Five Art Books That Altered My Perspective on Art and the World
On Photography by Susan Sontag
Susan Sontag published On Photography in 1977 after the work originally appeared as a series of essays in the New York Review of Books. The work is a critique of photography as a means of recording social history, war and travel.
What I love about this book is how, from the very first page, it poses a challenge to the reader. Whatever we may think about photography as a means of evidencing fact, certifying experience or documenting human history, Sontag systematically probes and questions.
Sontag also has a great facility with language. Throughout the text, she has the ability to turn every sentence into an aphoristic insight. The writing is compelling for this reason, drawing you through the text with line after line of acute observation.
It is also fascinating to read On Photography in the light of more recent developments in photography, of smartphone cameras and the age of Instagram. To give you a clue as to the ongoing relevance of the book, here’s a short extract talking about tourism and photography:
“It seems positively unnatural to travel for pleasure without taking a camera along. Photographs will offer indisputable evidence that the trip was made, that the program was carried out, that fun was had […] Photography has become one of the principal devices for experiencing something, for giving an appearance of participation.”
Ways of Seeing by John Berger
Few books inspire me to return to them over and over again, but John Berger’s Ways of Seeing is one of them.
Ways of Seeing in fact began as a BBC television series first broadcast in 1972. It was a crucial time in the development of cultural and feminist theory, and the TV programme and accompanying book had an enormous impact on the consequent course of the study of art. It also brought cultural theory…