Where Photographs Meet Words: A #WorldPhotoDay Reading List

Tomorrow is World Photo Day, a celebration bringing together millions of photographers worldwide to share their stories and inspire global change through the power of photography. A snapshot of some of our great photography titles is below; be sure to check out our photography subject page to browse even more titles, as well as our previous World Photo Day posts.

In the Fields of the North / En los campos del norte by David Bacon 

In this landmark work of photo-journalism, activist and photographer David Bacon documents the experiences of some of the hardest-working and most disenfranchised laborers in the country: the farmworkers who are responsible for making California “America’s breadbasket.” Combining haunting photographs with the voices of migrant farmworkers, Bacon offers three-dimensional portraits of laborers living under tarps, in trailer camps, and between countries, following jobs that last only for the harvesting season. He uncovers the inherent abuse in the labor contractor work system, and drives home the almost feudal nature of laboring in America’s fields.

Told in both English and Spanish, these are the stories of farmworkers exposed to extreme weather and pesticides, injured from years of working bent over for hours at a time, and treated as cheap labor. The stories in this book remind us that the food that appears on our dinner tables is the result of back-breaking labor, rampant exploitation, and powerful resilience.


The Uses of Photography: Art, Politics, and the Reinvention of a Medium edited by Jill Dawsey 

The Uses of Photography examines a network of artists who were active in Southern California between the late 1960s and early 1980s and whose experiments with photography opened the medium to a profusion of new strategies and subjects. Tracing a crucial history of photoconceptual practice, The Uses of Photography focuses on an artistic community that formed in and around the young University of California San Diego, founded in 1960, and its visual arts department, founded in 1967. Artists such as Eleanor Antin, Allan Kaprow, Fred Lonidier, Martha Rosler, Allan Sekula, and Carrie Mae Weems employed photography and its expanded forms as a means to dismantle modernist autonomy, to contest notions of photographic truth, and to engage in political critique.

Contributors include David Antin, Pamela M. Lee, Judith Rodenbeck, and Benjamin J. Young. Published in association with the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.


Freedom Now!: Forgotten Photographs of the Civil Rights Struggle by Martin A. Berger

In this groundbreaking catalogue, Martin Berger presents a collection of forgotten photographs that illustrate the action, heroism, and strength of black activists in driving social and legislative change. Freedom Now! highlights the power wielded by black men, women, and children in courthouses, community centers, department stores, political conventions, schools, and streets. Freedom Now! reveals that we have inherited a photographic canon—and a picture of history—shaped by whites’ comfort with unthreatening images of victimized blacks. And it illustrates how and why particular people, events, and issues have been edited out of the photographic story we tell about our past. By considering the different values promoted in the forgotten photographs, readers will gain an understanding of African Americans’ role in rewriting U.S. history and the high stakes involved in selecting images with which to narrate our collective past.


The Polaroid Project: At the Intersection of Art and Technology edited by William A. Ewing and Barbara P. Hitchcock 

Published to accompany a major traveling exhibition, The Polaroid Project is a creative exploration of the relationship between Polaroid’s many technological innovations and the art that was created with their help. Richly designed with over 300 illustrations, this impressive volume showcases not only the myriad and often idiosyncratic approaches taken by such photographers as Ansel Adams, Robert Mapplethorpe, Ellen Carey, and Chuck Close, but also a fascinating selection of the technical objects and artifacts that speak to the sheer ingenuity that lay behind the art. With essays by the exhibition’s curators and leading photographic writers and historians, The Polaroid Project provides a unique perspective on the Polaroid phenomenon—a technology, an art form, a convergence of both—and its enduring cultural legacy.

Contributors: William A. Ewing, Barbara P. Hitchcock, Deborah G. Douglas, Gary Van Zante, Rebekka Reuter, Christopher Bonanos, Todd Brandow, Peter Buse, Dennis Jelonnek, and John Rohrbach.


Artist as Reporter: Weegee, Ad Reinhardt, and the PM News Picture by Jason E. Hill

Active from 1940 to 1948, PM was a progressive New York City daily tabloid newspaper committed to the politics of labor, social justice, and antifascism—and it prioritized the intelligent and critical deployment of pictures and their perception as paramount in these campaigns. With PM as its main focus, Artist as Reporter offers a substantial intervention in the literature on American journalism, photography, and modern art. The book considers the journalistic contributions to PM of such signal American modernists as the curator Holger Cahill, the abstract painter Ad Reinhardt, the photographers Weegee and Lisette Model, and the filmmaker, photographer, and editor Ralph Steiner. Each of its five chapters explores one dimension of the tabloid’s complex journalistic activation of modernism’s potential, showing how PM inserted into daily print journalism the most innovative critical thinking in the fields of painting, illustration, cartooning, and the lens-based arts. Artist as Reporter promises to revise our own understanding of midcentury American modernism and the nature of its relationship to the wider media and public culture.


