Basic Critical Theory for Photographers, by Ashley la Grange, ISBN: 0-240-51652-4

Reviewed by: Mario Georgiou, February 2006
Published by: Focal Press/Elsevier
Requires: N/A
MSRP: US$26.95, UK£16.99, EUR24.95

As a photographer I often enjoy looking at the images created by others. It's a lifelong enjoyment for photography lovers and many of us develop biases towards the kind of imagery which attracts us. When I received this publication I'd quite expected an image-heavy, visually based look at the world of photography. What I got instead was a text heavy reference work, but don't let that put you off.

Ashley la Grange has written an excellent book which navigates through the context and meaning of photography. It covers photography from a range of cultural and historical perspectives as well as guiding the reader though a visual language which many outside the world of academic photography can only guess at. Every chapter in this book is filled with information on one aspect or another of photography and la Grange explores each aspect with lessons and questions which help the user understand and explore their own work within this context.

The book also references many landmark works of photographic criticism, thinking and theory which are now out of print. These include John Berger's "Ways of Seeing", Susan Sontag's "On Photography", Martha Rosler’s, "In, Around and Afterthoughts" and Roland Barthes' "Camera Lucida". Also featured are works by Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Andy Grundberg, Raghubir Singh, John Baldessari and Peter Godwin. If you have a public library nearby, it is well worth looking up these works to expand upon the basic quotes la Grange draws from them.

The major drawback I found with this book is that like many academic works it is text heavy and misses the point that many of the students of photography have a visual bias. Also like many academic books it also follows the form of using text to draw attention to visual works, but because of the way these books are produced, places the relevant examples away from the context of the referencing text. I think it would have benefited from more examples and a slightly different layout. Even so, the examples used are from some of the greats, with luminaries such as Roger Fenton, Mike Wells, Henri Cartier Bresson, Josef Koudelka and Dorothea Lange aptly represented.

This book is aimed at the beginner, student and enthusiast who want to delve into the more theoretical side of photography and while it does cover some concepts which would be more familiar in a more academic context, it does not lose the reader by delving too deeply into them. The author's use of practical assignments and references allow readers to experience the subjects discussed within a personal and experiential context, using the examples to good effect. My favorite discussions involved the cultural differences between photography in the west and the way the Chinese establishment uses photography to shape a political world view.

There were many subjects in this work which made me feel like reading more and also some with which I disagreed deeply. As an exercise in stimulating thought this book was highly successful and also very enjoyable. This book allows the reader to explore the world of photography through a new set of lenses—ones which allow you to create images crafted through a critical eye.

Cons: Text heavy and to be of the best use must be read and experienced in a group context.

Pros: Excellent references throughout. Well written. Lessons are well thought out. Basic Critical Theory for Photographers is one of those books which should become part of the syllabus of many of the excellent photography courses that are out there. It is a book which benefits from group use and review and one which should be on the recommended reading lists for all students of the medium. The individual who wants to experience the lessons this book will also benefit from reading many of the hallmark works which are referenced therein. Highly recommended.

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