21A.348 | Spring 2008 | Undergraduate

Photography and Truth


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 1 session / week, 3 hours / session

Course Description

Still photography, a practice and form of expression that has worked its way into every facet of social life and every culture in the world, is considered here from the perspectives of history and social science. We will discuss the uses and functions of pictures; how they are to be understood and interpreted; whether they have clear-cut content and meanings; how they shape and are shaped by politics, economics, and social life.

Topics covered include photographs of the human face; spirit photography and deception; everyday vernacular photography (snapshots, postcards, scrapbooks, studios, itinerant photographers), both in our own society and elsewhere; imperial and colonial photography of non-western peoples; photography in anthropology; gender in advertising photography; political uses of photography in documentation and propaganda, particularly in the Great Depression of the 1930s.

A good deal of time, both in class and in “reading” assignments, will be devoted to examining and interpreting photographs. We will also see a number of videos concerned with still photography.

Books, Articles, and Photographs

The following three books are available for purchase and on library reserve.

Edwards, Steve. Photography: A Very Short Introduction. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2006. ISBN: 9780192801647.

Wright, Richard. 12 Million Black Voices. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2002. ISBN: 9781560254461.

Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York, NY: Picador, 2004. ISBN: 9780312422196.

Other reading assignments can be found in the readings section.

For most weeks, “reading” assignments will include images to examine. Viewing assignments will be made week by week. For some, you may be directed to one or two other Web sites. See the photos page for more information.

As supplementary sources for writing assignments (and just for browsing), the following three excellent volumes are on library reserve for this subject. All three are interesting, readable, and jargon-free. Most of the articles are brief and, in the Frizot and Marien volumes, profusely illustrated.

Lenman, Robin. The Oxford Companion to the Photograph. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN: 9780198662716.

Frizot, Michel. A New History of Photography. Köln, Germany: Könemann, 1998. ISBN: 9783829013284.

Marien, Mary Warner. Photography: A Cultural History. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006. ISBN: 9780132219068.

The MIT Library has a huge collection of books of photographs and books about photography.

Writing and Class Assignments

What matters most is staying up with reading and viewing assignments and participating actively in class. Several papers will be due during the semester, with details available on the assignments page.

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2008