’ve consistently looked for a text that helps students understand the incredible history and complexity of the medium, while also serving as a primer for the critical traditions that have grown with it.

My interest in the new book by David Campany, On Photographs, stems precisely from this. It is clear and accessible enough for beginner students, and yet full of insights and information beneficial to photographers of any maturity.

On Photographs is structured very much like Szarkowski’s classic, Looking at Photographs, with a 1:1 image-text relationship, one picture with a short essay on the facing page. I appreciate this form for writing about photographs, as it helps the reader focus on an image and specific details. As stated by Campany in the introduction, On Photographs can also be read in a couple of different ways. One can simply flip through and read the essays randomly — each is a complete idea in and of itself. And it is intuitive to read passages as you stumble upon pictures that capture your attention. But the book is also incredibly well-organized, with each essay building one on top of the other, so by reading it through sequentially you can get a clear idea of how different concepts and ideas overlap and intersect. 

The strength of the text lies in the eloquent ways Campany prompts the reader to engage the pictures. He uses a variety of different strategies for deciphering them, including approaches grounded in a rigorous understanding of photographic theory, biographical studies of the photographers, formal critiques, and investigations of the historical importance of individual photographs. The book provides a fantastic introduction to some of the essential critical theory that has helped shape our understanding of the medium today. In repeated references to their work, he gives clear and thorough introductions to pioneering critics like Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, Gisèle Freund, and Susan Sontag (the title of the book is a deliberate reference to Sontag’s On Photography, and the idea for it was developed years ago when Campany met the legendary critic while he was still a student).

Campany focuses on the second half of the 20th century to the present day, but also looks at its early roots, offering a glimpse into the development of the medium over the last 200 years. Many legends of photography make appearances — Gregory Crewdson, Rineke Djkstra, Bill Brandt, and Robert Frank, to name a few — but there are no images by Winogrand, Weston, or Arbus. In their place are pictures by engineers, anthropologists, and obscure South African journalists. A change I found refreshing.

On Photographs deserves high praise, but I also have to point out a couple of criticisms. It’s not uncommon when reading a text-heavy book to find a couple of typos, but there are enough in here to genuinely surprise and annoy me (Baldessari threw the balls, not through them). Much more importantly, in developing his argument Campany emphasizes the importance of photographic tools and technologies, mostly in addressing the importance of screens, cameras, and the printed page.

Photography is a technical medium, and we experience this so much more broadly than Campany acknowledges. More than just images, photographs are also objects. There is no denying that the screen is the primary way each of us experiences photographs now, but there are reasons wet plate remains so popular today, and why processes like platinum or cyanotype have stuck around for decades. How a photograph exists as an object is part of how it conveys meaning, and I think Campany fails to address this facet. There is important contemporary work by artists — think of Alison Rossiter, Sally Mann, and Meghann Riepenhoff — who have made the materiality of the medium an essential part of their vision, understanding that the passage of time on the physical presence of the image is part of how we make meaning from photographs.

Campany ends his book with an interesting musing about the evolution of photography from its inception to the present, and, strangely enough, with a pair of images — a negative and positive print — made by William Henry Fox Talbot’s wife, Constance. It’s a simple image, more photogram than photograph, made by contact printing the text of a poem. Campany turns this picture into an opportunity to reflect on how photography has developed since Constance made the print. His ultimate conclusion is that it hasn’t changed much; that photography was conceived with all that we know of it today. Herein lies the success of On Photographs. Simply and clearly, Campany shows us the incredible complexity of a medium that has both baffled and consumed our lives, one full of possibilities and contradictions from the very beginning that we are still trying to understand.

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Brian Arnold
is a photographer and writer based in Ithaca, NY, where he works as an Indonesian language translator for the Southeast Asia Program at Cornell University. He has published two books on photography, Alternate Processes in Photography: Technique, History, and Creative Potential (Oxford University Press, 2017) and Identity Crisis: Reflections on Public and Private and Life in Contemporary Javanese Photography (Afterhours Books/Johnson Museum of Art, 2017). Brian has two more books due for release in 2021, A History of Photography in Indonesia: Essays on Photography from the Colonial Era to the Digital Age (Afterhours Books) and From Out of Darkness (Catfish Books).