What is contemporary photography? A new book by Phaidon gets under photography's skin
There have been many compendiums throughout history that attempt to capture and analyse the depth and breadth of photography over a given period – the most famous (perhaps) being art historian and MoMA head of photography Beaumont Newhall’s The History of Photography from 1839 to the present, published in 1937, which has been revised and reprinted several times.
In the decades since Newhall’s history was first released, many more titles of varying size and focus have appeared, questioning and probing all aspects of photography, some more successfully than others. The latest tome (and this one is as worthy as any to be called such) to join the canon is Photography Today, compiled by academic, artist and writer Mark Durden, and published by Phaidon Press.
At 464 pages it’s a beast of a book, but is as comprehensive content-wise as it is physically weighty. Choosing the 1960s to the present day as his timeframe, Durden considers photography’s relationship to art history, focusing on the diversity of approaches and forms employed by key practitioners during this period. The book features more than 500 image reproductions by 150 artists and is divided into 11 chapters that cover themes such as portraiture, street photography, documentary and landscape photography.
While the chapter headings are not in themselves groundbreaking, the content within each section goes into considerable detail, but remains accessible. For example, in a section called Appropriation Now, Durden writes about German artist Joachim Schmid and his practice, which involves re-appropriating photographs sourced from the internet, flea markets and the street. But rather than present a straightforward biographical account of his work, Durden contextualises Schmid’s practice with other artists also working with found photography – in this instance he spotlights those behind European magazine Useful Photography, which includes the consistently innovative Erik Kessels. This deft cross-referencing, only possible by a deep knowledge of the subject, is typical of the book as a whole.
The big names are here, of course – Martin Parr, Paul Graham, Sebastião Salgado and William Eggleston, to name just a few – but there are many more photographers whose names may be less familiar to readers. For example, Ken Lum, a Canadian artist of Chinese heritage who is interested in the relationship between comic strip text and the photograph; or Burkina Faso-born photographer and painter Saïdou Dicko, whose charming images of people’s shadows against walls use colour playfully and sensitively. For Durden, “this photography takes us inside the life of the subjects he pictures with such intimacy and closeness… [the images] are not about darkness or negativity, but the exuberance of life.” Durden employs a poetic approach to writing often, which gives the book a lightness, preventing it from becoming turgid, dull or unnecessarily academic.
The difficulty when compiling any history of photography is always deciding what to include and what to leave out, and since no history can ever cover every angle and nuance there is a need to clearly set the parameters within which to present selected work from the outset. This Durden does, and while in general he focuses on ‘the big names’ in photography, he endeavours to present a fresh take where possible, although perhaps at the expense of the most cutting-edge image-makers (the Cristina de Middels and Lorenzo Vitturis), whose names are noticeably absent. The final chapter, Photography Tomorrow, where you might expect a deluge of new names, for example, includes just five photographers who are already very well known. And while the photographers he has chosen are interesting and his analysis is insightful (Durden ends with Kessels and an image of his mountain of Flickr photographs from the series 24 Hrs in Photos, Dec 2011-Jan 2012), the chapter feels as though it could have been further developed. This aside, Photography Today is a welcome addition to the canon of photographic histories, and serves as a useful introduction to many of photography’s most influential and pioneering practitioners.
Photography Today by Mark Durden is published by Phaidon, priced £45.
To win a pair of complimentary tickets to Phaidon’s Panel Discussion: Photography Today, worth £12, click here. The competition closes at midnight on 03 June. The winners’ names will be added to the guestlist on the evening.
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