Book Review: “Light Matters: Writings on Photography” by Vicki Goldberg

If you haven’t yet encountered the writings of Vicki Goldberg, then I suggest you get yourself acquainted. The perfect way to start is to read “Light Matters: Writings on Photography,” published by Aperture. The book consists of 27 essays which were published between 1979-2003 and which appeared in publications such as Vanity Fair, New York Times and American Photographer, as well as in exhibition catalogues and book publications. The book is part of the series “Aperture Ideas: Writers and Artists on Photography” which explores photography through ‘the finest critical and creative minds’.

And what a fine mind Vicki Goldberg has. Not only is she knowledgeable about photographers and the history of photography, she also displays a wealth of knowledge on history, society, art and literature; and perhaps more importantly, is able to skilfully blend all these elements into what I can only describe as an effortless style.

The book opens with an essay titled “A Quarter Century of Photography” which discusses the entry of photography into the world of art and the consequences (both positive and negative) of this for photography. In this thought provoking essay we learn of the journey photography has taken within the context of how the art world and society were changing:

                “By the late 1970’s, photography’s place at art’s table was promoted by artists who didn’t make conventional kinds of photographs and didn’t like to be called photographers. Post modernism was hitting its stride, the media were the messages” (p9-10).

We also learn about topics such as the role of the amateur in photojournalism; privacy; celebrity; digitisation; standards and quality. The essay concludes with a look to the future:

                “It’s not clear, in a world where nothing is constant but change, whether photography, a dominant medium in the twentieth century both in news and, in the end, in art, will retain that position in this century” (p19).

The main body of the book then focuses on individuals and not just any individuals, but some of the great photographers: Ansel Adams, Eleanor Antin, Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, Brassai, Walker Evans, Chauncey Hare, Peter Hujar, Josef Koudelka, Jacques Henri Lartique, Reiner Leist, Daido Moriyama, Suzanne Opton, Martin Parr, Herb Ritts, Bastienne Schmidt, Joel Sternfeld and Weegee. Once more, these essays are a skilful blend of facts about the photographer and context in relation to art, literature, society, general history and the history of photography. Goldberg’s main skill in these individual essays is the ability to relay an enormous amount of information in a succinct manner. Each individual essay covers on average 8 pages, yet at the end of each essay, you feel as though you have acquired the knowledge of a whole book.

The final section is given over to essays on photography and society discussing a vast array of themes and topics such as tragedy; ethics; photography as commodity; documentary photography; black photographers; dogs; sex, desire and nudity, and finally death. By the end of the book I was left wondering if there was anything Goldberg didn’t know and if so, was it worth knowing?

I have only one very minor criticism of the book and it is more to do with format rather than content. For me it would have been more helpful to put the essay publication year at the beginning of each piece rather than at the end. As it was, I would read a line such as “this year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art will put on view 180 of his portraits…’(P50) and immediately I would need to find the end of the essay to ascertain the year. As I say, a minor criticism but it was a little annoying.

Confucius said “You cannot open a book without learning something” and Light Matters is a book you can read once and then learn from again and again. Goldberg is a major source of knowledge and as a researcher myself, I can appreciate just how much information she will have amassed, digested and reconstructed in order to write these essays; knowing this provides further testament in my eyes to her skill as a writer.

This book is a must read and once added to your photography bookshelf it will nestle comfortably in amongst any of the names it contains.

“Light Matters: Writings on Photography” by Vicki Goldberg, published by Aperture 2005, ISBN 9781597111652.  For more information on the series “Aperture Ideas: Writers and Artists on Photography” visit http://www.artbook.com/aperture-ideas-writings-on-photography.html

Remember to support your local bookshops and gallery bookshops. My copy was bought at The Photographer’s Gallery bookshop in London priced £12.95.

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