Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 16, 2013
Juliet Hacking, ed. Photography: The Whole Story New York: Prestel, 2012. 576 pp.; 1000 color ills. Cloth $34.95 (9783791347349)

It used to be simpler. When Beaumont Newhall published his first English-language surveys of the history of photography in the 1930s and 1940s, most of the art-historical establishment did not consider photography a legitimate art, and when a modernist did think about the relation of the camera to art, it was often under a cloud of worry that some established painter would be revealed to have used a photograph as his source. Newhall thus began his project from a position of deficit: photography, as he understood it, could be expressive but was fundamentally different from painting and the graphic arts in that, first, it lacked the autographic features of handmade art, such as facture, and second, it was effortless and did not require skill, which resulted in a widespread prevalence of amateurism and commercial exploitation that had no analogue in painting. His history countermanded these liabilities by describing the evolving technical conditions that informed photography’s unpainterly nature and appearance and the larger social field in which photography’s many applications were to be found. It was not an art history of photography, but it did propose the grounds upon which an art appreciation of the photograph might be built. As history writing, it was perfectly aware of its purpose and ambition.

Much has transpired in our cognizance of photography since those days, not the least of which has been the medium’s phenomenal ratification by the museum, the academy, and collectors. The photo boom created both the need for textbooks from which the history of photography might be taught to university and art-school survey classes—and consulted by collectors—and a generation of critics dubious about whether art history was ever the right discipline to be framing that understanding. Over the past thirty years, many have turned to the problem of how to compose a synoptic history of photography, each assuming the burden of deciding to what degree their rendition would expand upon, challenge, and compete with those already available in the marketplace. This situation is now one of surplus: artworld embrace, record prices for works, an elaborate infrastructure for education and exhibition, and many histories of photography to choose from. Invariably, any new entry in the genre, such as the substantial tome now offered by Juliet Hacking and her team, invites comparisons.

This latest attempt suggests problems even before the reader picks it up. By calling itself Photography: The Whole Story, the book promises not just a new illustrated survey of the history of photography, but a narrative—one that is complete, encyclopedic, exhaustive even. Yet on the first page we learn that a complete history would be impossible. There are too many photographs to account for, and besides, a story of any kind must be shaped by “judgment, selection, framing, editing, assessment, and reassessment” (6). A story is not an inventory, in other words. One might well expect this qualification to have been followed by some description of what, then, were the particular parameters of selection used in this instance, and what intellectual framework shapes the story presented here and makes it cohere. But its producers do not discuss a premise, except to say it is structured upon “key developments,” “subjects,” and “themes”; neither do they specify what criteria they have used for their inclusion and omissions, except that the book chronicles the history of “extraordinary pictures”—“individual works of remarkable power” (9). Their methodological reticence leaves the reader to glean what larger message this compilation of ideas and pictures conveys.

Two features immediately command attention: the book’s design and organization, and its size. Divided into five chronological periods, from invention to the present day, each section is then subdivided into topics and select individual works. A page spread will introduce the topic of “pictorialism,” say, and then be followed by spreads featuring Alvin Langdon Coburn’s London view of Wapping from 1904 and a group portrait by Frank Eugene from 1907. These theme pages are subdivided, with a couple of smaller text illustrations and a graphic timeline of “key events” running along the bottom. The individual-works pages are subdivided into a brief explanatory text, a “photographer profile”—a mini biography—and the most curious feature of the book, the “navigator.” This is a reduced version of the picture under discussion, indicating within it “focal points” or highlighted details that correlate to brief analytic observations on the significance of the details found elsewhere on the page. The “navigator” appears to emulate a screen or display, with the excerpting of details meant to simulate, in a static way, what happens when an instructor points to individual features within a projected image. No topic gets more than a two-page spread of treatment. The overall effect, visually, is one of parts getting apportioned into smaller parts.

Despite this atomization, The Whole Story is, at over 500 pages, physically substantial. Some additive concept was evidently at work here, one that seems to conform to a larger trend in the life of history of photography textbooks. Newhall’s original 1938 survey, Photography, was subtitled A Short Critical History (New York: Museum of Modern Art), and it was relatively succinct; the contents were expanded and revised in 1949 to become The History of Photography, 1839 to the Present (New York: Museum of Modern Art), and further enlarged in subsequent editions. Helmut and Alison Gernsheim’s 395 pages of The History of Photography from 1955 (London: Oxford University Press) grew by fifty percent in its second edition of 1969. This initial development makes sense: as new research expanded historical knowledge in the field, and new figures emerged, the materials and scholarship understood to fall under the heading “the history of photography” required a lengthier treatment. When such standard texts eventually came to be criticized for their tacitly Eurocentric orientation, another kind of expansion was mandated: Naomi Rosenblum’s 1984 World History of Photography (New York: Abbeville Press) needed some 670 pages and 800 illustrations to detail the international scope of the subject. Under a similar logic, the individual perspective of the single-author textbook soon mutated into histories produced by teams of specialists, ranging from Jean-Claude Lemagny and André Rouillé’s A History of Photography: Social and Cultural Perspectives (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987), which employed fourteen specialists, to Michel Frizot’s mammoth New History of Photography (Cologne: Konemann, 1998), with twenty-nine. The present volume breaks the record with thirty-one contributors, not counting David Campany, who wrote the foreword. In keeping with the larger trend, its expansion of photographic history content is most noticeable in its last section, “From Postmodernism to Globalization,” where the period considered (1977 to the present) has generated much new work and some amount of historical perspective, so that more recent themes and concerns—“the family,” the Düsseldorf School, postproduction photography, etc.—might now be incorporated. From the title to the page count, the volume projects an urge for inclusiveness.