Uncertain Histories: Accumulation, Inaccessibility, and Doubt in Contemporary Photography by Kate Palmer Albers

The compulsion to dwell on history—on how it is recorded, stored, saved, forgotten, narrated, lost, remembered, and made public—has been at the heart of artists’ engagement with the photographic medium since the late 1960s. Uncertain Histories considers some of that work, ranging from installations that incorporate vast numbers of personal and vernacular photographs by Christian Boltanski, Dinh Q. Lê, and Gerhard Richter to confrontations with absence in the work of Joel Sternfeld and Ken Gonzales-Day. Projects such as these revolve around a photographic paradox that hinges equally on knowing and not knowing, on definitive proof coupled with uncertainty, on abundance of imagery being met squarely with its own inadequacy. Photography is seen as a fundamentally ambiguous medium that can be evocative of the historical past while at the same time limited in the stories it can convey. Rather than proclaiming definitively what photography is, the work discussed here posits photographs as objects always held in suspension, perpetually oscillating in their ability to tell history. Yet this ultimately leads to a new kind of knowledge production: uncertainty is not a dead end but a generative space for the viewer’s engagement with the construction of history.


Reconstructing the View: The Grand Canyon Photographs of Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe by Rebecca A. Senf and Stephen J. Pyne

Using landscape photography to reflect on broader notions of culture, the passage of time, and the construction of perception, photographers Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe spent five years exploring the Grand Canyon for their most recent project, Reconstructing the View. The team’s landscape photographs are based on the practice of rephotography, in which they identify sites of historic photographs and make new photographs of those precise locations. Klett and Wolfe referenced a wealth of images of the canyon, ranging from historical photographs and drawings by William Bell and William Henry Holmes, to well-known artworks by Edward Weston and Ansel Adams, and from souvenir postcards to contemporary digital images drawn from Flickr. The pair then employed digital postproduction methods to bring the original images into dialogue with their own. The result is this stunning volume, illustrated with a wealth of full-color illustrations that attest to the role photographers—both anonymous and great—have played in picturing American places.

Rebecca Senf’s compelling essay traces the photographers’ process and methodology, conveying the complexity of their collaboration. Stephen J. Pyne provides a conceptual framework for understanding the history of the canyon, offering an overview of its discovery by Europeans and its subsequent treatment in writing, photography, and graphic arts.


The Last Pictures by Trevor Paglen

The Last Pictures, co-published by Creative Time Books, is rooted in the premise that these communications satellites will ultimately become the cultural and material ruins of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, far outlasting anything else humans have created. Inspired in part by ancient cave paintings, nuclear waste warning signs, and Carl Sagan’s Golden Records of the 1970s, artist/geographer Trevor Paglen has developed a collection of one hundred images that will be etched onto an ultra-archival, golden silicon disc. The disc, commissioned by Creative Time, will then be sent into orbit onboard the Echostar XVI satellite in September 2012, as both a time capsule and a message to the future.

The selection of 100 images, which are the centerpiece of the book, was influenced by four years of interviews with leading scientists, philosophers, anthropologists, and artists about the contradictions that characterize contemporary civilizations. Consequently, The Last Pictures engages some of the most profound questions of the human experience, provoking discourse about communication, deep time, and the economic, environmental, and social uncertainties that define our historical moment.

World Photo Day: The Gift

by Adam Bell, co-editor of Vision Anew: The Lens and Screen Arts

This guest post is part of a series for World Photo Day. Some of our authors with recent and forthcoming titles on a range of photography-related topics will share stories throughout the day. We hope these personal glimpses into their work will inspire a broad community of readers. Follow along throughout the day for more.

Established in 2009 and first celebrated in 2010, World Photography Day marks the anniversary of the French government’s purchase, introduction, and “gift” of the daguerreotype process to the world in 1839. While the move by the French government catapulted the daguerreotype into widespread use throughout the world, it was by no means the first or only photographic process—Nicèphore Nièpce had perfected a similar process in the late 1820s, and both Hippolyte Bayard and Henry Fox Talbot invented similar but different photographic processes around the same time as Louis Daguerre invented the daguerreotype in the late-1830s. The complex and multiple origins of photography highlight one of the medium’s enduring qualities—its mercurial nature.

