Good Pictures: A History of Popular Photography – Kim Beil

Good Pictures: A History of Popular Photography – Kim Beil

Beil, K. (2020) Good Pictures: A History of Popular Photography. (Illustrated edition) (s.l.): Stanford University Press.

I bought this book after reading a review in Source (Winter 2020/21). Beil shows in fifty short chapters how trends in popular photography have come and gone from the beginnings right up to the present day. This is not a history of photography as art, but instead deals with how photographic techniques have come to be embraced by amateur photographers. The book is structured chronologically, with six sections dealing with particular time periods in the development of popular photography.

As one would expect the early development of photography makes little distinction between amateur and professional photography. The cost and difficulty in taking and making photographic images in 19th century meant it was only available to a few dedicated amateurs anyway. In that sense the early sections do not differ greatly from other histories of photography. As Beil points out, a real distinction between professional and amateur photography didn’t really begin until the arrival of the Kodak box camera in 1888.

In subsequent chapters Beil discusses how the availability of photography to the general public also gave rise to books and pamphlets offering instructions on how to create ‘good’ photographs. Much of the remaining chapters show how combinations of technical development and aesthetic trends have influenced popular photography, and how particular styles and subjects have gone through stages of initial interest to overuse, and eventual dismissal as being ‘old hat’.

Beil makes good use of contemporary magazine articles and ‘how to’ books to show how the amateur photographer was encouraged to encompass particular viewpoints, subject matter and lighting to produce what were seen at the time as ‘good’ photographs. Beil also makes good use of cross-referencing to other chapters to show how these trends often went against earlier advice, especially when the earlier advice was specifically designed to overcome technical limitations at the time.

The rapid development of digital technology and the rise of social media means the final few chapters demonstrate a much faster turnover of aesthetic trends. What was seen as good technique for a short while becomes disparaged through overuse in a much shorter time than in the past. For anyone who, like me, doesn’t bother interacting too closely with social media, these last few chapters are particularly interesting. Although perhaps more of interest to anyone studying digital image and culture, there are still lessons to be learned here for any photographer, if only as a guide in what trends to avoid!

This is a highly readable book and the structure makes it easy to dip into. The cross-referencing and footnotes also make it easy to place the various chapters in historical context.      

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