Reading and Photography, Narrative and Storytelling…

I began reading books that were inappropriate for my age when I was still in junior school, probably when I was around 12 years of age. The book was called The Man Who Gave The Beatles Away and was written by their first manager Allan Williams. It documented the life of The Beatles in Hamburg and covered their lives living in a porn cinema, taking drugs and drinking too much, amongst other tales of debauchery. It was bought for me by my parents for Christmas because they knew I liked The Beatles, they did not read the book before giving it to me.

That book opened a door to a world I had no knowledge of and began my journey with reading as I sailed through the works of Salinger, Hemmingway, Waugh, Kerouac, Wolfe and many others during my teenage years. That book was a perhaps slightly unusual and unexpected key to knowledge for me.

Not to photography but to everything that photography documents. Knowledge that allowed me to explore what interested me as subject matter, and storytelling. I have never stopped reading.

It is easy today to access books cheaply and for free, through libraries, charity shops and thrift stores. Reading is accessible and yet the connection between reading and photography is fractured at the point when it is most important. At the entry point to the medium.

I recently visited a competition based group show of photography, at which the work on was strong and varied but it was obvious that three dominant themes of storytelling were being explored almost exclusively. These were geographic/geologic, social/economic and personal, primarily dealing with loss. Three narrative themes commonly explored within the novel form.

At a recent doctor’s appointment I picked up a magazine in the waiting room, it was a ‘how-to’ photography magazine, something I rarely if ever look at. The last time I looked at magazines such as this was ten years ago as editor of Professional Photographer magazine when I eschewed camera reviews, photoshop techniques, and get rich quick articles for wedding photographers. My tenure was short lived but seemed to make an impact. Ten years later and the magazine I picked up in the doctor’s was exactly the same as it would have been nearly a decade ago, in fact as it would have been in 1999, 1989, or 1979.

It showed me how to photograph Autumn, how to frame like a pro – using a grid! – how to get bright colours in photoshop and how to photograph my girlfriend/wife/female friend/model and give her perfect skin! No article attempted to explain narrative, suggested interesting themes similar to those I had seen in the group show and perhaps most importantly there was no mention of the importance of researching photographers work, reading about the medium or exploring the broader creative arts for inspiration.

Why does this matter? Because it perpetuates a false understanding of the medium, limiting it to a repetitive, narrow focused creative outlet disconnected with the reality of using photography to document how we live and what we see.

These magazines are also ‘go too’s’ for many teachers delivering photography education to pupils at high schools and colleges who are expected to teach photography alongside their art specialities. As a result those students are being given a false understanding of what photography can be and what it demands from the photographer outside of technical proficiency.

To dismiss the importance of reading, of understanding the importance of narrative, is to dismiss the foundation of photography’s communicative power.

© Grant Scott 2020

Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015). His next book New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2019.


1 comment

  1. Solid post, apropos for World Book Day today. Been an avid reader since my youth (Hardy Boys yay!) and now a frequent question to my 8, 9 and 12 year olds is “What are you reading?”

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