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‘Composition’ is not confined to the rectangle of the viewfinder; it is also a matter of the composition of the set, series, suite, typology, archive, album, sequence, slideshow, story and so forth.So are we to presume editing and its effects upon us are simply ineffable, beyond language, pursued entirely intuitively?
For all the sophistication of the photographs, the design, editing and printing techniques; and for all the nuanced grasp of how a book of photographs might contribute to its cultural moment, or become a complex document, something seemed to elude critics and commentators.
It’s as if it was only once photographically illustrated printed matter had begun to be eclipsed by television, video and later the Internet that it could come under close scrutiny.
These densely illustrated anthologies introduce a range of titles, establish some kind of canon and function as guides for collectors, connoisseurs and curators.
There have been more than a dozen published in this vein, most often taking a national or regional theme.
(Lars Müller Publishers, 2011) is a welcome exception, with more sustained essays about the context, production and reception of each book included.
Generally the more serious scholarship is scattered and a little harder to spot but it (I. Tauris 2012, edited by Patrizia Di Bello, Colette Wilson and Shamoon Zamir) emerged from the regular meetings of a bunch of UK academics, myself included.
Armstrong’s discussion of books by Anna Atkins, William Henry Fox Talbot, Julia Margaret Cameron and others is very illuminating and her way of seeing that distant but vital moment through the prism of more recent critical theory is ambitious. It never got out of its expensive hardback and has now slipped out of print.
Upon reading it I felt convinced it was going to be the book to open a new field of study. By contrast the dominant form for books about photographic books follows the template set in 2001 by Andrew Roth’s (2004-).
Indeed they might have benefitted from its absence.
Perhaps photographic book making was so rich and varied precisely because it was not conceptualized as a practice with a unified name.