A Photographer’s Theory Reading List

The Photosmudger did a great post on the books photographers should read to get insight into the critical theory side of the art.  I want to share with you the top three books on his list that he’s convinced me to read.  To see the rest of the reading list and to be convinced, as I was, why you should delve into critical theory head over to the photosmudger post.

Ways of Seeing by John Berger

Ways of SeeingThis, according to the photosmudger, is “the grand-daddy of them all” and required reading.

The GoodReads blurb: John Berger’s Ways of Seeing is one of the most stimulating and the most influential books on art in any language. First published in 1972, it was based on the BBC television series about which the (London) Sunday Times critic commented: “This is an eye-opener in more ways than one: by concentrating on how we look at paintings . . . he will almost certainly change the way you look at pictures.” By now he has.

On Photography by Susan Sontag

On Photography

This one comes highly recommended by many so it’s worth taking a look at.

“First published in 1973, this is a study of the force of photographic images which are continually inserted between experience and reality. Sontag develops further the concept of ‘transparency’. When anything can be photographed and photography has destroyed the boundaries and definitions of art, a viewer can approach a photograph freely with no expectations of discovering what it means. This collection of six lucid and invigorating essays, the most famous being “In Plato’s Cave”, make up a deep exploration of how the image has affected society.” (GoodReads)

Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes

Camera Lucida: Reflections on PhotographyThat epic line about looking on eyes that looked upon Napoleon is from this book.  Need I say more?

“This personal, wide-ranging, and contemplative volume–and the last book Barthes published–finds the author applying his influential perceptiveness and associative insight to the subject of photography. To this end, several black-and-white photos (by the likes of Avedon, Clifford, Hine, Mapplethorpe, Nadar, Van Der Zee, and so forth) are reprinted throughout the text.” (GoodReads)

Have you read any of these?  Share your thoughts with us.  Do you have any more suggestions for photographers?



4 thoughts on “A Photographer’s Theory Reading List

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  1. On Photography was the first theory book that I read about the art, and I remember it being very inspiring… I’ve taken photographs for most of my life, but until around the time that I read that book I had never really considered photography’s place within contemporary culture. My experience of the craft was very isolated, and one I approached intuitively rather than critically. Having read a number of other critical theorists after Sontag, I feel as if the book would be even more enlightening than it was upon my first readthrough.

    As for Barthes, I know of the core concepts of his work as referenced in other articles, the film High Art, and an essay about him featured in an MIT journal (issue 116 maybe?) The essay in the journal really turned me off from reading Camera Lucida, as it made his theories seem quite pedantic or overly sentimental, claiming his experience of photography is wholly founded upon one photo of his mother… Perhaps that author did not do him justice. I took quotes from the essay and turned them into a Freudian collage about the anal stage, featuring a University of Victoria undergrad’s photo of two dozen glittery butts cast in papier mache on a gallery wall. Now I owe it to myself to read Camera Lucida, because it will always remind me of butts.


    1. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk about your experience of On Photography. I would also like to move to thinking about photography more critically so I appreciate you sharing your thoughts. Barthes seems to be very popular on a number of reading lists not just for Camera Lucida but some of his other works too so I’m intrigued as to what all the fuss is about. I fear I might have the glittery butt image in my head when I do get to Camera Lucida 😂 Again thank you for sharing! If you have other suggested reading I’d love to hear about it.


  2. Reblogged this on signsofseduction and commented:
    This is a fairly good introduction to photographic theory… From a technical standpoint, Michael Freeman ‘s Textbooks are quite informative… I’ve only read (most of) The Photographer’s Eye, and it has given me a lot of useful tools to use while out shooting. So few photographers understand that the art is more than an empirical record of an event. It takes the event beyond its historical context and brings it into the present, long after it’s over. I could go on. Or, you could check out the link and the listed reading material.


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