Book Review: A History of Photography in 50 Cameras

A History of Photography in 50 Cameras by Michael Pritchard, Bloomsbury Press (UK) or Firefly (USA)

When it comes to photography books I'm very picky. Though I am partial to the occasional "pure" photobook - the Nat Geo ones are usually a reliable favourite - when it comes to other books I'm rarely tempted to splash  out and even when I do, frequently disappointed with the results. The latter is especially true when it comes to "teach yourself" or reference books and as well written as some of them often are, I don't find reading a book is the best way to learn a technique. I like getting out there to try it myself. The History of Photography in 50 Cameras caught my eye, not least because it wasn't your "normal" type of photography book and it also covered a subject I have always had a wistful yearning to know more about.

The author, Dr Michael Pritchard certainly has the credentials to talk authoritatively about the subject! Not only is he a dedicated photography researcher and historian but he is also the Director-General of the Royal Photographic Society and achieved his fellowship for his extensive work documenting photographic history. So it's fair to say he knows what he's talking about and his writing takes an erstwhile sober topic and delivers it in a fresh & imaginative way.

The book itself weaves together a tapestry of history of cameras, photographers and the world as it was when they were used. On the surface it might sound like a pretty dry subject and the rusty old cameras that make up the majority of the book would reinforce that opinion for the casual browser. Dig deeper though and it doesn't take long at all to realise the book is far from a dusty reference time you'd find at the back of a library shelf. If I'm honest, it's a bit of a shame the audience is likely going to be limited to those serious about their photography but for those of us who count themselves as that kind of person, the book is catnip.

Image from wikipedia

Image from wikipedia

Beginning with the very first photographic exposure, the View from the Window at Le Gras, the book introduces us to each of the fifty cameras in turn. Where the book shines for me is that Pritchard avoids the narrative simply becoming a succession of technological development and focuses instead of telling the story of the cameras in a relatable, engaging fashion. His passion shines through.  The life and times from each era, iconic images, the shooters and the subjects; all of these set each camera into its place in history. Some of the cameras are household names, some I recognised as a photo nerd but the majority were unknown to me. A couple of examples still stand out to me, such as the camera designed to look like a revolver, a plethora of spy cameras and one that looked like a stack of books. In fact, this latter was particularly inspiring and I've already wondered if I could hollow out an old book, fit my X100S inside and get better street photography results!

It has also proven to be a good pub banter starter - what cameras were missing? Should a smartphone really have been included as the 50th camera? Why weren't there more Leicas? Two Canon cameras but only one Nikon? The book itself does a commendable job of not rattling off what Dr Pritchard necessarily considers the best camera but that doesn't stop we the reader wondering what we might have included ourselves. If the book has one fault its that it has proven to me that the bane of the photographer - Gear Acquisition Syndrome - does not stop with the latest digital kit. Many times after reading about a particular camera I'd be straight onto eBay looking for one. Damn you Pritchard, damn you for making me think I'm a collector! 

The Scovill Book Camera.

The Scovill Book Camera.

With such a wealth of history to digest it's not really a book you sit down and read in one go - reading the history of a couple of different cameras at a time and coming back a day or two later kept the history lesson fresh and maintained my interest. As a commuter it was a great companion, especially when blighted by the need to use the British railway network, and it's compact enough to throw into a bag and dip into on long journeys. 

When most of the photography books you see are either glorified photobooks or "how to be a better photographer in 10 minutes" it's refreshing to see something that sits in it's own niche. It's for this reason I can definitely recommend it to any photographer who has even a passing interest in the history of photography & cameras. 

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