Review: photography theory introductions – Geimer vs. Stiegler

Title: Theorien der Fotografie zur Einführung [photography theories: an introduction]
Language: German
Author: Peter Geimer
Year: 2009
Publisher: Junius
Pages: 229
Price: €14.90 (D)
Author website:
ISBN: 978-3-15-018708-1
Title: Texte zur Theorie der Fotografie [texts on photography theory]
Language: German (parts translated from English or French)
Editor: Bernd Stiegler
Year: 2010
Publisher: Reclam
Pages: 376
Price: €11.00 (D)
ISBN: 978-3-88506-666-8

[Note: this isn’t connected to my PhD thesis research at all. It’s part of another research project, which I’ll post more about by and by.]

Relatively recently, two books came out which are likely to be of interest to many an art historian who wants to start working on photography. Both are appealing in their small size and price, with Bernd Stiegler’s volume having the additional advantage of the familiar Reclam cover design that signals ‘bargain’. Both cover roughly the same theoretical positions, from William Henry Fox Talbot’s Pencil of Nature (1844) to Peter Lunenfeld’s Digital Photography (2000). Their approaches, however, are quite different.

The Reclam book is an anthology of 26 key texts. They are arranged in 6 thematical chapters (e.g. “photography and indexicality”, “photography and art”) within which they are ordered by their original publication date. Apart from Bernd Stiegler’s introductions to each chapter and a general foreword, he lets the texts speak for themselves. I’m fine with that approach per se.

Unfortunately, what we get to read in this book are not the texts themselves. First of all, the majority of these essays are translated into German from English or French. Most of the texts were abridged, and two of them even “cautiously modernized”. Furthermore, Stiegler doesn’t even reference the original sources. Instead, he cites the translated editions from which the German texts were taken. Clearly, the way in which these texts are presented, they don’t have much to do with the original sources, and thus the scholarly value of Stiegler’s book is disappointing (though surely, scholars and students must be the intended audience?).

In contrast, Peter Geimer only quotes short excerpts from the (translated) theoretical source texts, and otherwise discusses them in his own words. Thus he is able to cover more authors and their theories in less pages than Stiegler. Instead of focussing on people or single texts, Geimer arranges his material in thematic chapters, so one author can be featured several times in his book. The connections Geimer draws between different theories, his comparisons and his own criticism of them are really helpful – if you’re willing to trust the view of one single author.

The point where Geimer’s book fails is, again, the bibliography: for reasons that are beyond me, he mostly references German editions translated from French or English. This not only makes it more difficult for the reader to track down the original texts, it also devalues the strength of Geimer’s arguments when he uses second-hand wordings to substantiate them.

I guess both Stiegler and Geimer succeed at what they presumably intended: introducing the reader to the most important theories of photography. Either book may serve as a starting point to in-depth explorations of the original texts. If there’s only one book you want to read to get a taste of photography theory and leave it at that, I’d recommend Geimer’s over Stiegler’s.

Rating for both books: ● ● ● ○ ○

One Comment on “Review: photography theory introductions – Geimer vs. Stiegler”

  1. […] about comics. But my previous blog posts about Michael Fried from February last year and photography theory from January last year are connected to it (and of course my conference paper on “presence in […]

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