Open Aperture: The Evolution of Photography in an Abstract World
“this book is an excellent companion to a survey of photography course, or as an introduction to the evolution of modern visions in photography.”
“How one remembers the past affects how one sees the present . . .” Naomi Rosenblum noted in her important work, A History of Women Photographers. Understanding the history of an art, in this case photography, is significant not only as a telling of what has been and a way of interpreting the present with a long view, but of looking forward to what it can be, stimulating creativity and the art of the future.
“All art comes out of a background of convention established by one’s predecessors. Every serious artist borrows not only from those conventions but from the particular insights of individuals he admires,” contemporary photographer Robert Adams asserted in his 1996 Aperture book, Beauty in Photography. In this spirit, photography as an art form deserves understanding and study.
In less than two centuries photography has gone from a an experimental mechanical method for permanently fixing an image to the most widely available art form. As a product of the industrial and technological advances of the last couple centuries, photography’s evolution parallels the world’s cultural advances in ways that can be traced as never before for an art modality. The “newness” of photography, coming of age during the Industrial Revolution in a time of recorded history and international communications, like a new born, calls out for scrutiny and documentation.
Unsurprisingly, we have witnessed a burgeoning of books on the history of photography as well as visual biographies of the various photographers and their subject matter, beginning with 1937 Newhall’s classic work, The History of Photography from 1839 to the Present Day and continuing to present times with Amazon listing over 50 survey titles currently available.
Within this growing interpretation of photography’s history comes Paul Matte’s new book, Open Aperture: The Evolution of Photography in an Abstract World. Noting that photography is going through major transformations, Matte states, “Photography as an art is primarily about vision and creativity. . . . In this era, photographers have an opportunity to become the avant-garde, someone who creates something that hasn’t yet been done.”
As someone who has been teaching photography for 33 years, Matte presents his belief that the way to be successful at developing this vision and creativity is to be aware of past and present environments. The purpose of his book, he states, is “to teach artistic vision” using art photographers, their photographic concepts, and ground-breaking avant-garde photographic visions or images.
Matte presents his chosen photographers by style, rather than chronology or technological advances. His approach is a unique way to teach the art history of photography, not as documentation of the medium’s evolution but as an expressive and illustrative instrument for artistic style and vision.
Each chapter presents photographers within the context of a style or genre, beginning with a brief history of the genre, followed by photographers that contributed in a unique way to that genre, brief biographies of the photographer, and representational and often seminal images that he/she contributed.
The choice of genres follows those in other history of photography books relatively closely, although abbreviated. The biographies of the photographers are brief, focusing on the significant contribution Matte is underlining. Images presented to illustrate the photographer’s work are iconic and typical of that artist as seen in other photography survey books. Throughout the book a fair number of women are represented, especially contemporary women photographers. In terms of pure image count, the majority are male photographers, a not uncommon issue in photography surveys.
Matte’s text is casual and informative. Open Aperture is not encumbered by an attempt to document all images or photographers and so is easy to access and stay engaged in long beyond the usual read time for a history of art book.
Although not a thick or large book, the volume is able to illuminate many of the significant images in photography’s history, especially within the mid-20th century to the present. The inclusion of contemporary artists still working make the book extremely relevant to current students of photography.
However, as Matte attempts to illustrate to his reader the importance of vision and creativity by being brief in his coverage of other issues significant to the evolution of photography, such as technology and cultural changes, he sacrifices the depth of understanding which is possible in covering the development of an art form that is so recent. His omission in some instances when he only mentions rather than show an image within a genre is also a sacrifice to brevity.
As such, this book is an excellent companion to a survey of photography course, or as an introduction to the evolution of modern visions in photography. Matte’s hope that the reader “will start challenging preconceived photographic concepts”can be realized by students who spend time considering the photographers and the particular images presented within this unique history of photography.