Perusing the History of Photography, Searching for My Muse…

As someone who got into photography for the pratical purpose of documenting my garden from year to year, I have no photographic home, so to speak. That is, there is no style or school of photography I gravitate to and no particular photographer whose style I admire. It is not because I think I’m special in any way but because I never set out to be a “photographer.” But I’ve caught the photography bug and now want to learn more about the art side of things. So, these days I find myself looking through books that tell the field’s history and point out influential practitioners.

Anyone who has followed this blog for a while knows that I favor impressionist paintings when it comes to art. Not to the exclusion of other styles, but impressionism appeals to me more deeply than others. With music, I have a range of types (even opera), but about 50-60% is jazz, to which I listen most. However, when it comes to photography, only a few names come to mind, and for most of them, I have seen little of their work (at least that I could identify as theirs). Like most people, I know who Ansel Adams is (I watched a PBS special) and have seen his most famous images. I know other notable names, like Gordon Parks, Cartier-Bresson, and Dorthea Lange, by having seen their famous images in various historical contexts. I know Diane Arbus, whom I read an article about, makes me uneasy.

My interest in photography as art is growing due to my interest in painting and drawing. I can name many more painters and their works and styles because I have had painting-related books for years, including books detailing the collections of major museums. And for the last year, I have been identifying resources that tell about the history of photography to identify photographers whose styles and subjects resonate with me.

The Time-Life Library of Photography was my first significant find. That set has been beneficial, but I must admit to having spent more time studying the technical aspects of photography than reviewing styles and bodies of work. Two gifts and a recent purchase have added to my collection: The Focal Encyclopedia of Photography (FEP), Photography: The Definitive Visual History (PDVH), and A History of Photography: From 1839 to the Present (AHP).

While I like the wealth of images and narrative in these texts, not all are suitable for answering my questions. These are 300-800 page books, so a good table of contents (TOC) and a good index are essential for my needs.  The Focal Encyclopedia of Photography is the best organized for my purposes. The TOC is divided into topical sections (e.g., Major Themes and Photographers of the 20th Century, Photographic Companies and Applications, History and Evolution of Photography). Under each topical section are multiple subtopics written by different authors. The index is extensive, almost 40 pages long. It is perfect as a reference, even though it has far fewer images than the other two texts.

Interestingly, this text contains a good deal of technical detail seen in few other places. For instance, there are articles on human vision, ballistics photography,  and photogrammetry–fields I did not know existed.

Photography: The Definitive Visual History offers less in the way of TOC detail. But it has many more images than the FEP. Furthermore, the index is extensive, making it a great book to start my research. The topic headings in the TOC tend to be less informative than in the FEP. I have no idea what “Camera of Conscience” discusses and no clue what “Out in the Cold” might address–good thing the index is thorough. As for the images, the book lives up to its title. Tons of pictures of all kinds on every page. The photographer profiles are interesting and exactly what I want to guide my research. I salute the editor for amassing such a diverse collection of practitioners. Using this book, I definitely feel I’m getting my money’s worth.


A History of Photography has the least informative organization. The TOC consists of one-line chapter titles and little additional info. The index lists only photographers, not styles, eras, techniques—zilch. It is as if the author expects one to read the book cover to cover and not use it ever as a reference for asking specific questions. On a more positive note, the images are plentiful, high quality, and informative.

Between the Life library and these history books, I have enough reference material to get a feel for how photography unfolded over the last two centuries. Perhaps, somewhere in these pages, I will find a muse or two. If I fail to do so, it won’t be a tragedy or even a minor setback. I still have my garden and no ambition to be on the wall at MOMA. Whatever develops from my research will be a lagniappe.

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