‘THE PHOTOGRAPH’  Graham Clarke, Oxford University Press

I have recently finished reading Graham Clarke’s book ‘The Photograph’ published by Oxford University Press as part of their Oxford History of Art series  (ISBN 978-0-19-284200-8 ).  Graham Clarke is Reader  in Literary and Image Studies at the University of Kent and hence has a broad and deep interest and a knowledge of both art and literature.  This broad knowledge comes out in his book which seeks to place the development of photography and photographic styles from their beginnings to the present in the context of the artistic, social and cultural climates of the time.  To achieve this within the limited number of pages provided by this relatively slim book is a challenging undertaking and inevitably it leaves the reader in the knowledge that there is so much more that could have been said on the subject.  This is also true of the illustrations of some of the photographs discussed in the text.  Many photographs are discussed that are not included amongst those illustrated and this leaves a sense of frustration that one cannot see them straight away.  However, it is also true that, whilst the book leaves one unsatisfied in that there is so much more to the subject that is only hinted at, it also includes so much vivid written and pictorial information that the urge to explore further through other sources is very great.

To my mind, it is very much a book written by an academic rather than a practitioner.  I found it a hard read, the language being so dense and convoluted and requiring of an academic bent in the reader at times that sections often had to be re-read and re-read and even then the meaning was still opaque.  Clearly, the writer revels in his knowledge and in the use of words but I increasingly felt that it was more important to him to be seen as a cultured and highly educated scholar rather than as a teacher of information and enthusiasm to the masses.  Having said that there was a great deal of interest in what he provided and in the way that it was presented and I finished the book very much better informed than when I started and with a desire to explore further.

What did I like in the book?

1.  The organisation of the book into chapters dealing with different elements of the subject is excellent.  Leading from the surprisingly complex questions of What is a photograph? and How do we read a photograph? Graham Clarke takes the reader through the development and twists and turns of the different photographic subject types (landscape, the city, portrait, etc. ) over time and relates it all to other current and historic creative and social activity. 

2.  As a relative newcomer to the history and development of photography I was very interested in the changing views as to what constituted appropriate subjects and photographic styles amongst both photographic practitioners and the public and how those styles and subjects were influenced by the past and the contemporary.

3.  The broad range and outstanding quality of photographs used to illustrate the book is an inspiring demonstration of the possibilities of the photographic creative process.

4.   I was interested in the discussion in the book about the perceived differences and the crossovers between the different photographic types – landscape, the portrait, the city, the figure, and documentary – and what constitutes ‘fine art’ in photography.  It is clear that the categorisation of photographs can often be rather arbitrary and subjective, but at the end of the day it is the photograph and what it says to the viewer that is important.


1.  As I have suggested already, the text was rather too complex and opaque for me.  Here is an example from pages

188 – 9 taken at random : –

‘In this view the photograph is not concerned with mirroring a literal world, for that is merely a surface appearance, and feeds into a larger mythology of verisimilitude. The photograph is to be seen as the site of a radical aesthetic, as much psychological as political; a critique of the dominant ideology and thus a crucial form of representation’.

2.  I remained confused and under-whelmed by much in the chapters on ‘The Photograph Manipulated’ and ‘The Cabinet of Infinite Curiosities’. I have difficulty in understanding and appreciating much modern art and that inability to connect has continued into the field of post-modernist photography.  The text did nothing much to help me.

3.  Reference to what were deemed to be important examples of a particular photographer’s work or of a particular type were often not depicted in the book.

In summary, the book is a valuable and thought provoking introduction to the field of photography and its development and the enormous range of the subject.  Anyone who reads it, so long as they can cope with the language and keep going, will hopefully be left with a sense of adventure that they will wish to continue through further more detailed texts and photographic sources.

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