Essential Reading: Basic Critical Theory for Photographers – Ashley la Grange

Last week I received an irate phone call from the library, demanding that I return several books from the Essential Reading List that I still have on loan. Unfortunately, not only are they overdue, I’ve still not read them! So, I’ve taken a break from Assignment 2 and buried my head in some Basic Critical Theory for Photographers.

The words Critical Theory don’t particularly enthuse me. Previous academic books that I’ve read, although educational, have been tough going. I’d much rather be out there with my camera making photographs than reading about over educated peoples views on the art, using long and convoluted words where plain english would suffice.  The forward of this book put me at ease slightly. It promises to be  user friendly, with a lack of Jargon, with the aim of summarising some key literature about photography and generating debate on the ideas covered.

The format of the book is pretty straight forward. Each chapter discusses 1 or 2 books/essays by specific authors/critics, who have particular notions about photography. The start of each chapter summarises the main points of the book/essay being discussed and highlights the opinions of the author. At the end of the chapter we are presented with a series of assignments and discussion points. The assignments are designed to get the student thinking about how  they may use photography to achieve a specific aim or produce a particular style of photograph. The discussion points dissect the authors opinions and offer alternative trains of thought designed to get the reader or photography student thinking for themselves and arriving at their own well informed discussion.

In many ways, the book is not too dissimilar to the OCA courses. The assignments that it poses are often very in-depth and would require a great deal of time and effort to achieve. Some of them are also similar to assignments set within the OCA courses. As much as I’d love to work through the assignments, it’s just not realistic. It would take the same amount of time, if not longer, than the actual course!

I did make a conscious effort to look at the discussion points and to evaluate the viewpoints of the different authors/critics. For me, this is where this book is quite unique. Other books haven’t really explained what the heart of an argument is, or what has formed the opinion. Here, La Grange stimulates thought by pointing out the opinion, then identifying other artists/authors to look at who may (or may not) contradict that viewpoint.

At the back of the book, it contains a very good Glossary, reducing the amount of time I had to spend referring to my dictionary, although, true to the authors word, it was far easier reading than some of the books I’ve read. The book also contains some annexes which add context to certain elements of the text.

My biggest criticism of this book is the lack of photo’s. For a book about photography, a good deal of examples would be beneficial, particularly as the text often refers to images that are not present. My only other criticism is that I found this book far easier to read and understand than Photography: A Critical Introduction. It would make far more sense to have read this book first, but this is not reflected in the course reading lists. That said, I found it a very informative read, and it has certainly expanded my knowledge on the subject of Critical Theory.


La Grange, A (2006). Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. Focal Press, GB.


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