5 Photography Books for the Discerning Reader

5 Photography Books for the Discerning Reader

Reading is what? FUN-damental! Ok, my bad dad joke aside, books are a great way to gain a deeper perspective on a topic from those making great strides within a field.

Don’t get me wrong, like any good millennial, I believe the internet is a great resource and repository of information. But the flip side is anyone can publish anything online; whereas there is still (usually), more rigor and transparency in traditional publishing. With this list, I thought I’d share some books I’ve read recently that I’ve found helpful in my own photographic practice, and hopefully, you find value in them too.

Classic Essays on Photography

Classic Essays is a bit of a no-brainer. The book is edited chronologically with a veritable who’s-who of photography so you get not only an overview of photography from the beginning to more modern times; but also a good cross-section of very many different perspectives.

It’s a very easy read and one of those books you can pick and choose which essays you want to read. Sure you can read everything in order but you can jump around too.

Ways of Seeing

You might be wondering what this is doing on the list: this book isn’t strictly about photography but rather images and art. I think it’s still very relevant to photographers though. Ways of Seeing was originally a televised broadcast on the BBC (and I’m sure you can probably YouTube clips of it). The book is a means of how to be more discerning when viewing or "reading" images.

Because it is based on a television program, this one is also a pretty easy read. I’m probably the world’s slowest reader and even I got through it in a week. Included are also a few ‘image essays’ which work in tandem with the more traditional text essays to allow readers a chance to further practice "reading" images.

Against Interpretation and Other Essays

I don’t think you can really be a photographer without having read Sontag, and in my opinion Against Interpretation is a great place to start because it’s a collection of essays so you can jump around a bit instead of having to read the whole book cover to cover. (It bears repeating: I’m the world’s worst reader).

The book offers a more contemporaneous view of the world and culture; if you focus on one part I’d recommend the essay “Against Interpretation” in which Sontag posits ways of thinking about art and image-making which penetrate a viewer or audience; leaving them with less of what an image looks like but instead what it feels like.  

Civil Imagination: A Political Ontology of Photography

So often, photographers become increasingly concerned with the photograph. To counter this way of thinking, Azoulay in Civil Imagination instead challenges readers to consider photography not as the photograph, but rather the photograph as a part of the entire event of photography.

Who operated the camera? Who or what was in front of the camera? How was that relationship? Who saw the image and at what time? These are just a few of the questions you might consider when working within and with photography.

Decolonising the Camera: Photography in Racial Time

For the very longest time, photography was for a small subset of people. Unless you were an old, rich, white man, you weren’t a photographer. This, as an aside, is why I think the work Diversify is doing so great!

In Decolonising the Camera, Sealy uses various photographs as case studies to generate insight into the political, social, and historical ways in which photography wasn’t for everyone; and in turn how we can all challenge this legacy.


Photography is only 200 years old, more or less. Which is a long time but also, it’s really not. So, having a bit of that history and knowing those who came before, as well as knowing where the medium is at now and headed into the future should feel important for anyone engaging with photographs and photography. Especially if you consider how ubiquitous cameras are: everyone has a camera in their cell phone.

This list obviously isn’t exhaustive, and I’ve arranged it from the "easiest reads" to those that are more challenging towards the bottom of the list. And obviously, I haven't given a very in-depth review; these are more suggestions to start thinking about photographic theory rather than a conclusive what's-what. Coincidentally, those books at the top of the list were published earlier and those are the bottom are recent publications.

Anyway, as always, I am keen to know what you thought if you’ve read any of these (or if you end up reading them). And if you have any other suggestions, drop them in the comments below!

Ali Choudhry's picture

Ali Choudhry is a photographer in Australia. His photographic practice aims to explore the relationship with the self, between the other, and the world. Through use of minimalist compositions and selective use of color and form he aims to invoke what he calls the "breath". He is currently working towards a BA (Honours) in Photography.

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Enroll in art classes or art appreciation or photography workshop Iike dan ballard or guy tal and learn about composition, light , color oh did I mention light?

> For the very longest time, photography was for a small subset of people. Unless you were an old, rich, white man, you weren’t a photographer.

That's simply false and completely minimizes the impact women and non-white people have had on the history of photography. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_photographers for a start...

I find it so sad that everything now needs to be interpreted through the lens of "woke-ness"... I read the comment as equivalent to "for the longest time, photography was not something the average person had the time or money to pursue, being an expensive proposition that most could not afford to participate in." Much more succinct the way it was stated, I filled in the missing words on my own. As until recently, I suspect most other people also did.

Nope. The words intended are the words used. The original article is the one being most "woke".

Maybe the author can weigh in as to why he specifically chose to include age, race, and gender rather than just saying "rich people" which is both more succinct and more accurate. Ali?

If you work on the premise that photography is about 200 years old, then you can say that photography has coincided with industrialization and capitalism. From here, historically, you can trace that those who became prominent photographers or garnered any sort of recognition were those with capital. In this case, capital isn't strictly monetary capital (or "rich people" as you put it).
So although I'm sure there were plenty of practitioners of photography who weren't old, rich, white men-- this specific demographic made up the vast majority.
We can consider these factors more deeply.
It was a patriarchal society. Women had less personal agency and less social (societal?) capital. So most practitioners of photography were men.
Colonialism was still a big thing. People of color had less agency and again, less social capital. Couple these factors with photography being a European invention, it stands to reason that most practitioners were white.
Since photography was still being invented, most people were just kind of figuring it out. Only those who had the spare time to devote to it and the monetary capital to commission or make specialized equipment were able to practice photography. Reasonably, you couldn't just go to the camera store. I remember reading that Daguerre was excited that he could get an 8-minute exposure time (which was considered short). If you consider this with cutting edge technology today; who's going to space as private citizens? The ultra rich billionaires. Similar thing with photography.
I hope that clarifies things for you. If you'd like to know more, I'd really suggest the first book in the list, "Classic Essays on Photography."

That's a far more nuanced take that still minimizes the contributions of a lot of non white men photographers but it's a hell of a lot better than "Unless you were an old, rich, white man, you weren’t a photographer."

To your point (Marcus), agreed... to mine, I still think that even those you are referencing mostly had access, ergo the comment as restated (all-encompassing, gender & status neutral). But my main point was more exactly that it simply was how things were at the time. Today the context is presented (repeatedly, in every discussion) as though there was some sort of discrimination taking place. That's a presumptive and present mindset.

Its encouraging to see that a site like this (site that is mainly about the technical side) takes up these subject, I dont mean books on photography but the thinking behind the photograph and how we get there. to also deconstruct images and see how they belong in or out of context. I would like to add a few names to the list of writers about photography and I think its really important to read Walter Benjamin who is the art theoretician that Sontag tog her starting point from, but there are more like Roland Bathes, Victor Burgin and here are a few more for those who are interested. https://thephotographersgallery.org.uk/photography-culture/photography/w...
Aslo it should be mentioned that John Berger has written more and also been the editor of other books on photography.

Great additions! I've written about Barthes and Benjamin previously. But will definitely check out some of Burgin! Thank you.

When I first saw this article title, I immediately thought of some of the technical books that meant so much to me as a growing photographer. Then I had that Oooooh moment and realized these books were beyond the technical and more about the feeling and history of photography.

One of the biggest initiatives I've consciously made in my own personal work is to stop taking "pretty" or "technically perfect" images and instead trying to come up with some sort of social commentary that makes people question the work to begin with. Usually for me this is controversial or strange in some way but regardless of how you tackle it, I think it's important to ask "why" you are taking a photo instead of the all familiar "how" that we photographers often spend too much time on.