The Canon of Photography (not the camera)

Photography needs an official canon of literary work. What I am referring to is not photography per se, butrather the study of photography at the academic level. 

Photography has become such an important part of the zeitgeist that a serious student of the medium must study not only the art, but also the philosophy and history at an existential level. To this end, there must be an acknowledged canon, or a traditional collection of writings against which all other writings on the subject of photography are judged and evaluated. 

Of course there is a difference in this case between what should be referred to as the applied canon as opposed to the literary canon. The applied canon would be the significant work of the medium as produced by the acknowledged masters in the various genres. This work is absolutely worthy of study by any student or aficionado of photography. There has been a significant effort by a few dedicated individuals to define, preserve, and curate this work.

The literary canon, though, is much less well defined and only seems to appear on the photographic radar years after publication as certain volumes are elevated within the genre and assume an above average significance.

To this end, I would like to submit for consideration, three volumes as the basis of the Canon of Photography.

The History of Photography by Beaumont NewhallThe Museum of Modern Art – New York


This is an astoundingly complete volume encompassing the history of the photographic process from the very early experiments just before 1800 forward to the 1970’s. 

The author was not only incredibly well versed in photography, but had many friends and associates in the photographic world, some of which would be considered giants of the medium such as László Moholy-Nagy and Ansel Adams. The author served as Curator of MOMA’s photography collection from 1940 – 1947 and was the appointed Curator at the George Eastman Museum until his retirement as Director in 1971.

This is the best foundational read there is in photography, and a great place to start your academic study of photography.

On Photography by Susan Sontag 


I own the Anchor Books version from 1990. This is a collection of essays on photography that originally appeared in The New York Review of Books between 1973 – 1977. 

Ms. Sontag was the long time partner of Photographer and Portraitist Annie Leibovitz so her observations and opinions do carry some authority. However I, and most everyone that has read On Photography, find her writing style to be pretentious and verbose. The material is worth working your way through to the conclusions and the book itself is the only real volume that begins to tackle the psychological impact of photography versus how we as a society react to, and view it. Therefore it is a necessary volume in the literary canon of photography. 

Looking at Photographs 100 Pictures from the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art by John Szarkowski

ISBN 0-87070-515-6

Originally published in 1973, this volume is, on one hand, rather simply, a picture book with each of the 100 photos having a paragraph that describes the image and what makes it interesting. On the other hand it takes an attentive reader deeper into the image and discusses composition and artistic merit. It is a simple “must have” volume.

The three books combined are the fundamental basis of the art of photography at an existential level, having nothing to do with the technical points on how to make a photograph but everything to do with why we should, and do, make them in the first place.

Stay safe and thanks for reading.