A Photographer’s Reading List – Critical Theory

Why Bother?

What benefit is there in reading critical theory?¬† Well, basically to improve and broaden your knowledge of the world you’re working in. It’s unlikely that you’ll ever be asked by a client to shoot something “with added redundancy, as there’s too much noise in our current message, and the semantics of what we’re trying to get across are being lost.” Mind you, if you shoot enough advertising it might well happen, as they don’t half talk shite in that business.

Many of these texts are either compulsory or recommended reading on many college courses, and usually meet with some resistance from those who’d picked photography as they thought there’d be no writing involved. Speaking personally I really got into the critical theory side of things at college, so I have nothing but good things to say about these titles. For me books such as “Ways of Seeing” really opened my eyes (pardon the pun) and truly broadened my horizons. I can well appreciate that for many people reading about the meaning behind the visual world, and learning communication theory seems very tedious, but from a professional point of view it can often be essential. Remember that many of the people who commission you will have studied at college, and will be well versed in the theory behind things. Whilst they may never be as explicit as the phrase in the above paragraph, they’ll still speak the general language, and understanding the difference between, for example, the medium and the message, can avoid a lot of embarrassment.

Reading list - Critical Theory
Some mind-blowing stuff

Critical Theory.

“Ways of Seeing” by John Berger. The grand-daddy of them all. Absolutely required reading, for everyone in my opinion, not just photographers. The central concepts of this book will most likely give you a jolt, as you realise that the visual world has lots of meaning hidden in it, and always has done. Harnessing this is your task as a professional photographer, but recognising it in other work is something that once you start doing you’ll never be able to stop. Some of his arguments and analyses may seem a little Marxist (well, more than a little actually) but to be honest none of that detracts from his central argument. Besides which, I’m a lefty, and I happen to agree with much of what he says. If you don’t bother to read anything else on this list, read this one.
“On Photography”, by Susan Sontag. A brilliant collection of essays on photography, it’s meaning, purpose and use in the modern world.
“Camera Lucida”, By Roland Barthes. Similar in approach to the above, but by the erudite and wonderful frenchman Mr Barthes. His piece about looking on eyes that looked upon Napoleon is absolutely arresting, and will have you thinking about the power of photography in a new way for ages afterwards.
“Mythologies”, by Roland Barthes. Not directly applicable to photography, but the concepts of meaning and Myth are central to all communication theory, ergo something you should be thinking about as a professional communicator.
“The Photograph”, by Graham Clarke. Takes each genre of photography in turn, portaiture, landscape etc and subjects them to in-depth analysis. A very good introduction to critical theory.
“Another way of Telling”, By John Berger and Jean Mohr. Very accessible book on the stories behind photographs, or more precisely the stories we bring to photographs and how our preconceptions influence our view.
How to Read a photograph, by Ian Jeffrey. I only read this recently, long after leaving college, and found it fascinating. Lots of very faniliar work in there, along with some undiscovered gems that the author guides the reader through artfully.
This lot are a very good place to start, and as I realise that this is an area where many people feel it’s a bit of an effort to plow through them, I won’t list any more. Suffice to say, if you want to read further, each book has a healthy bibliography that should provide a pretty good starting point. Otherwise, if you’re really keen, email me and I’ll suggest a few more!

This post forms part of my suggested reading list for photographers. Other posts in the series are:

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