5 Photography Theory Books Worth Reading

December 1, 2018

Ever since it was invented around 200 years ago, photography has permanently changed both art and culture with its ability to document a split-second of time, construct history, memory, truth and identity. Its importance and impact of photography has been explored in a range of photography theory books, many of them becoming the essential reading material for anyone interested in the medium.

For an enthusiast of photographic images, the breadth of the reading material can be overwhelming. This is why we have picked out five must read photography theory books which should definitely be on the top of your reading list. Each of these books generates discussion and thought on the scope and very nature of the medium.

Featured image via pxhere.com.

Susan Sontag, On Photography

An American writer, filmmaker, philosopher, teacher, and political activist, Susan Sontag is a singular phenomenon and an icon of American culture criticism. She is remembered as an author of inquisitive, analytical, fearlessly outspoken essays, but also short stories which dealt with those ideas and preoccupations she couldn't address in essay form.

Her seminal book On Photography is one of the most highly regarded studies of its kind. When it first appeared in 1977, the book was described by Sontag herself as "a progress of essays about the meaning and career of photographs." In six lucid and invigorating essays, she expresses her views on the history and present-day role of photography in capitalist societies as of the 1970s, exploring how a photograph is continually inserted between experience and reality. In this book, she argues that photography holds an almost unlimited authority in modern society, being capable of not only mirroring or interpreting reality but also becoming its relic.

This book, a compelling and deep exploration of photography and its position in contemporary culture, still serves as an entry point into the nebulous world of photographic theory books for a great many readers.

Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, Reflections on Photography

A French literary theorist, philosopher, linguist, critic, and semiotician, Roland Barthes explored a diverse range of fields, influencing the development of many schools of theory, including structuralism, semiotics, social theory, design theory, anthropology, and post-structuralism. “I have tried to define things, not words,” he once said.

Published in 1980, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography explores the lasting emotional effect of photography on the spectator. An inquiry into the nature and essence of photographic work and a eulogy to Barthes' late mother at the same time, this deeply personal discussion positions photography as being outside the codes of language or culture, having the ability to act on the body as much as on the mind, and render death and loss more acutely than any other medium. For the author, the very essence of the medium is its spectral conjuring of death-in-life. Barthes' first and only book devoted to photography, it remains one of the most important books of theory on the subject.

Geoff Dyer, The Ongoing Moment

An English writer, Geoff Dyer is the author of four novels and seven books of non-fiction. In 2006, he was awarded the International Centre of Photography's Infinity Award for writing on photography.

First published in 2005, The Ongoing Moment is a masterful meditation on photographs and an ingenious journey through the history of the medium, creating a whole narrative of intensely felt and observed moments. In this work, the author focuses on the ways in which some of the best photographers like Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Walker Evans, Andre Kertesz, Edward Weston, Dorothea Lange, Diane Arbus and William Eggleston have photographed the same things – barbershops, benches, hands, roads, signs – seeking to identify their signature styles. Through this approach, he tries to define the differing styles and sensibilities that make those subjects appear both definably similar and infinitely different in a photograph. Clever, provocative, witty and shrewdly on the nail, the book ads superbly to the canon of fine writing on photography.


Stephen Shore, The Nature of Photographs

One of the pioneers of color photography, Stephen Shore has been producing images for the past sixty years, showing an uncanny ability to transform everyday life into art. By turning his camera to the mundane, he continuously challenges the established conventions of the medium. For Shore, photography was never a way of recording personal experience particularly, but a process of exploring the world and the medium itself.

In his seminal, must read book The Nature of Photographs, the celebrated photographer explores ways of understanding and looking at all types of photographs - from iconic images to found pictures, negatives to digital files. Based on Shore's many years of teaching photography at Bard College, New York State, the work is the essential primer of photography for everybody interested in the medium.

In this compelling study, Shore teaches readers how to look at photographs, helping them to see the world the way the photographer may have seen it. The book includes works by some of the most important photographers of all time such as Walker Evans, Brassai and Eugène Atget to more contemporary work by Bernd and Hilla Becher, Cindy Sherman, Joel Sternfeld, Thomas Struth, Richard Prince and Andreas Gursky.

Marvin Heiferman, Photography Changes Everything

An American curator and writer, Marvin Heiferman has been focusing on the impact of photographic images on art, visual culture, and science for museums, art galleries, publishers and corporations. He has authored or edited over two dozen books about art, photography, visual culture, and cultural history.

Drawn from the online Smithsonian Photography Initiative, the book Photography Changes Everything edited by Heiferman explores photography's impact on our culture and our lives. This provocative rethinking of the subject touches upon the many ways photographs package information and values, demand and hold attention, and shape our knowledge of and experience in the world. The books reveal that photography does more than record the world - it shapes and changes every aspect of our experience of it. In addition to around 300 images, this must read book features almost 100 engaging short texts commissioned from experts, writers, inventors, public figures and others—from Hugh Hefner to John Baldessari, John Waters, Robert Adams, Sandra Phillips and many others.


Follow These Artists