The best books for understanding photography as art

The Books I Picked & Why

Ways of Seeing

By John Berger

Ways of Seeing

Why this book?

This is one of the most astute meditations on the way we understand the world through our eyes. “Seeing comes before words,” Berger writes. “The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.” With unadorned clarity, Berger consistently states what is true. And, with that gift, he examines the way early man first represented human experience in visual terms, which leads him to a description of the way we look at paintings, followed by his insights about the way to read photographs. He abides by our native visual language and shows how seeing gets complicated by cultural meanings that change and evolve over time.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art

By John Szarkowski

Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art

Why this book?

As the legendary curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, John Szarkowski was instrumental in elevating photography’s stature to an equal among the fine arts. He is eloquent in his explanation about the meaning of photography and illuminating in his descriptions of each of the one hundred photographs published in this book from MoMA’s sterling collection of photographs. There is no better guide to an awakening of your own eye than Szarkowski.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

How Photography Became Contemporary Art: Inside an Artistic Revolution from Pop to the Digital Age

By Andy Grundberg

How Photography Became Contemporary Art: Inside an Artistic Revolution from Pop to the Digital Age

Why this book?

As a photography critic for The New York Times, Grundberg was present when a generation of artists began to take apart the photographic image and transform its meaning in society. He wrote about post-modern practice in the present tense, as it was happening. This book is a collection of his reviews and essays from the 1980s when the medium was at a crossroads; the factual veracity of photography was enduring challenges at every turn and the valuation of the photograph as an art object was under critical scrutiny.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

The Americans

By Robert Frank

The Americans

Why this book?

Robert Frank, one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century, was best known for his groundbreaking book, The Americans, a masterwork of black and white photographs drawn from his cross-country road trips in the mid-1950s and published in 1959. Frank had come to detest the American drive for conformity, and “The Americans” was thought to be an indictment of American society, stripping away the picture-perfect vision of the country and its veneer of breezy optimism put forward in magazines and movies and on television. Yet at the core of his social criticism was a romantic idea about finding and honoring what was true and good about the United States. Frank’s photographs of lone individuals, teenage couples, groups at funerals, and odd spoors of cultural life are cinematic, immediate, off-kilter, and grainy, like early television transmissions of the period. They would secure his place in photography’s pantheon.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Evidence

By Larry Sultan, Mike Mandel

Evidence

Why this book?

Evidence, published in 1977, is a book of black-and-white pictures culled by these two artists from the archives of government agencies, public utilities, university laboratories, and private corporations. The anonymous photographs were made to document actual fires, land sites, crime scenes, product testing, and scientific experimentation. In Evidence, the pictures are removed from their context of origin and printed, one to a page, without caption information. Individually, the pictures take on surrealist properties subject to endless narrative interpretation; collectively, the sequencing creates a running narrative with no coherent story. Since the pictures so closely resemble the black-and-white documentary images that came to define art photography in the 1970s, Evidence was among the early postmodern works to contest the growing acceptance of photography as art, photographer as artist-author, photographic documentation as fact, and the truth-telling capability of the medium as unwavering.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Random Book Lists