REVIEW: David Campany’s On Photographs is A Gift to All

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Close up of back of book, showing blurred black text on white

A thorough overview that ditches the textbook format. On Photographs is my pick for anyone seeking a refresher on photographic history—but who doesn’t care for unnecessary details.

If you’re anything like me, you find yourself caught in a reading dilemma these days. The Zoom fatigue is still real; you know the sharp blue light feeds your insomnia, and your fingertips crave real paper. And yet, try as you might, you just can’t make it through a whole chapter of your novel before falling asleep!

Enter On Photographs by David Campany, published in 2020. Boasting 120 images, this hardcover is a referential godsend. On the whole, it is very much a look into Campany’s own love of photography; the medium’s historical importance in modernity and its continued relevance to the Western cultural world. So, let us begin with a little on Campany himself…

Based out of London and New York, David Campany has enjoyed a decades-long career in curation and writing specifically about photography. In many respects, he has made a name for himself by pushing the boundaries of precisely which photographs are considered “worthy” of art academia’s attention.

His 2013 book, titled Gasoline, came after he assembled several images of gas stations (from 1945 to 1955). Campany had rescued these from the American newspaper archives and his presentation of these images drew attention to the art directors’ circles and scribbles; valuable information that would have been lost to digital archiving if he had not taken up this specific interest. Such an unusual curatorial gesture could be described as artful in and of itself. Then came his impeccably researched text, Walker Evans: the Magazine Work (2014), which detailed a lesser known period where Evans worked in fashion. Overtime, Campany has written about a smattering of photographic greats, including the likes of (many of whom you’ll find in the pages of this book).

You won’t find the most comprehensive index of photographic masters, no. In fact, there are even pictures by unknown photographers in this tome. But this is precisely what’s to love about this book! Rather than regurgitating all the same classics, the author draws personal favourites from all realms of photography. For Campany, advertising, photojournalism, film stills, and fashion editorials are just as culturally intriguing as fine art photographs. You’ll come for the imagery and stay for the writing.

Cover image of David Campany On Photographs.
Inside page of book. Full black and white image on the right side and two column texts on the left.

With On Photographs, Campany feeds us nuggets of wisdom about the medium itself. Each page has a bite-sized amount of insight contextualizing a singular photo on the opposite page. Magically, within these couple paragraphs, we are given important guidance into how to see the picture—how it functions as an image both then and now. These musings can be relished and then released with the turn of a page.

You can read these entries consecutively, or bounce around with a fan of the pages. After all, Campany makes the unusual choice to eschew the convention of chronology that you would find in similar encyclopedic overviews. You could read it in one sitting, or pick it up from time to time over months. It’s really up to you. (Again, I highly recommend it for bedtime reading! When you’re done, you will be sure to find it some room on your bookshelf, and return to it over decades.)

And to all my fellow artists… If, like myself, you’re wary of reading uninspired takes, please know this: Although Campany certainly writes for a very wide audience, his research is specific and his selections are peculiar enough that you will learn surprising new things. The format alone means that this book can serve as handy initial reference when researching a new project. Plus, you’ll find many quotable turns of phrase.

Will it upend your world? No. But it will most certainly leave you feeling more confident about the intricacies of the medium. You’ll be able to not only sustain your end of a conversation with your photographer friends, but actually one up them! You’ll be able to better appreciate the importance of, say, William Eggleston next time you’re in a museum. And, in the words of MIT Press, you’ll be able to condescendingly explain that, “how we think about photographs is just as important as what we think about them.”

Overall: 3.8/5

Image from inside of David's book featuring a portrait of a person's back with a photo sunburnt into their back
Photo from inside book. Page feature photo of person squirting water from their mouth.

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