Oxford School of Photography

insights into photography

Photography theory: a bluffer’s guide

In The Telegraph,

Bewildered by Berger? Stumped by Sontag? We read the essential photography theory so you don’t have to. 

I must say this line sounds familiar to a line I say when teaching understanding your digital slr courses, “I’ve read the manuals so you don’t have to”

So here is a list of books you probably should have read if you are really interested in photography but somehow they slipped your mind, the first is about the decisive moment



The Decisive Moment by Henri Cartier-Bresson (1952), digested by Rachel Segal Hamilton
What’s it about?
“The decisive moment”, an idea that has defined street photography and photojournalism as we know it, was first outlined in the preface to a book of photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson. The essay starts with Cartier-Bresson charting his life so far as a photographer – from messing around with a Box Brownie as a child to co-founding Magnum Photos – before talking through his approach to photography.
According to Cartier-Bresson, there is an almost magical split-second in which events in the world – interactions between people, movement, light and form – combine in perfect visual harmony. Once it passes, it is gone forever. To capture such moments as a photographer you must be inconspicuous, nimble and attentive; working on instinct; responding to reality and never trying to manipulate it.
Composition cannot be planned, nor can it be added in afterwards. Cropping will invariably make a good shot worse and is unlikely to make a bad shot better. Camera settings shouldn’t be something the photographer even thinks about – taking a photograph should be like changing gears in a car.
In his own words:
“We photographers deal in things that are constantly vanishing, and when they have vanished, there is no contrivance on earth which can bring them back again.”
“Composition must be one of our constant preoccupations, but at the moment of shooting it can stem only from our intuition, for we are out to capture the fugitive moment, and all the interrelationships involved are on the move.”
“To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organisation of forms which give that event its proper expression.”
How to sound as if you’ve read it:
Be ready and reactive. Don’t get hung up on kit and, most importantly, keep it real.

Other included works given the treatment are

Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography by Roland Barthes

The Ongoing Moment by Geoff Dye

On Photography by Susan Sontag

The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction by Walter Benjamin

Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag

Read all these useful cheat sheets here


Camera Sculpture by Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs Photo: Courtesy the artists, RaebervonStenglin, Zurich and Peter Lav, Copenhagen

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