Review: The Photograph, by Graham Clarke

The Photograph, by Graham Clarke

I purchased Graham Clarke’s The Photograph around the time that it first came out about fifteen years ago. At the time, I was more concerned with art theory, history, and criticism than I was with trying to make art of my own, and this book appealed to the side of me that, when I was a kid, would take things apart to see how they worked. I approached art in the same way; I wanted to take it apart, examine all those pieces, see how it all fit together, and what made the end result work (or not).

What drew me to art, and kept me circling back to photography ’til I finally gave in — and dove in — myself, is that it made sense to me in a way that, say, electronics or cars just don’t. I could take a radio apart, but I had no better idea of what made the thing tick by the time I’d finished than I had when I started. Art, on the other hand, made sense to me, even if I wasn’t ready or quite able at the time to use those same things to put those pieces — the theory, the medium, the history — together in a way that they’d work.

I’m not altogether sure whether this book was written for a layman or for more of a scholarly audience. It’s certainly not a light read, but neither is it so dense as to be obtuse; to my mind, at least, it should be accessible enough for a general audience, but thought-provoking enough that the academics shouldn’t get bored halfway through. Clarke explores history, genre, and theory, but also does something your average photography book doesn’t; he stops to consider the consequences of the still image, whether as fodder for art, commerce, documentary, manipulation or political purposes. Of course, these things don’t typically stay in their own fenced-in little areas, so Clarke gives the sometimes messy intersections of all these considerations their due as well.

If that sounds a bit different than your average coffee table book, that’s because it is. If you’re looking for a survey of photography that concerns itself mostly with the images themselves, and allows the images to speak for themselves, you’re likely to be disappointed in this book. But that would, I humbly suggest, be your fault rather than the author’s, simply because that’s not what this book is for. The author isn’t just uncritically presenting images; he is, instead, interrogating them, and inviting the reader to do the same. It’s an attempt to look at photography through a critical lens in much the same way that earlier works by Barthes and Sontag had done, but more accessibly (to this reader, at least).

The bottom line is, if you’re picking this up primarily for the photos, don’t; there are other, better, books for that. If, on the other hand, you’d like a deeper understanding of the history and theory of photography (without subjecting yourself to a degree program), this is an excellent place to start. And speaking of starting points, if you’re just starting with a camera, or haven’t even picked one up yet, I’d still urge you to give this book a shot. I can’t say this for everyone who’ll read this review, or the book to which it refers, but I know I can’t possibly be the only person for whom understanding the theory and/or history behind something — learning how to “read” the medium, however haltingly, before trying my hand at it — was a gateway, and permission, toward trying it myself.

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