From the wet-plate to the negative to the digital sensor, photography has always been dependent on shifting technologies, but remains rooted in the lens. Well into the 21st century, when we speak about photography we simultaneously mean traditional analog processes, but must also include Instagram, Snapchat, Photoshop, and a host of other emergent digital technologies. Since it’s invention, the shifting technological nature of the medium has caused countless practitioners, critics, and thinkers to forecast its demise or irrelevance, but it is also the medium’s greatest strength. It has allowed the medium to evolve, adapt, and expand in extraordinary ways. The desire to image the world is deeply rooting in our human nature and no technological shift is going to alter that need or desire.

While the press typically focuses on the increasing number of photographs taken or sensational stories of selfie-sticks run amok, there are more profound changes afoot that shape the way we see, experience, and understand the world through lens-based imagery. As Trevor Paglen has recently noted, we live in a world of machine-seeing and seeing-machines where the majority of images are made for and by machines. CCTV cameras track our movements, drones image us from above, and computers scan our images for data. This does not detract from the joys of photography, but it presents a new challenge. It’s never been enough to take a good picture, which is hard enough. We must not only learn how to contend with the onslaught of images we view and make everyday, but must also understanding how the images we make and consume are analyzed, shared, and used by algorithms, companies, and governments both for and against us. World Photography Day is a moment to celebrate the pleasures and joys of the lens-based arts, but it is also an opportunity to reflect on the ways this incredible gift, bequeathed 176 years ago, has continued to transform our lives in new and incredible ways.

9780520284692_BellTraubAdam Bell is a photographer and writer. Coeditor of The Education of a Photographer, he has written for numerous publications, including Afterimage, The Brooklyn Rail, The Art Book Review, FOAM Magazine, photo-eye, and Paper Journal. He is currently on staff and faculty in the MFA Photography, Video, and Related Media Department, School of Visual Arts.




World Photo Day: The Changing Fortunes of Photography

by Glenn Willumson, author of Iron Muse: Photographing the Transcontinental Railroad

This guest post is part of a series for World Photo Day. Some of our authors with recent and forthcoming titles on a range of photography-related topics will share stories throughout the day. We hope these personal glimpses into their work will inspire a broad community of readers. Follow along throughout the day for more.

Scholarly attention to photography has changed dramatically during my lifetime. When Helmut Gernsheim attempted to sell what was arguably the greatest private collection of photography, he could find no museum that was interested. After years of searching for a partner, in 1963, Gernsheim finally agreed to transfer ownership to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, an archive better known for its manuscripts and books than for any fine art-related production. Had he waited ten years, Gernsheim would have found a ready market for his collection, because during the 1970s, a group of dealers and museums elevated photography into the aesthetic, and commercial, realm we know it today.

With this acceptance, new questions could be asked about how photography has impacted the social, political, economic, and cultural world over the last 150 years. Since it’s beginnings, photographs have changed the way we interacted with friends and family, elected leaders, conceptualized modern industry, and imagined distant lands and peoples. It is not just that photography makes image-making available to so many more people; it is the way those people chose to use photographs to their own ends.


In the case of the first transcontinental railroad, insightful men like E. B. Crocker realized that the mass production of stereographs—three dimensional photographs—could be used to further the interests of the Central Pacific Railroad. As the first business to create a corporate archive, between 1865 and the transcontinental railroad’s completion in 1869, the Central Pacific used its stereographs to persuade politicians, businessmen, and the general public of the efficacy of their seemingly impossible effort to build a railroad through the heart of the rugged Sierra Nevada mountains.

Photography has had—and continues to have—a profound impact on our understanding of the world. The photographs of the transcontinental railroad are just one small example of why it is imperative that we turn a critical eye to photographic history at the same time that we celebrate World Photography Day 2015.

WillumsonGlenn Willumson is Director of the Graduate Program in Museum Studies and Professor of Art History at the University of Florida.



World Photo Day: A Characteristic Pose

by Kate Palmer Albers, author of Uncertain Histories: Accumulation, Inaccessibility, and Doubt in Contemporary Photography

This guest post is part of a series for World Photo Day. Some of our authors with recent and forthcoming titles on a range of photography-related topics will share stories throughout the day. We hope these personal glimpses into their work will inspire a broad community of readers. Follow along throughout the day for more.

