Susan Bright: Art Photography Now – Book

As I was reading this book I realised that when I came to comment upon it I would comment as much on Charlotte Cotton’s book, The Photograph as Contemporary Art, that I have already written about.

Although both books are ostensibly on the same subject their approaches are very different.  Cotton strives for a comprehensive overview and arranges her subjects by theme, or concept,  whereas Bright opts for a more traditional genre based survey.  I found some of Cotton’s choices within her categories categories a little strained whereas Bright works perfectly and naturally for me.  By taking for her structure a variety of traditional genre’s that are easily recognisable and relate to many other forms of visual art she succeeds in putting contemporary practice into an historical context.  It is easier to see how contemporary artists have been influenced and affected by, even if only in rejecting, earlier approaches and artistic practices.  I feel that Cotton’s approach leaves much contemporary work floating in something of a vacuum, untethered from what has gone before, and therefore disconnected from a wider context.

Bright does not cover anything like as many artists as Cotton, who certainly scores on inclusivity.  However, by focusing on a smaller sample, and letting the artists speak for themselves, the book provides a deeper insight into, and understanding of the chosen artists’ work, where it comes from and what to means.  It also gives the opportunity to show more work by each artist.  Cotton’s approach of using just one image per artist (with only a few exceptions) does not adequately demonstrate the breadth and variety of each artist’s practice.  There are inevitably limits in any book, short of a monograph dedicated to an individual artist, particularly one that seeks to give a broad overview, but I feel that Bright is more successful than Cotton in this regard.

It also helps that the book is in a larger format and therefore the reproductions are bigger and easier to look at properly.  Some of the images in Cotton are so small as to be difficult to read in the detail they require and deserve.

Last, but by no means least, Bright writes in plain English, rarely lapsing into what I previously dubbed academic art-speak.  What a surprise!  The book is lucid, the ideas well expressed and easily understood and actually a joy to read.  Cotton felt a bit of a chore; something that has to be read because OCA have given you a copy and it is in the “Essential Reading” list.  Bright only makes it into the “Recommended” list but I got much more pleasure, useful knowledge and understanding from her book.

I do of course accept that Bright’s book is now a decade or so old (I have only been able to get hold of the 2006 paperback edition) and contemporary photography as art (a formulation that I feel more comfortable with than “photography as contemporary art”) and things have moved on, and are continuing to do so, and Cotton is invaluable in keeping us up to date.  Maybe therefore it is more constructive and useful to see the two books as complements:  Bright gives us context and historical perspective and Cotton keeps us ‘au minuit’.

Bright, S, (2006). Art Photography Now.  London:Thames & Hudson

Cotton, C. (2014). The Photograph as Contemporary Art. London: Thames & Hudson


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