by Kim Beil. Stanford University Press, June 2020. 336 p. ill. ISBN 9781503608665 (pbk.), $35.00.

Reviewed May 2021
Eboni Jones, Curator of Interpretive Resources, Memorial Art Gallery, ejones@mag.rochester.edu

beilIn our current image-saturated landscape, we are surrounded by selfies, advertisements, carefully plated food, family photographs. Since photography’s inception in the early nineteenth century, professionals and amateurs alike have pondered: what makes a good picture? Kim Beil gives a framework of fifty American photographic techniques and trends from 1839-2019 in Good Pictures: A History of Popular Photography. The author skillfully reviews these trends in six chronological sections, showcasing the popular techniques of the time in separate short essays.

Beil, a scholar of visual culture and director of the interdisciplinary arts program at Stanford University, has written articles about photography and its modalities in publications such as Afterimage and Artforum. In Good Pictures, she explores photographic techniques like night photography and subject matters like wildlife effectively and makes a point to cross-reference other chapters in each entry. She considers the social history of America throughout her essays, bringing to light the roles that gender, class and wealth play in making pictures. Beil makes an interesting distinction between art photography and vernacular photography, the latter being emphasized and elevated throughout the book.

Kodak’s guidebook series How to Make Good Pictures is an anchor for the monograph. There are references to the series throughout the book, allowing for readers to look at a previously popular photographic style and compare it to the more current trend being discussed. The sixth and final section of the book, 1996-2019 outlines contemporary photography trends and shows in several chapters that what is popular now was already done decades ago. For example, in chapter 44, Squares, Beil outlines that Kodak Brownies and other medium formats were used long before Instagram was born. While there is no definitive resolution to the question of what comprises good pictures, this book shows beautiful examples in the pursuit of the answer.

The author’s writing style is inviting and easy to follow. The essays are well organized and give thorough descriptions of the topic as well as contextual historical information. A bibliography follows the text for additional reading and includes an index. The book, which has been issued both as a paperback and as an ebook, has a readable font size and is well designed. The image reproductions are primarily in color and there are always multiple reproductions in each chapter. Good Pictures is an appropriate book for those wanting to learn more about the history of aesthetic trends in American photography. It is recommended for public libraries, museum libraries and academic libraries that support history, art history, photography, visual culture or humanities related programs.

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