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Skira History of Photography

Skira Four Volume History of Photography 

Edited by Walter Guadagnini 

Skira’s four volume history of photography takes an unusual but rewarding approach. Recognizing that it is impossible, even in four volumes, to provide a comprehensive history of photography, publishing house Skira has instead chosen to dig deeply into key movements in the history of photography, from 1839 until 2013.

While most photography histories tend to sample as many photographers as possible, under Guadagnini’s editorship, each volume instead looks in depth of key themes of each era.

The four volumes cover, The Origins 1839-1890; A New Vision of the World 1891-1940; From the Press to the Museum 1941-1980 and The Contemporary Era 1981-2013. Each volume follows the same basic format which consists of five parts – Monographs, Essays, Glossary, Synoptic tables, and Bibliography.

Multiple “monographs” are included in each volume. These highlight the work of either individual photographers or movements by highlighting books and exhibitions from the era. The monographs not only reproduce photographs but include brief essays that focus on the photographers, publications, or exhibitions. All the texts for the monographs are the work of a single author, Francesco Zanot. Zanot is a critic, curator and a director of the Forma and Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti master’s course in photography and visual design and his commentary provides important critical consistency to the four books.  

The essays, written by a variety of critics and scholars, explore in depth either some of the subjects discussed in the monographs or primary themes of the historical period that each volume covers. The different voices of the various authors provide a broad range of perspectives and expertise.

Because photography is a technological art, the glossaries provide readers with important background and information about the technologies that characterize each historic period. While most photographers are likely to have some basic knowledge about past and present technology, the glossaries help to fill gaps in one’s knowledge. In addition, they are interesting time capsules of the evolution of technology that is inseparable from the evolution of photography.

The timelines or synoptic tables place photography within the context of artistic, cultural, historical, and social events. While in many cases, these events seem divorced from the history of photography, they are nonetheless a useful tool for placing photographs and photographers in the milieu of their times.

Finally, the bibliographies offer a great resource for anyone wishing to know more about trends or photographers.

The four volumes place a greater emphasis on an in-depth examination of topics instead of the more conventional approach that favors a comprehensive overview of photography or chronological accounts of individual photographers and their best-known works.

The books also should be given high marks for not simply focusing on the best-known photographers of each era, but also for a more inclusive and eclectic approach that exposes readers to important and influential photographers who do not always receive their due from other histories.

Despite the expansive nature of the series (each volume runs close to 300 pages), the history only underscores how much territory photography has covered in less than 200 years. This should not be one’s first or sole photography history. Although it could serve that purpose, it is better paired with a more conventional history such as Naomi Rosenblum’s A World History of Photography or with volumes that focus more narrowly on specific eras or topics.

It is also an excellent springboard for identifying key publications and exhibitions in the history of photography that one can explore in more depth. For example, the monograph on “New Documents,” which was a groundbreaking 1967 exhibition featuring Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand, led me to discover a new Musuem of Modern Art 50th anniversary edition that not only reproduced photographs from the exhibition, but also adds current commentary, reviews from 1967 and other archival materials.

Finally, the importance of quality reproductions cannot be overemphasized when discussing any photography book and as with every publication from Skira, the quality is excellent.

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