Reframing Photography: Theory and Practice
by Rebekah Modrak and Bill Anthes
Routledge, London, 2010
560 pp., illus. 750 b/w. Paper, $59.95
Reviewed by Jan Baetens
Since photography has become today a classic part of any academic program in art history or art theory, the number of handbooks, readers, textbooks and other course materials has increased subsequently. Yet more and more the focus of these learning materials has shifted. In order to stress the differences between a professional training in photography and a university class in the same field, there has been a gradual split between the theoretical and the technical in the two domains. Whereas professionally trained photographers are more and more invited, if not obliged, to take into account the theoretical and historical approaches of the medium (it is no longer possible to major in photography without having an in-depth knowledge of the theoretical insights borrowed from cutting-edge aesthetics, critical theory, art history, and of course philosophy), the opposite movement has taken place in academic training, where the practical knowledge of the medium is still only rarely taught (it is perfectly possible to write an excellent PhD on photography without having taken one single picture). Despite of much lip-service being paid to the interaction of theory and practice, the benefits of this dialogue are far from being accessible to all those with an interest in the medium.
Modrak and Anthes' handbook has all the qualities to become a pioneer in the efforts to bridge the gap between the technical and the theoretical. Their work strikes a perfect balance between what one can find in technical handbooks on photography and what one should expect from a theoretically well-inspired study of the medium. The authors offer simultaneously a hands-on, "how to" manual of photography (they explain what a camera is, how it works, and how to use it) and a good overview of the most important concepts, ideas and hypotheses that have flourished in the field of photography history and theory since more or less three decades (hence for instance the importance taken by the work of Susan Sontag, although Modrak and Anthes make impressive efforts to confront their readers with as broad a survey as possible).
What strikes, first of all, in this book are its clever and inspiring didactic qualities. Thanks to its very clear overall structure (the book is divided in four great parts: "vision", "light and shadow", "reproductive processes", and "editing/presentation/evaluation"), thanks also to its many and always well-chosen illustrations (with a good mix of technically as well aesthetically motivated pictures), and thanks finally to the global composition of the book (constructed as a real handbook, open to use in the class-room as to self-study, and well supported by an accompanying website, which Routledge promises to update on a regular basis!), Reframing Photography really manages to make the reader get what he or she is looking for: a synthetic introduction to "all" aspects of photography. These qualities are strong enough to overrule some technical flaws of the object itself: the print quality of several images is not as good as it should be (some illustrations are printed so small and are so dark that one hardly sees what is at stake in the chosen image), whereas the horizontal format of the book and its soft cover make its physical handling rather unpleasant (one has to put down the book on a flat surface, if not turning the pages becomes unhandy).
Another great advantage of this book is its very broad definition of photography - not only at the level of the pictures studied, which are not limited to the field of fine arts photography, but also at that of the photographic devices and techniques, which does not fall prey to the idea that the digital turn has made all previous techniques obsolescent. On the one hand, Modrak and Anthes confront their readers with an astonishingly wide panorama of photographic pictures and uses of photography, bringing together what other studies and approaches keep apart. On the other hand, they also propose an amazingly well-made "how to do" manual of old and new techniques, featuring both a hands-on training in Photoshop (and many other software programs that any photographer and any photography scholar should know) and a detailed description and instruction of numerous apparently old-fashioned dimensions of analogue photography (which are under pressure even in professional programs).
Finally, and this is a third major achievement of the book, Reframing Photography does not merely juxtapose the technical and the theoretical. Modrak and Anthes succeed in showing the historical and theoretical impact and underpinnings of the technical issues they debate, while demonstrating as well how important is the knowledge of the medium's technicalities to better understand what photographers are doing and why they are doing so.