Several years agAlbers_photo_1o, I was looking with my grandmother through an old photo album from the 1930s or 40s. Fitting the era, it had thick black pages with small black and white prints adhered with photo corners, and white handwritten captions under most of the photographs.

Two things struck me about this album. First, it featured several photographs of my grandfather, Benjamin Holt, with the repeated caption “Holt in a characteristic pose”. He was always up to some antic, and the caption has become a family joke. Though you wouldn’t know it from my research interests and writing, one of my favorite things about photography is how, through nearly its entire history, people have used the medium to capture themselves and others being total goofballs. It’s comforting to see photographic proof that your grandfather and his friends were, some 70 years earlier, just those goofballs.

But the second thing that struck me about the album was the opposite of the first, and existed nearly simultaneously with it. Though the individual photographs had been captioned by someone thoughtful and forward looking, and featured friends and family members of my grandfather, all of the stories had to be narrated to me: I was like a toddler listening at story hour, unable to independently access, let alone decode, what was “in” those photographs.

It was simultaneously deeply familiar and entirely foreign. I was happy to learn that photographic humor had been around for generations in my family and a little bit stunned at how my eyes glazed over at the sight of so many individuals clearly so close to my grandfather but so distant from me.

I know this is a common experience: in the space of a generation, or less, we lose track of what we’re seeing. It occurred to me that, aside from the photographs of my grandfather, who was instantly recognizable to me even in his youth, by his high forehead and aqualine nose, that those photographs in the album could have belonged to anybody and could have depicted anyone, and it wouldn’t much make a difference to how I was seeing the images. The best I could do was make up my own stories.

I’m not suggesting that everyone needs to do a better job of captioning, cataloging, and archiving—though, in our culture, that’s certainly the current default mode. Rather, that there’s some value to embracing the notion that even our most cherished photographs —especially our most cherished photographs—will quickly become untethered from whatever meanings we’ve assigned them, well before the print or image has disappeared. They exist just for us.


Kate Palmer Albers is Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Arizona.





World Photo Day: Reading the Ways We See

by Martin A. Berger, author of Freedom Now!: Forgotten Photographs of the Civil Rights Struggle

This guest post is part of a series for World Photo Day. Some of our authors with recent and forthcoming titles on a range of photography-related topics will share stories throughout the day. We hope these personal glimpses into their work will inspire a broad community of readers. Follow along throughout the day for more.

Remember back in February when it seemed as if the whole world was captivated by a dress on Tumblr that was either white and gold or blue and black? The perceptual divide was fascinating because it was so dramatic and because we trust photographs to capture the world as it appears. Something seemed wrong. Taylor Swift wrote on Twitter: “I feel that it’s a trick.”


We eventually heard from experts on psychology and cognitive science who offered two possible explanations for the dispute: 1) The close-up shot and odd lighting deprived people of cues about the ambient lighting of the dress; absent such cues, different brains made different assumptions, which led to seeing different colors; 2) Because there is a significant range in the number of photoreceptors an individual has to perceive the color blue, an ambiguous image may be perceived as either blue or white, depending on whether one has more or fewer receptors. Put simply, the dress controversy was explained both by qualities inherent in the photograph and variations in the human eye.

We experience dramatic perceptual divides over photographs each day, even if they rarely generate the degree of introspection caused by the photograph of the blue and black dress. Because the stakes were low, people were accepting of scholarly explanations for why different people perceive color differently. We are less thoughtful when debating the meaning of photographs with high social stakes. When interpreting photographs of police-civilian confrontations, confederate-flag-waving demonstrators, or Occupy protests, most of us are confident declaring what they mean. The evaluations of those who disagree with us are much more likely to be dismissed than considered.

43 and cover Berger

But just as biological differences in the makeup of our eyes can lead to differing perceptions of the physical world, so cultural differences between racial, gendered, or religious groups can promote distinctive ways of interpreting visual signs. In my research on civil rights photography, I have found many examples of blacks and whites reading opposite meanings from identical photographs. Many blacks understood this photograph showing a confrontation between white policemen and a black protestor, for example, as evidence of police racism while whites described the same photo as proof of blacks’ violent nature. As with the debate over the blue and black dress, there is much to be gained by stepping back from what we see to consider how we’ve been taught to see what we do.

Martin A. Berger is Professor of History of Art and Visual Culture at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is the author of Seeing through Race: A Reinterpretation of Civil Rights Photography, and Sight Unseen: Whiteness and American Visual Culture.