Photography: History and Theory

Photography: History and Theory

Photography: History and Theory

Photography: History and Theory


Photography: History and Theory introduces students to both the history of photography and critical theory.

From its inception in the nineteenth century, photography has instigated a series of theoretical debates. In this new text, Jae Emerling therefore argues that the most insightful way to approach the histories of photography is to address simultaneously the key events of photographic history alongside the theoretical discourse that accompanied them.

While the nineteenth century is discussed, the central focus of the text is on modern and contemporary photographic theory. Particular attention is paid to key thinkers, such as Baudelaire, Barthes and Sontag. In addition, the centrality of photography to contemporary art practice is addressed through the theoretical work of Allan Sekula, John Tagg, Rosalind Krauss, and Vilém Flusser. The text also includes readings of many canonical photographers and exhibitions including: Atget, Brassai, August Sander, Walker Evans, The Family of Man, Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, Cindy Sherman, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Sebastaio Salgado, Jeff Wall, and others.

In addition, Emerling provides close readings of key passages from some major theoretical texts. These glosses come between the chapters and serve as a conceptual line that connects them. Glosses include:

  • Roland Barthes, "The Rhetoric of the Image" (1964)
  • Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (2002)
  • Michel Foucault on the archive (1969)
  • Walter Benjamin, "Little History of Photography" (1931)
  • Vilém Flusser, Towards a Philosophy of Photography (1983)

A substantial glossary of critical terms and names, as well as an extensive bibliography, make this the ideal book for courses on the history and theory of photography.


The essence of the image is to be altogether outside, without intimacy, and yet more
inaccessible and mysterious than the thought of the innermost being; without signifi
cation, yet summoning up the depth of any possible meaning; unrevealed yet manifest,
having the absence-as-presence that constitutes the lure and fascination of the Sirens.

Maurice Blanchot

Every book on photography is always marked by the same limitation: the absence of all the photographs discussed within the text. Even what is widely considered to be the “first” photograph or “Image taken from Nature,” Niécephore Nièpce’s View from the Window at Gras (1826–7) disappeared for over fifty years. From 1898–1952 the whereabouts of this small “heliograph” (sun-writing), which was taken with a camera obscura from the upper-story of Nièpce’s summer house in Saint-Loup-de-Varennes, France, on a plate of polished pewter coated with bitumen of Judea, the cap removed for an eighthour exposure time in full sun—and only then an image. But it was lost. Even after its rediscovery by the photographic historian Helmut Gernsheim in an attic in London, this “origin” remains irreproducible. Any version of this image that we see today, in textbooks or online, is a translation; it barely resembles the original, if there is one.

In other words, every historical and theoretical text on photography has blind spots, photographs that are missing, absent, untranslatable. Rather than see this as a shortcoming, perhaps it is better to reckon with these blind spots as openings, as disjunctive syntheses. This may be the most pressing lesson of Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (1980). For the “punctum” (the irrational, motivating factor, the singular point, the “prick” or “wound” or “cast of the dice” that sets our viewing experience in motion) is not something unique to photography; rather, it can be found in each and every discourse. For Barthes, it was the decision not to reproduce the Winter Garden photograph of his mother, whose death spurred the writing of his text. Every discourse has its own Winter Garden photograph, that is, an absence, an enabling limit. As Jacques Derrida writes in The Work of Mourning (2001), “Remaining as attentive as possible to all the differences, one must be . . .

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