« Art Critics' Reading List


Fred Gross is a professor of art history at the Savannah College of Art and Design, where his focus is on the art and photography of the contemporary period. He has published numerous articles and reviews in Cabinet and Afterimage, and his book Diane Arbus’s 1960s: Auguries of Experience (2012, University of Minnesota Press). Most recently, Gross published a review of the Vito Acconci retrospective at MoMA P.S.1 for the fall 2017 Journal of Italian American Studies. He is currently working on a book involving diagrammatic painting in New York in the 1980s and its connection to the emergent computer programming and video game culture.

Carol Armstrong. Scenes in a Library: Reading the Photograph in the Book, 1843-1875. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1998.

When I was a student of Carol Armstrong’s at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center, she always challenged me to look deeper at the photograph, to plumb its many fine layers of meaning and shades of critical interpretation. It is through Armstrong that I discovered the complexity of Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, perhaps the most extraordinary writing on photography of the 20th century and an important part of the structure of Armstrong’s narrative.

Scenes in a Library, in Armstrong’s words, “reinscribe[s] the 19th-century photograph in its textural surround, and if art history or the art museum have removed it from its album series or book pages, to reinsert it there.” Her method placed photography back in its original discursive context and cast a critical eye on established institutions’ constructions of history.

Geoffrey Batchen. Each Wild Idea. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2002.

I was lucky enough to have Geoffrey Batchen as my dissertation advisor, and his Each Wild Idea presented a compendium of his essays in an anthology that demonstrated his impressive range in writing about the history of photography, from daguerreotypes to digital photographs. Batchen stresses his analysis of photography as “something that is simultaneously material and cultural” and employs nuanced methodologies, from Barthes and desire to Derridean différance. Vernacular photography, often overlooked by the history of photography, is given careful analysis as a tactile, physical object with palimpsestic layers of physical and metaphorical presence. Batchen always brings me back to the simple yet koan-like ontological phrase “What is a photograph?” This apparently simple query allows for investigations into questions of production and temporal boundaries, of intention and authorship. Each Wild Idea fluctuates between close readings and nuanced analysis of the way in which photographs operate in a social context and what they can tell us about that moment.

John Tagg. The Disciplinary Frame: Photographic Truths and the Capture of Meaning. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.

John Tagg’s The Disciplinary Frame is a noteworthy collection of essays that continue his Foucault-inspired meditation on the connection of documentary photography and its history to ideology and power. Building on his seminal The Burden of Representation, Tagg’s eloquent essays cover a remarkable range of subjects, shifting from Bertillon to Baldessari. Tagg examines the trope of the frame as a mechanism to reveal the discursive spaces and political economies of documentary photography. I like that, with Tagg, poststructuralist theory is applied in correct dosages, adding deeper layers of meaning. I am compelled by critical perspectives such as Tagg’s which reexamine the connection between photographs and their histories, exposing flaws, contradictions and repressions which have become a naturalized part of that image history. As a writer, I am compelled by deep connections between the photograph and the literary imagination as an integral part of a social moment. Coming of age in the 1980s, I feel a continued affinity with the art and social politics of New York during that era.