The first major photography history book was published in 1937 by Beaumont Newhall, when photography became an important medium in publishing, art and people’s daily life, almost a century after Photography was invented in 1839. Since then, different books on histories of photography cropped up and so far dozens of history books on photography in similar or different aspects have been written and published. These books are different in structure, content and analysis. This essay focuses on two influential history books: Mary Warner Marien’s Photography: A Cultural History (2007) and Ian Jeffrey’s Photography: A Concise History (1981). The essay is organised to define the concept of history, explore the background of the authors and writings on history of photography, and discuss the comparison and contrast of the structure and contents of the two books.
History is sometimes taken for granted as truthful, neutral and authoritative. However any history is subject to critical analysis due to its intrinsic subjective character. Raymond Williams (1988) claims that ‘history’ as a word moved in 15th century from either an account of imaginary events or events supposed to be true to an account of past real events which is more than organized knowledge of the past. (p. 146). This past knowledge, which forms history, is supposed to be written by historians. Even if historians produce out of personal preference, readers are obliged to consider as general authoritative description, following habits formed from the past. Edward Hallett Carr (1961) maintains that there is such a vast quantity of information about the past that the historian always chooses the "facts" he or she decides to make use of. (cited in Hughes-Warrington, 2007, p. 26). Therefore, it is critical to understand whom the history is written for, who writes them and what value criteria authors use to define a history.
History of photography can be introduced in several themes such as technology development, specified topics, cultural and social background etc. Both books discourse history from a cultural and social point of view. Mary Warner Marien’s Photography A Culture History was drafted in 2002. She was then a deputy professor in Syracuse University. The purpose of her work is to ‘make readers gauge the medium’s manifold developments and appreciate the historical and cultural contexts in which photographers lived and worked’. (Marien, 2002, p. x). Ian Jeffery’s Photography A Concise History was first published in 1981. Jeffrey (1981) maintains that he focuses ‘on those photographers who have both sustained and supplemented photography’s dominant modes’. (p. 9). He was then a professor in Goldsmith College. While both authors have similar academic background, they published in years with a gap of almost 20 years. During the 20 years, society, politics, technology and culture had changed significantly and photography has entered a new epoch. Marien’s work of course covers more period than Jeffrey’s. However, setting aside this period coverage difference, there are many other differences in Marien’s and Jeffrey’s interpretations of photography history. The following sets out to explain the structure and content of the books, the methodologies of the writings, the contrast of the similar issues discussed, and dimensions one discuses and the other one does not.
Marien’s work includes 7 chapters strictly following the timeline: ‘The Origins of Photography (to 1839)’, ‘The Second Invention of Photography (1839-1854)’, ‘The Expanding Domain (1854-1880)’, ‘Photography in the Modern Age (1880-1918)’, ‘A New Vision (1918-1945)’, ‘Through the Lens of Culture (1945-1975)’, and ‘Convergences (1975-Present)’ plus ‘Epilogue’. Marien groups the 7 periods mainly according to major social and culture watershed changes in history. Jeffrey’s book contains 10 chapters: ‘Seeing Nature’, ‘Instantaneous Pictures’, ‘Documentary Meanings’, ‘Small Worlds’, ‘Truths beyond Appearance’, ‘Looking to the Future’, ‘American Society’, ‘The Human Condition’, and ‘Self-asserted, Self-absented’. While each one has a unitive theme, the 10 chapters develop in a chronological way albeit with occasional jumping around to maintain focused on each topic. Jeffrey obviously summarised the history out of his own understanding by grouping photographers and their works by the theme that he develops.
While Marien introduces the technical, social and political background before 1839, Jeffrey does not discuss the social, cultural, and scientific background before the invention of photography but starts directly from Fox Talbot. Marien also introduces the precursors and the inventors including Daguerre, Herschel and Talbot and analyses in depth the social and political background and reaction of the inventions.
Following the first chapter, Marien starts to discuss the forthcoming practical uses and social meanings which emerged in more than a decade. She introduces the photography usage in science including biology, anthropology and medicine, in recording events and war, expeditionary and travel and in portraiture. Jeffery introduces the period in two folds with two chapters. He focuses the photography with the function of seeing nature while critically explains the limit. Secondly he discusses the instantaneity of photography and elaborates further the problems and advantages in art, portraiture and topography.
In Marien’s chapter three, the ‘Expanding Domain (1854-1880)’, she explains the emerging popularity of photography. She delineates the photography popularity in the society, photography usage in war, survey and science. She also discusses art and photography and woman behind the camera. Writing on the same period, Jeffrey concentrates the documentary aspect of photography in only British and American photographers.
‘Modern Age (1880-1918)’ explains the technology and social background of the time and the interaction relationships. Marien discusses in depth the relationship art and photography, emerging usage of photography in publishing, and more application in science. In Jeffrey’s chapter named Truths beyond Appearance, he analyses the artist-photographers in Europe and United States around 1900.
Marien uses ‘A New vision (1918-1945)’ to introduce how the photojournalism started to enter into common usage, how photography pioneered in avant-garde art and how photography played an important role in science and World War II. Jeffrey, on the other hand, spends 4 chapters to introduce this period. ‘Looking into the Future’ lists a dozen of photographers, their works and reviews mainly in Europe between the two world wars. The photography style mainly includes documentary and surreal. Then Jeffrey introduces Sander, Atget, Stieglitz, Strand and Weston to focus on European society and American nature. He analyses American documentary photography and culture in the depression times in the next chapter by discussing how photography responded to economic crisis, war, industrialization and mass society during 1930 to 1950.
