What, one wonders, impels a publisher to risk a new photography book in a market surefeited with similar studies? And why choose to publish a photographer's words instead of her photographs?
These questions continued to nag as I read Gisele Freund's "Photography and Society." The answer to the first two, I suspect, is Gisele Freund herself. While perhaps best known for her portraits of cultural luminaries like Colette, Virginia Woolf, Matisse, and James Joyce, Freund is above all a first-rate documentarian. "Photography and Society" discloses the philosophical side of that interest.
Freund's subject is the intricate relation between photography and the society that shapes and is shaped by it. Spanning the medium's history from its public debut in 1839 to the present, the study chronicles how shifts in society have indelibly influenced tastes, techniques, and traditional roles in photography itself.
The first half of her narrative is a serviceable, if statis, rendering of photography's earliest origins. Paraded before us are the medium's earliest practitioners: Niepce, Daguerre, Nadar, Le Gray; the technical and artistic advances they initiated; and, inevitably, the conflict photographers faced between artistic integrity and commercial gain.
"Taste is not an inexplicable whim," Freund notes in her introductory essay. The sudden interest in portrait photography, for example, its mass-scaled-market by the 1850s, paralleled the rise of a bourgeois class that wanted to document its newly acquired wealth. Taste, in turn, inspired technical change. Bourgeois "insistence of a 'pleasant,' pettified self-image" led to the practice of retouching. The uses and abuses of photography, how much practices alter our own perceptions of the world around us, is the focus of the rest of the book. While citing the undeniable debt 19th-century artists like Delacroix and Degas owed photography, Freund concentrates on the 20th-century corruption of artistic standards by photographers whose work fuels propaganda purposes.
Counterpointing the medium's potential with its often grim actualities, Freund explores the manipulative uses of photography under Hitler and Mussolini; its easy exploitation by an increasingly sensationalist press; its dubious alliance with commercial advertising. Freund is quick to concede the positive impact photography has had in social amelioration -- the documentary photos by Riis, Hine, and Evans the quickened a national conscience. But her concern is reserved for those who somehow falsify our images and therefore our imprssion of the world we live in.
However cogent this argument, none of it is new. Nor, for that matter, does it offer the kind of intense originality of insight we find in Susan Sontag's seminal work, "On Photography." Rather, "Photography and Society" is a safe survey of photography, its potentials and its practices.
This inevitably raises my last question. Why has Freund chosen to do what so many less talented people can and have done already? It simply isn't enough to say that her book, available in other languages, at last has an English edition. While beautifully designed and packaged by David R. Godine, this present study leaves you with the lament that there will always be enouth of Freund's words but never enough of her photographs -- so sadly absent here.