Saturday, 1 March 2008

A World History Of Photography

A World History Of Photography
The fourth edition of Naomi Rosenblum's A World History Of Photography has recently been published. The book's 800 images are beautifully reproduced, the text is as wide-ranging as the title suggests, and there is a useful annotated bibliography. At the end of each chapter are themed albums of full-page photographs, profiles of significant photographers, and technical histories.

The wealth of visual and textual information could, however, be more clearly organised and more up-to-date. Rosenblum acknowledges that the book is "structured in a somewhat unusual way", with chapters arranged thematically rather than chronologically (rather like the Tate Modern galleries). The book is divided into twelve major chapters, including portraiture, landscape, still life, art, and media. The chapters are too broad, however, a problem compounded by the lack of detail in the table of contents and the scarcity of subheadings within chapters. This also makes the layout feel rather dated, as do the line drawings in the technical history sections - does a book about photography really need to use line drawings? Similarly, there is not enough space given to recent and contemporary photographic artists and technologies: only a general account of digital technology, nothing about war photography after 1945, and no examples of contemporary fashion or advertising images.

Arguably the first book to present the history of photography as an art form, emphasising aesthetics alongside technology, was Beaumont Newhall's The History Of Photography, first published in 1937 and last revised in 1982. The first edition of Rosenblum's survey appeared in 1984, and since then it has been generally accepted as a successor to Newhall in scope and authority.

Both Newhall and Rosenblum begin their histories in 1839, with the invention of the Daguerreotype, though they also provide extensive pre-photographic background, as the invention and initial demonstration of photography was a process of simultaneous experimentation rather than a single 'eureka moment'. The first extant photograph, taken by Joseph Niepce in 1827, appears in Rosenblum's first chapter; it was discovered by Helmut Gernsheim, author of The History Of Photography, published in 1955.

The most recent historical survey of international photography is Mary Warner Marien's Photography: A Cultural History. It has 200 fewer pages than Rosenblum's, and 200 fewer illustrations, and is subsequently less in-depth in its coverage. On the other hand, it is more clearly organised and feels more up-to-date (with a large Andreas Gursky reproduction, for example). Marien's chapters are more specfic, and are subdivided more clearly. Her final chapter discusses photography after 1975 (and in the second edition she adds a new post-2000 chapter), whereas Rosenblum's final chapters begin as far back as 1950.

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