by Kelly Klingensmith. University of New Mexico Press, June 2016. 264 p. ill. ISBN 978k0826356949 (cl.), $65.00.
Reviewed November 2016
Klingensmith’s book approaches the genre of the photographic essay, starting with historic examples, and then moving to more recent times. The book is organized into three sections, and includes a relatively abundant bibliography and an index.
Parts one and two discuss the most famous examples of this genre; specifically How the Other Half Lives (Riis), You Have Seen Their Faces (Bourke-White, Caldwell), American Exodus (Lange, Taylor), and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Evans, Agee). Within these sections Klingensmith presents a detailed study of these book-length volumes that combine text and photographs, and that purport to have a (mostly leftist, or liberal) social agenda. These sections are well researched, and in some places contribute well to ongoing conversations within the literature about the history of photography and photojournalism. More troubling is her reliance on W. J. T. Mitchell’s definition of the genre of “photographic essay” in that is seems unnecessarily narrow, and, in the end, differentiates the photographic essay from the photo essay based on presentation and not content. This seems a tenuous definition upon which to base an entire genre.
Another issue is that while Klingensmith relies often on Susan Sontag’s work On Photography, she does readers a disservice in not even mentioning in a note Sontag’s follow-on work, Regarding the Pain of Others (2004). Inasmuch as Sontag used this second volume in part to revisit some of her thoughts expressed in the earlier book, and as this second book as much as, or even more than, the first delves into issues of photography and ethics, this is a lapse.
The third section moves from these historic examples to later ones, such as collaborations between John Berger and Jean Mohr, as well as some recent projects that work with images of children in settings like brothels, and poverty-stricken regions of the Appalachians. It is in this section, in particular, that there are lacunae. A book concerned with photography and ethics should at the least note the work of Ariella Azoulay (The Civil Contract of Photography, 2008), Susie Linfield (The Cruel Radiance Photography and Political Violence, 2010), Wendy Kozol (Distant Wars Visible : The Ambivalence of Witnessing, 2014), and Judith Butler (Frames of War : When Is Life Grievable?, 2009). While these works do not, specifically, address the topic of the photographic essay, nonetheless they are all quite pertinent in discussions about the ethics of viewing others, and the uses of photography. They all would serve to continue the discussion of this section beyond Berger and Mohr, about “the long and increasingly didactic lesson in the photographic communication of meaning” (174).
This book is recommended for graduate or research collections, assuming that such readers would be able to fill in the blanks, and take away useful additions to discussions about the ethics of photography.