PRINT November 1981



TWO THINGS DISTINGUISH PHOTODISCOVERY from the usual run of coffee-table compilations of photographs. First, it includes an exceptionally high percentage of little-known pictures, and second, it lacks almost any shred of thematic unity.

The book is an expanded version of a series of articles that Bruce Bernard originally prepared for the London Sunday Times magazine—where he’s the picture editor—on photographic treasures hidden away in archives and other collections. Bernard has a good eye for grabbers. Photodiscovery is chock-full of photographs that delight, puzzle, amuse and startle. Many are by such long-heralded and widely published photographers as Julia Margaret Cameron, Edward Steichen, Lewis Hine and Dorothea Lange, but Bernard has selected unfamiliar or even uncharacteristic images by these masters. And perhaps a third of the pictures in the book are by little-known or anonymous photographers, and were apparently chosen simply because Bernard liked them.

An especially noteworthy aspect of Photodiscovery is that many of its pictures come from private collectors or dealers. The market for photographs that has emerged in the past decade has brought to light many previously unknown pictures of great historical and esthetic interest, and Bernard has made good use of this new resource. Most of his selections, in fact, are perfect “collector’s photographs”—pictures that have a distinguished provenance to ensure their continuing value, but that are also in some way unusual, reflecting the taste of their individual owners. The exhibition-between-covers has long been a staple of photographic publishing; given the quirkiness of Bernard’s choices, this becomes a sort of personal collection-between-covers (although Bernard has merely borrowed, not bought, the pictures).

In a remarkably silly and anti-intellectual introduction Bernard argues against books that attempt to examine photographs in an historical or critical context, suggesting that an idiosyncratic collection like this volume is a more appropriate form in which to present photographic work. Photographs, he says, should be enjoyed as “images in their own right”—though he never makes clear just what he means by this. In place of analysis, Bernard proposes delectation. Despite his veiled polemic against historical discussion of photographs, he does sneak in information about the pictures at the end of the book, in a section of brief captions. In keeping with his attitude, Bernard’s notes include more opinion than information, expressed in such genteel pseudocritical phrases as “bold and forthright composition,” “an image of great strength and beauty,” and “a perfect picture far above the norm.”

Bernard compounds his folly by using his own taste as a measure of the medium. Noting that most of the pictures in the book include people, he reasons that, “since the proportions of subject matter here have not been determined by any principle of choice other than strength of image, it seems that the most photogenic subject must be the human being. . . . ” Whether or not you accept this conclusion, the circularity of Bernard’s logic is laughable. He proceeds, though, to list just what else is photogenic: “all structural steelwork”; “the waterfall and the torrent”; nudes, especially female, since a woman’s “body is more essentially mysterious” than a man’s; architecture and still lifes. (Landscape, on the other hand, “is not primarily photogenic.”)

Despite these annoyances, Photodiscovery does include many fascinating photographs. As Bernard himself might say: look at the pictures; skip the words.

Charles Hagen


Bruce Bernard, Photodiscovery: Masterworks of Photography 1840–1940, with notes on the photographic processes by Valerie Lloyd, (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.), 262 pages, 214 color plates.