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Photographic Theory: An Historical Anthology

by Andrew E. Herschberger
Wiley-Blackwell, Madden, MA, 2014
476 pp. Trade, $94.95; paper, $44.95
ISBN: 9781405198462; ISBN: 978-1-4051-9863-9.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens

There have been two driving forces in the ‘emancipation’ of the photographical technique as a cultural practice:  First, the integration of the medium in a field that has longtime been reluctant to it, namely fine arts –and the gallery and museum context that makes it economically sustainable; second, the incessant production of a huge body of scholarly and scholarly theoretical reflection on what the medium actually is or ought to be. Both phenomena, moreover, are decidedly linked. Theoretical reflections have helped institutionalize photography as an artistic medium. Corollarily, these same reflections have also been fueled by the possibility –or the lack thereof– of increasing the artistic potential of the medium.

The singular and sometimes paradoxical intertwining of photography as not-yet-art and art becoming more and more photographical has been a blessing but also a danger for photographic theory. On the one hand, it has provided this form of theory with a prestigious forum and echo chamber for its own preoccupations. On the other hand, it has also forced photography into the straightjacket of art and perhaps even more of art history. Andrew E. Herschberger’s timely and stimulating historical anthology bears witness to this bizarre mix of utter complexity and no less absolute streamlining. This chronologically (and, to a lesser extent, thematically) organized selection of key contributions to photographic theory display both the highly exciting diversity of theoretical questions raised by the emergence, development, triumph, and eventual metamorphosis of photography and the amazing possibility to organize the sometimes savage heterogeneity of this material along unobtrusive and simple art-historical lines. The history of photographic theory runs strangely parallel to that of art history, whose main categories, periodization principles, scopes, and fundamental issues it borrows (while of course reinforcing them also in return). The global structure of Herschberger’s anthology reflects very clearly the art-historical bias of photographic theory (it goes from the ‘beginning’ to ‘pictorialism’, from ‘pictorialism’ to ‘modernism’, from ‘modernism’ to ‘postmodernism’, and finally from ‘postmodernism’ to ‘digital imagining’, which, not surprisingly at all, signifies a ‘return to pictorialism’, although this word is now followed by a question mark). It does even so within the work of those who have tried to ban this, in their eyes, stain as completely as possible.

Today things have changed dramatically and contemporary photographic theory is now struggling with different visions of photography (in the discussion of the thematic framework that completes and doubles the chronological presentation, Herschberger shows that he is perfectly aware of this situation). Cultural studies has paved the way for vernacular photography and photography as practice rather than as a collection of museifiable items. Visual culture has placed photography in a broader historical and political contexts, while looking also at its links with technological culture. Interdisciplinary research in the arts and science field has deconstructed the false dichotomy of documentary versus art. Luckily, Herschberger’s anthology does not project these contemporary critiques of the essentialist and art-historical paradigm on the production of the past, but represents a clear and representative overview of the discipline’s heritage. The book thus offers a useful gathering of numerous key texts, which demonstrate the way of how photographic theory has evolved since 1839 (even if the book includes also some older texts that have always been read in hindsight as possible anticipations of the new medium).

It is always possible to regret lacunas in this kind of enterprise. Herschberger’s anthology must be for instance the very first since more than three decades that does not include any fragment of neither Barthes’s Camera Lucida nor Benjamin Short History. These texts, however, are so widely known today that their absence should not be considered a problem. Other names are missing as well (no Elkins either, for instance), but one should remain fair and accept that this is almost unavoidable. It would be much more difficult however to contest the value of the selected texts, which are all worth reading and studying (even readers who are very familiar with the topic will be able to make many discoveries thanks to the anthology). Praise must be given also to the sound editorial choices of Andrew E. Herschberger. The book has chosen to present many texts, even if that supposes that most of them are only presented in a fragmentary way (certain chapters are really very short), but it accompanies them with one-page presentations that are surely helpful to both specialists and beginning students. The volume is also well indexed and the editor has done great efforts to cross-reference his editorial presentations.

Photographic Theory is a welcome update and broadening of older collections such as Alan Trachtenberg’s Classic Essays on Photography (already from 1980!) or Vicky Goldberg’s Photography in Print: Writings from 1816 to the Present (1988). The book will undoubtedly contribute to reopen many eternal questions on the oldest of new media.

Last Updated 1 February 2014

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