With its one thousand-plus illustrations, the editors faced another challenge. Many of the photographs featured are canonical, but not all—Robert Doisneau’s oft-published Kiss at the Hotel de Ville (1950) is followed by a relatively obscure 1948 Henri Cartier-Bresson crowd scene of gold being sold in Shanghai, for instance. It would appear, then, that some works were selected because they are “photographic masterpieces,” as the jacket copy puts it, and others because they are simply representative of their genre or topic. In the latter instance, the image illustrates the theme discussed in the text; in the former, the text is there to explicate the famous image. The problem here is twofold. First, an emphasis on canonical works will give rise to a selection that replicates what is already accepted, and is no more global or diverse than the art world has allowed. (The collection here rarely strays far from the United States, Britain, and Western Europe.) In addition, the trouble of mixing freestanding icons of photography with illustrative works lies not only in the fact that the lay reader may well assume that experts consider every work treated here to be equally “a masterpiece,” but also in the confusion engendered about what exactly this kind of history is trying to account for. The editors are untroubled by the question of function and context: individual works have remarkable power “whether made as documents or art” (9). But in a medium that operates at a mass level, that has generated billions of images, masterpieces are the exception. Readers never learn how to understand the relation of the individual to the species. This book’s solution is to simply offer more of them.

But more is not always better. Notwithstanding its conceptual shortcomings and modernist myopia, Newhall’s history enjoyed the advantage of offering readers a relatively clear thesis—that technological advances in photography (the shutter, color) made possible new pictorial possibilities—and then followed this thread right through the medium’s one hundred and fifty-odd year history. Newhall’s text was readable; indeed, he collaborated with a Hollywood screenwriter named Ferdinand Reyher to mold the first expanded edition of his dry study into something like a story, which may help explain why so many instructors and students continued to use it even after bigger and better-illustrated textbooks became available. The Whole Story has no story, no thesis to demonstrate, no connective thread. Its assembly out of parts, outsourced to a multitude of subcontractors, makes for a work that is not so much read as searched or consulted: it seems designed specifically for users with limited attention spans, who might flag before getting through two whole pages of text, and is wrought in a neutralized tone that ensures no individual’s authorial voice will be detected. Names, themes, and works have been superadded to previous accounts, but not in a way that changes our understanding of photography. In fact, the exposition here typically repeats received history, and in some instances has not kept abreast of scholarship. (Julia Margaret Cameron is described in the introduction as an amateur who took up photography “solely for aesthetic reasons,” for example, where research by Mike Weaver and Sylvia Wolf overturned this romantic myth some time ago, demonstrating that Cameron published a pricelist and actively endeavored to market her works through the West End printseller Colnaghi.) “More” here, then, appears to be more of the same. This is true at a deeper, structural level: the thirty-one contributors make for a lengthy roster, but nearly every one of them lists an institutional affiliation in Great Britain or the United States. Any way you add it, the book’s diversity of themes gets considered by a remarkably homogeneous pool of talent.

Given the commercial impetus behind textbooks and publications intended for a general audience, it is perhaps unreasonable to hold them to the highest standards of scholarship. Yet, whether they mean to or not, such anthologies say something about where photographic history—as a field, as a concept—is going, what might properly fall within it, and how its materials and problems might be framed. In some ways, the Prestel title bespeaks the present dilemma of photography as an academic and museological subject: the technological and art-historical explanations that once allowed something like Newhall’s account to cohere may have expanded in productive new interdisciplinary directions, but this expansion has made the notion of describing a synthetic “whole” to it deeply problematic. Many believe that photography is too big and multifarious to be made one thing. Photography: The Whole Story fumbles its opportunity to break new ground and take a position; it displays information, it includes both aesthetic and sociological commentary, but the relation of part to whole must always be inferred. It chafes at even being a book, offering a graphic mode of presentation that resembles nothing so much as an interactive educational website—without the interaction. If it appears this is where digital culture has left us—the deskilling of readers, an endtimes for books and the kind of sustained attention they require—maybe it is not too late to recall that history is, first and last, writing, and narrative remains a fundamental structuring principle of human consciousness. It would be nice to believe there are still readers who value insight over data, and writers on photography who can find in it more than a sum of its parts.

Douglas R. Nickel
Andrea V. Rosenthal Professor of Modern Art, Department of the History of Art and Architecture, Brown University