When recently elected Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed members to his new Cabinet, he purposely selected an equal number of men and women to fill the posts. When the press asked why he had balanced the genders, he replied “Because it’s 2015.”
Apparently that news has not reached the editors as Thames & Hudson, the venerable London publishing house that has a long history of producing beautiful art, architecture, design and photography books. When they announced a new book, Lives of the Great Photographers, I was intrigued by the possibilities that such an undertaking might create. Would we see new insights into the masters of the medium? Learn about important artists who are well-known in their home countries but not abroad? Gain a better understanding of the cultural and historical context of photographers working in different styles?
Alas, the answer is “none of the above.” Lives of the Great Photographers is a curious assemblage of biographical details and other facts about a mere 38 photographers, all save one household names in photography circles. Of these, only seven, or 18%, are women, and only three (8%) – all men – are not white. Of course, no guidebook, as this mostly turns out to be, can be comprehensive. The author and editors must be selective in order to make a publication marketable. The question is: who and what determines the selection process?
A good place to start looking for answers in this case is in the book’s introduction, where author Juliet Hacking, with no small amount of hubris, invokes Vasari’s Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects as the lead-in to this volume. She goes on to outline the challenges of selecting only a small number of photographers to represent a larger whole, but nowhere does she say why such a small number was selected in the first place. The book is not small – it has 304 pages including notes and index – which means there are about seven pages per photographer, including images. One wonders why more entries were not included and especially why more diversity was not incorporated in the final choices. She says that “this book is a product of an English-speaking photo-historical tradition that privileges England, France and the United States” and acknowledges that there are “some noteworthy omissions.” No one will argue with those caveats, but they still do not address why a 21st century book about great photographers should perpetuate the male-dominated history of the past.
Don’t get me wrong – this is an enjoyable book. It’s always interesting to scan the lives of photographers who have inspired me for many years. But it is just that: a scan, and a seemingly random one at that. I searched at length for some cultural, stylistic or historical threads to help connect these people, but if it is there it escaped me. Oddly, the photographers are presented in alphabetical order of their last name, like an encyclopedia, so if you try to read it in order you jump around from era to era without any continuity from one entry to the next. To go, for example, from a biographical sketch of Walker Evans to one of Roger Fenton, is quite a leap, especially when you have no sense of why these two were chosen in the first place. Another reviewer said that all of these photographers were “outsiders,” but I find it hard to make that case for such luminaries as Ansel Adams, Edward Steichen, Richard Avedon and Irving Penn.
At the end of her introduction Hacking makes the curious statement that “we are now inclined to see an artist’s life and work not in opposition to each other, but as two arenas in which they create compelling forms.” Since it was Vasari who first showed us that the details in the life of an artist are the starting point when trying to understand his or her art, Hacking's closing statement seems inconsistent with the rest of her opening. Or perhaps, as she also said in the introduction, "in the writing of biography (and of art history), nearly all is interpretation...." Lives of the Great Photographers is one way of interpreting the history of photography; it's just not a very satisfying one.
Lives of the Great Photographers includes entries for Ansel Adams, Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Diane Arbus, Eugène Atget, Richard Avedon, Margaret Bourke-White, Bill Brandt, Brassaï, Claude Cahun, Julia Margaret Cameron, Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Roy DeCarava, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, Robert Doisneau, Peter Henry Emerson, Roger Fenton, Clementina Maude (VIscountess Hawarden), Hannah Höch, André Kertész, Gustave LeGray, May Ray, Robert Mapplethorpe, László Moholy-Nagy, Eadweard Muybridge, Nadar, Norman Parkinson, Irving Penn, Albert Renger-Patzch, Alexander Rodchenko, August Sander, Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Shōmei Tōmatsu, Edward Weston and Madame Yevonde.
Addendum: Since I first wrote this review Thames & Hudson has published another "comprehensive" book, the Thames & Hudson Dictionary of Photography. I haven't had the time yet to look into this title, but most reviews are very favorable. I could not help noticing, however, that one reviewer points out that "women account for 15% of the thousands of photographers listed!". This makes two photography books in a row from T & H that drastically under-represent women in the field, which seems to indicate that this bias is more than a fluke of poor judgment. Given that both volumes were edited by women, one can only wonder what sort of editorial oversight is in place over there.
December, 2015 (updated)