Photography: A Cultural History

October 24, 2020

I debated where to start.  There are so many wonderful photobooks to share.   In this space, I plan to look at classics, new books, and some lesser known works.  My collection spans a range of ages, topics, and artists, but I will say, my passion is for social landscape and documentary projects, so you will see those themes pop up again and again.

But, where to start?  I think it is very useful for photographers to have a background in the history of photography.  Having an understanding of how the technology evolved, how personalities came into the development, and the different directions early photographers took the art is not only fascinating, but relevant to how contemporary artists have been inspired in their own work.

So, I am going to start by sharing a few books that focus on an overall history of photography.  I have others that focus on certain time periods, print collections, or locations, but an overall view is a great knowledge base for adding more specific information.

Today’s recommendation is for Photography: A Cultural History by Mary Warner Marien.  I have the 4th edition.

This was a book required for a class I took on the History of Photography.  It does a very good job of of not only talking about photographers and their photos, but tying the history together with the people, movements, and projects that influence each other.  It also weaves in outside historical and cultural influences.

According to the publisher, “Each of the eight chapters takes a period of up to forty years and examines the medium through the lenses of art, science, social science, travel, war, fashion, the mass media and individual practitioners. These broad topics complement a fully developed cultural context whose emphasis is more on key ideas than individuals.”

This multidisciplinary approach is what makes the book a standout for me. Photography and art are not made in a vacuum. Understanding the cultural and historic influences is an important part of understanding the timeline of photography.

Even though the focus is on weaving in the cultural context of the history people or ideas are discussed, it also has sidebar pages dedicated to particularly influential people or ideas that need more dedicated focus.

Despite the fact that it’s a textbook, it is heavily illustrated and is interesting reading, but it will take some dedication and concentration to get the most out of it.

This book lists at more than $100 because it’s a textbook.  But shop around and you can find used copies in the $40 range.  At the time of writing this post, the bookstore at SCAD has the book new for $40.