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Book Bag: Two Histories Of Photography Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

14 December 2018

While the history of photography can still be covered in a single volume, we thought we'd take a look at two contenders for your book shelf. They would be Paul Matte's Open Aperture and A Chronology of Photography edited by Paul Lowe.


Matte is a photographer himself who taught the subject for 31 years using the material collected in Open Aperture. It focuses on avant-garde photographers to encourage the reader to challenge "preconceived photographic concepts," as he puts it.

That approach means that it is not a history of the art in the usual sense. You'll navigate the text better looking at the Table of Contents than bemoaning the lack of an index.

And don't look for your favorites here, either. These are innovators, people who developed new genres. Like camera-less images, hand-painted photos, various strains of portraiture, fine arts, snapshots, street photography, abstraction and multiple imagery.

"This book presents art photographers within the context of style or genre rather than a chronological time line," Matte writes in the Introduction. "The purpose is not to teach photography history, but rather artistic vision."

We'd quibble with that goal. Artistic vision can't be taught. But it can be developed. And it can be inspired by the work of those whose shoulders we eventually will stand on. Those who went before, in short.

We did find the collection inspiring. But we found the editing (if it in fact existed) abysmal.

The very first chapter on camera-less images, for example, cites early experiments in 1799 with an emulsion brushed onto paper that darkened when brought into the light. "Much later, in the 1920s, Sir John Herschel would discover that sodium thiosulfate (hypo) dissolved the silver salts," thus solving that problem so that in 1839 the daguerreotype would become the first permanent photographic image. Herschel, of course, made his discovery in the 1820s, not the 1920s, well before the daguerreotype appeared.

Not a good start.

We found the writing uneven but the collection valuable and some of the images rare finds. Which makes it both hard to recommend and hard to overlook.

Open Aperture by Paul Matte, published by Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., 160 pages, $34.99 (or $23.65 at


In contrast, A Chronology of Photography is a timeline of the art that highlights key themes and moments in its history. Lowe, who edited the book, is also a photographer and teaches the subject at the masters level at University of the Arts in London.

The Table of Contents is more of a poster than a list of the contents. But the book has a fabulous index as well as a glossary, list for Further Reading, picture credits and contributor bios. Lewis Bush, Dr. Jennifer Good and Stephenie Young contributed to the work.

The illustrations are excellent, by which we mean the photographs were printed with unusual care in a book of this sort. A very fine halftone screen was used to print both the color and black-and-white photos. The 320 images in this book are just a delight to view.

The chronology is divided into six eras: Birth to 1850, 1850 to 1900, 1900 to 1950, 1950 to 1975, 1975 to 2000 and 2000 to the present. And it, too, begins with Herschel, but places him in the right century.

A timeline does in fact run through the book at the bottom of the pages as individual images are discussed in short blocks of text after an introduction to each topics. It's a very nice presentation if not particularly deep. But that's where the reading list comes in handy.

In describing the scope of the book, Lowe writes, that it "serves as an ideal introduction to the breadth and depth of photography and of photographers, and acts as an entry poit to discover more about individual practictioners, but also about photographic technologies and processes, and the major movements in the medium."

What more could you want?

A Chronology of Photography by Paul Lowe, editor, published by Thames & Hudson, 272 pages, $29.95 (or $23.25 at

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