Thursday, 10 November 2011

Some Recent Reading

It has been a while since I recorded any reflections on my reading in here.  It isn’t that I havn’t been doing any – just that I havn’t got round to writing up.

A good place to start would be ‘Context & Narrative’ by Maria Short.  This book was originally recommended by Photography course leader, Jose, on the WeAreOCA blog.  I bought it immediately and have actually read it twice.  It is a book that has the feel of quality about it – well produced, nicely printed (though many of the images are on the small side) and with a good tactile sensation to it (always an important starting point for me when it comes to books!).  Whilst the title might be taken to imply a specialised volume, it is actually quite wide ranging and covers a lot of ground without ever going into a huge amount of depth.  After two readings, my overall reaction is a positive one, but with a few ‘mixed’ feelings.

The book is structured in short sections, with relatively sparse text but lots of examples and case studies – from photographers at all sorts of ‘levels’, students, professionals, well-known names’ and some less well-known.  As I say, it covers a lot of ground and is highly relevant to so many aspects of a degree in photography as a creative art.  Despite the lack of depth, there are so many visual examples that it encourages you to think about the topics in a practical, applied, non-theoretical manner (even though it doesn’t shy away from the theoretical topics).

I would see it as a resource that one could go to frequently, dipping in for ideas and inspiration, but certainly not using it as an in-depth study for a critical review, for example.  I’m glad I’ve read it twice, to know my way around it, but I don’t think it is an easy book to ‘read’.  It isn’t that the concepts are especially difficult; it’s more because it doesn’t develop ideas, rather prompting & then illustrating.  Overall – a good book, a quality publication, and I’m glad I’ve got it; not sure that I have learned a huge amount from it, but useful to go back to, and has the kind of easy reference style that makes it easy to do so.

Some other recent purchases/reads have been designed to try and develop my knowledge and understanding of critical theory.  I won’t be doing the OCA ‘Understanding Visual Culture’ course, but I’d like to improve my awareness of the theoretical background to some degree, at least.  To that end, I’ve recently looked at three very different books.

‘Basic Critical Theory for Photographers’ by Ashley Grange – The title gives a very clear indication as to why I bought it!  Having read a three or four chapters (Berger, Szarkowsi, Sontag & Barthes), I put it down because I was disappointed by it.  I’ve already read the work of three of these four and was hoping for some clarity from this book, some pulling together of the ideas into a sort of summary, but I didn’t feel I was getting that. It does supply and kind of synopsis of each, and it may be that I need to look at it again, but I felt that it read a bit like the notes that one might make from reading, say, Sontag’s ‘On Photography’, rather than something the clarifies and explains her thinking.  It does have practical suggestions for further discussion, and so it might work better as a resource for classroom work.  I’ll go back to it – but disappointing.

‘After Theory’ by Terry Eagleton – This one came up from a recommendation, again, having been referred to by another OCA course leader, PeterH. I’ve skim read it once and am now looking at it again – so this will be a brief comment that I might pick up again later.  Eagleton is more of a literary specialist, of course, but the background on cultural critical theory is perfectly relevant.  More to the point, here is an academic who can write in an authoritative, wide-ranging, but at the same time engaging, and even funny, style.  It is a relatively small book, but the first three chapters give the kind of overview of the development of cultural theory, leading to the postmodern, that is definitely lacking from the Ashley Grange book.  Fundamentally, he is exploring where the cultural critical studies will go after postmodernism; and I have to say that I don’t feel entirely comfortable with his catholic/Marxist dimension.  But, this is a genuinely readable and highly thought-provoking book, which is probably doing more than any other has to help me engage with what cultural critical theory is about.

And then, from the sublime to the ridiculous – and I am probably doing myself no favours by admitting to buying and reading this book – there is ‘Critical Theory – A Graphic Guide’ by Stuart Sim & Borin Van Loon, which I bought in the bookshop at the Whitechapel Gallery when I attended the Struth exhibition.  I hadn’t seen this series of books before, but there are ‘Graphic Guides’ to all manner of ‘difficult’ theoretical areas, including several of the key ‘players’ in the field of critical theory.  I may find that I pick up, for example, Barthes, Postmodernism, Foucault, Heidegger – to name just a few of the many volumes available.  And, yes, as the title suggests, this one does Critical Theory in pictures – cartoon-style – with short pieces of supporting text and even ‘mock’ dialogue.  Of course, it isn’t an academic book and I’m not going to suggest that it is a great source of wisdom, but as a rapid overview of the origins and development of critical theory, from Marxism to, for example, Black Feminism, and as a very quick reference guide to how they relate to each other and who is who, it is superb.  There, I’ve admitted it, I did buy and read this book!


  1. Interesting post Stan. I have now got "Context and Narrative" but not yet started reading it and look forwward to comparing my experience of it with yours. "After Theory" sounds like one I might follow up also. I read some of those graphic guides years ago and found them excellent.

    Peter recommended another book which I bought and I find it very interesting. It is called "The contest of meaning: critical histories of photography" and is a collection of essays edited by Richard Bolton. I haven't read every essay yet but have found those I have read very thought-provoking. As an academic publication it is quite dear but I am glad I got it.

  2. Thanks for the recommendation, Eileen; I'll look up the Richard Bolton. Interesting to see what you think of "Context and Narrative", and of Eagleton's "After Theory", if you look at it. It isn't often that an academic book makes one laugh out loud, but that one has on more than one occasion.
    (I wasn't the only OCA Photographer to buy Graphic Guides at the Whitechapel, but I won't 'split' on the other person!!)

  3. Thanks for not squealing on me Stan...

    I've also got Contest of Meaning, but I'll admit to not having read it yet.