Essential Reading: The Contest of Meaning – Edited by Richard Bolton

This book is huge! It must have cost the library a pretty penny to post it. I guess I’ll find out when I have to post it back!

It really is an epic read. I started reading this so long ago that the notes are interspersed throughout my notebook. Despite the size of the book, I’m going to try and keep this review quite short:

In essence the book is an anthology or compendium of musings and key essays by some influential photographers and critics such as Solomon-Godeau & Rosler. It is introduced and edited by Bolton. Each chapter is supported by example images and extensive notes, but it is worth noting that the book only has American authors, making it a summary of arguments most pertinent to the US.

In the introduction, Bolton promises to look at photography’s complexity, and at the contradictions in Modernist photographic history.

Like most books on critical theory, this one is broken down quite logically, with each Part posing a question:

  • Part 1 – What are the social consequences of aesthetic practice?
  • Part 2 – How does photography construct sexual difference?
  • Part 3 – How is photography used to promote class and national interests?
  • Part 4 – What are the politics of photographic truth?

Each question is then dissected and answered in 3-4 essays/musings, each offering a different viewpoint or argument. I really liked this as it allowed me to formulate my own ideas and opinions which could then be tempered/moderated or countered as the chapter progressed. This has been one of the better books that I have read in terms of improving and progressing my own critical understanding of the medium, because it really generated some independent thought and arguments.

I feel that after reading this book, I have a far better understanding of Modernism and Post-Modernism. I also feel that certain arguments have cemented some of my own fledgling notions about photography (particularly as an Art), and also upset other ideas that I thought were solid viewpoints (such as the possibility of Objectivity in photography).

Not only did this book look specifically at Critical Histories of the medium, It delved into history in general, expanding my knowledge about the science of photography, the turbulent and dramatic lives of some of it’s greatest practitioners, and the re-invention of the MoMA under various heads of Photography.

Throughout, we see extensive and varied photographic examples, allowing a greater exploration of the arguments put forward. At no time did I find the book dull or boring as each chapter was quite uniquely different, as were the arguments or views put forward. That said, I’m glad it’s finished so that I can move onto some reading that will be more directed and pertinent to Part 3 of the course.


Bolton, R (ed) (1990). The Contest of Meaning: Critical histories of Photography. MIT Press. London


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