Jerry L. Thompson. MIT Press, September 2013. 92 p. ill. ISBN 9780262019286 (cl.), $14.95.
Reviewed January 2014
Betsy Boyle, Library Reader Services, Massachusetts Historical Society, email@example.com
Why Photography Matters is an earnest plea to return photography to the immersive seeing and recording of the existing world, and away from the staged scenes that currently dominate contemporary photography. A slim hardbound volume divided into four connected essays, the strongest piece argues for photography to be a deep and sustained relationship with a subject. Author Jerry L. Thompson provides close readings of images by Eugene Atget, Garry Winogrand, and Marcia Due, all of whom return to their subjects again and again over several decades. His look at Due's picture of an agricultural landscape in New York is richly described, from the formation of a dialectic between photographer and subject, to an imagined conversation of influence between Due and photographers before her.
Throughout the text, Thompson aligns photography with the investigation
and inquiry of philosophy, with the novels of Pynchon, and the poetry of Keats and Dickinson, rather than the present art world. Almost half of the four-page bibliography is made up of philosophical works.
Unceasing looking is the photography practice of Jerry Thompson himself, whether in his intense portraits from the Coney Island amusement park of the early 1970s, or his street work in New York City neighborhoods. Thompson does not use his own work as examples in the essays of Why Photography Matters, but chooses to rely on the authority of icons Cartier-Bresson and Walker Evans. A student and assistant of Evans while at Yale, Thompson has published Truth and Photography along with works on his mentor that include The Last Years of Walker Evans.
Other essays of Why Photography Matters include an assault on the commercial art world, and how photography has been diminished by attention paid to the "personality" of the artist rather than the strength of work (p. 57). Thompson eliminates "studio" work from his definition of photography, such as large-scale staged scenes by Gregory Crewdson, despite the acknowledgement that very early on the medium was used to create allegorical and historical illustrations. Insisting that photographers must chisel between this pictorialism and photojournalism confines photography into a narrow and inflexible crevice. His refusal to see these styles as legitimate branches of photography's evolutionary tree may weaken his appeal for the broader audience. Finally, the rebuttal against Susan Sontag's On Photography (1977) feels outdated and may isolate younger readers, with many current voices of criticism to address instead; Sontag herself rethought many of these ideas thirty years later in Regarding the Pain of Others. Recommended for a scholarly audience and collections that include photography and theory.
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