When you buy a camera it normally comes with a handbook that tells you how to use it. With digital cameras this is now even incorporated into the computer chip as preconfigured ‘scene’ modes. A digital camera I own has preset landscape, portrait, night scenes, food, party and other modes. These instructions in manuals and scene settings usually include tips on how to take better pictures. What these examples give us are not only the rules for how to take better photographs in certain situations, but also an introduction to the typical conventions of photography. The more inquisitive might ask why those conventions are so common and so often repeated within the history of photography.
While this book is in no way an instruction manual, it does aim to provide an introduction to the activity of photography. It is a guide to key concepts in photography. It seeks to introduce the operating conventions of a number of photographic practices, not necessarily so as to make better photographs, but to understand their operations within a more critical framework. Thus it aims to provide an introduction for those wishing to study photography and who are interested in it as a practice and its critical effects. Since photography is employed in so many different aspects of life, across a whole range of cultural and social uses, the scope of such a study is extremely large.
There are many ways in which photography might be introduced. For example, a study of photography could be conducted through investigating the key institutions that use it: advertising, journalism and news, amateur and tourist photography, fashion, art and documentary, police and military or even uses on the www. The sociological anatomy of these institutions might reveal the systems by which photographs are produced, the arteries of power and decision-making, or even the creative space that photographers are supposed to occupy. Such a project is probably urgently needed, but not for my purposes here. It would tell us about the functions of those institutions and only their uses of photography.
Yet the same categories of photograph are also found in other institutional uses of photography. For example, the police may use a specific type of ‘portraiture’ in a mugshot. This picture may then be shown in a newspaper or in some cases on