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Christopher Ondaatji

The Oxford Companion to the Photograph

Edited by Robin Lenman

Oxford University Press: £40

Eighteen advisory editors, under the direction and editorship of the historian Robin Lenman, have taken four years to prepare a staggering 769 page lexicon on the entire 165 year history of photography.  It is difficult to imagine that any sophisticated critic will find anything in the world of photography that is not included in this wide-ranging reference book.  The sheer scope of its coverage is breathtaking including over 1600 entries arranged alphabetically.  There are over 800 biographical entries in the Companion which sets itself apart from other reference books in that it covers many national and regional entries seldom featured in histories and encyclopedias of photography.  Africa, Oceania, and Scandinavia are included, for example, as are Japan, China and South-East Asia.  Similarly the editor Robin Lenman explains that “another distinctive feature of the book is its strong emphasis on photography as a social practice.  Indeed, as Lenman goes on to explain, “By the year 2000 there were few households in the developed world without at least one camera, and billions of images were created around the world, not only by private individuals, but by scientists, doctors, detectives, immigration officials, and private and official agencies of all kinds.”  The mass of picture making has developed into an enormous manufacturing and research industry, and nearly every aspect of this industry receives detailed individual coverage in this book.

The conception of this magnificent Companion to the Photograph started shortly before the millennium.  By then digital photography was firmly established.  However, purists continued to resist change, claiming correctly that digital images were markedly inferior to silver-based ones.  But now, only six years later, events have changed the industry so dramatically where digital imaging has conquered nearly every branch of professional and consumer orientated photography.  Of course in a little over a century and a half photography has already experienced revolutionary changes starting with improvements to the daguerrotype and calotype processes in the 1840s, to the wet-plate process in the 1850s, the dry plates in the 1870s, the half-tone photomechanical reproduction process and the roll-film camera in the 1880s, the 35mm camera in the 1920s and the 35mm colour film in the 1940s and 1950s, followed by wave after wave of automation in the last third of the 20th century.  “Yet the speed of the digital revolution took nearly all professional commentators by surprise, and its potential scope and impact on other technologies make prophecies about future trends problematical.”  Lenman, the editor, has therefore wisely limited this book to outlining the principles of early history of digital imaging and printing, while including a more general article on the history of photographic innovation.

The photographic act has also had strong emotive and political implications - none more so than the use of the internet on pornography, the erotic, and child photography.  There is little doubt that “this last area particularly, which exercised the British photographic press in the autumn of 2004, is likely to fuel debates about civil rights, privacy, and freedom of expression for years to come.”

Then too, since the 19th century, the camera has played an increasingly controversial role in politics and conflict.  Entries on propoganda, the U.S. Civil Rights movement, “struggle photography” in South Africa, and even the horrors of the My Lai massacre and the Wehrmact atrocities are included.

Numerous technical entries also appear in the Companion ranging from “Adobe Photoshop” to “zone plate”, from “lens development” to “three dimensional photography”, and from “Fourier Optics” to “Optical transfer function”.  There are too other more obscure photographic subjects, among them: Fresson process, Gavassian optic, photoblogging, punctum, scheimpflug rule and schlieren photography.

The biographical entries have been intentionally limited to under 1000 entries, and include the “giants” Daguerre, Niépce, Talbot, Cartier-Bresson, Stieglitz etc. as well as details of living photographers like Nan Goldin, Andreas Gursky and Cindy Sherman; and also other iconic figures like the Canadian photographer and print-maker Peter Pitseolak, and the Russian colour pioneer Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii.  Other important figures appear in the larger articles and can be located in the index.

Despite the nature of this reference book, readers will find that there is much excellent writing to lure them into appreciating the book for its literary merit only.  Choosing illustrations must have been an impossible task.  The many photographic images in colour, and in black and white, are in themselves an intriguing aspect of this fine Companion.  Many of these images seem never to have been published before like Lionel de Rothschild’s 1912 portrait of his fiancée Marie-Louise Beer; Pierre Bonnard’s “Marthe in the Garden”, 1900-1901; Emma Barton’s “Old Familiar Flowers”, 1919; Daido Moriyamas “Yokosuka”, 1970; and Ian Waldie’s enigmatic photograph of Diana, Princess of Wales, surrounded by paparazzi on the day her marriage ended, 28 August 1996.  More familiar classic images such as Robert Capa’s “Falling Soldier”, (Death in Spain), 1936; Julia Margaret Cameron’s 1867 albumen print “Iago”; Henri Cartier-Bresson’s sheltered punter in “Ascot”, 1953; Man Ray’s “Noire et blanche” (Kiki with African mask), 1926; and Dorothy Lange’s 1936 “Migrant Mother” are also rightly included.

As the 21st century begins one realises that photography, far from being at a crossroads, is on the very threshold of a new era.  New products have been introduced into the market like the camera-equipped mobile phone, capable of taking pictures and sending them anywhere in the world.  Long-established cameras have now been discontinued, and there has been increasing integration of the photographic, electronic, computer and telecommunications industries.  It is almost impossible to predict the future.  All we can be certain about is change.  It is inevitable that digital imaging will increasingly dominate the global photography scene.  This invaluable Companion to the Photograph, coming as it does at a critical watershed in the medium’s history, will not only remind us of the past, but go some way in preparing us for the years ahead.

All rights reserved by The Ondaatje Foundation © 2005

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