Marien, in the Chapter, ‘Through the Lens of Culture (1945-1975)’, elaborates the sea change in social and ideology internationally. Then she explains the development and interaction of photography as a medium in publishing and art with societies and cultures in different countries internationally. Jeffry analyses the new documentary pioneered by Frank and names his last chapter ‘Self-asserted, Self-absented’, which introduces from subjectivism to a self-denying photographic movement in the seventies.
Marien’s last Chapter, ‘Convergence (1975-Present)’ introduced and focused on globalisation, convergence of culture, value, ideology and convergence of photography with other forms of art. ‘The Epilogue’ based on the theme of beauty, science and nature to shed more lights into the photography’s future.
Mary Warner Marien’s Photography A Culture History has 528 pages with 600 illustrations (The First 2002 Edition). Ian Jeffery’s Photography A Concise History has 248 pages and 136 illustrations (The First 1982 Edition). Both works, according to its own publicity, claim that the books fulfill the need for a critical and cultural approach, rather than a technical one. Both authors used ‘A’ instead of ‘The’ on their title, which indicate their attitudes toward the definition of ‘history’. Both of them admit the difficulties and limits in writing an impartial history book on photography in each of the introductions. Marien (2002) admits she does have personal preference such as Doisneau’s photos taken in 1950’s, (p. x). and Jeffrey (1981) expresses concerns on how to choose photographic cannons. (pp. 7-9) Both Marien and Jeffrey do not elaborate further how her/his methodology is developed in selecting those photos out of the massive photo stock in history. To readers, those photos are simply authoritatively assumed of great dominance in history. While Marien takes an approach more focused into the context of a number of layers including society, culture, politics, science and art; Jeffrey maintains the classical approach to introduce in depth the masters and categorised them and their works into different theme.
Based on these methods and structures, the way of their discourse differs. Marien strictly follows the timeline because each period offers similar social, cultural and technology background to photography and to photographers during that time. Jeffrey selects a number of themes, under which he introduces and analyses the works chosen. Marien devotes a high percentage of space to explore extensively and broadly on social and cultural background. Jeffrey analyses the social, cultural and technology background very briefly but in a focused way.
Marien’s work explored extensively and internationally including Mexico, Latin America, Africa, Russia and Asia, although she is mindful that she has not mentioned much the photography in India and China; while Jeffrey’s work hardly mentions any other country than Europe and United States. Marien’s work pays much attention to female ones by setting out special sections such as ‘Women behind the Camera’, ‘Women in the Pictorial Movement’ and ‘Feminism and Postmodern Photography’. However, Jeffrey’s work is overwhelmingly concerned with male practitioners.
Marien also discusses family and vernacular photography in reasonable depth as an important aspect of photographic cultural and social history, but Jeffrey fails to discuss at all.
While Marien endeavours to include a number of photos with contexts of magazines covers or advertisement, Jeffrey’s illustrations include none of the kind but just single photo. While Marien explored thoroughly photography montage and mixed media techniques, Jeffrey fails to discuss in depth these issues. There are more areas where Marien has discussed but Jeffrey has not mentioned. Marien’s maintains good criteria that anything related photography’s culture history is worth discussing. For example, some photography related art forms such as pop, conceptual and installation art are discussed excellently in her work to explore the interrelationships between photography and art. Jeffrey’s book does not mention this area.
‘Art is a public production’. (Wolff, 1981, p. 1). Photography, as a new form in art, publishing and people’s daily life, is a new subject with more than 170 years history permeating into so many area of our life, culture and society hence it is impossible to create a history book that covers all aspects. It is understandable that a concise history with only 248 pages of A3 size book can not cover everything in detailed manner as Marien’s 528 pages A4 sized book. Even with such a volume, Marien (2002) also consent in her introduction that she has not mined photographic archives of business and industry, the history of advertising photography. (p. x). Both books discusses well in depth in their own kinds. Marien’s work explores and shows an extensive prospect of culture, society and the world and Jeffrey’s book sheds new lights into photography and culture within his chosen 10 themes. While Marien’s book flows smoothly seamlessly of the development of photography in our cultural background, Jeffrey’s work brings forth a number of important fragments within the development of photography. Marien’s history can also be considered another kind of fragments presentation of photography history in the history due to the subjective characteristics of history writing. Jeffrey’s history then could be considered the fragments of fragments in the history of photography. I read Jeffrey’s book first before I started Marien’s book. Marien’s excellent discourse of background of culture, society and other photographer’s work enables me understand Jeffrey’s work to another level. There is no ‘the’ history. All history books inter-relate real history and author’s own knowledge and understanding. It is reader’s choice to understand different approach of historians and to interpret, interact and weave by using one’s own mind to weave one’s own history.
Hughes-Warrington, Marnie, (2007). Fifty Key Thinkers On History. London: Routledge.
Jeffrey, Ian, (1981). Photography A Concise History. London: Thames & Hudson.
Marien, Mary Warner, (2002). Photography A Cultural History. London: Laurence King.
Williams, Raymond, (1988). Keywords. London: Fontana.
Wolff, Janet, (1981). The Social Production of Art. London: Macmillan Education.