Ten ‘Photography’ Books All Photographers Should Read.

 (sanjay austa austa)

”For most gulls it was not flying that matters, but eating. For this gull, though, it was not eating that mattered, but fligh’t: Jonathan Livingstone Seagull: Richard Bach

Over the past few years I have been talking on photography at some photography and journalism institutes (one of them where  I failed to get admission as a student).  Among the many questions hurled at me,  there is a persistent one. ‘’What  photography books  should we read? ‘’.  This  leaves me completely stumped.

I am barely aware of any photographer’s books myself,  except for the works of the famous lot.  You have to be living under a rock if you are not familiar with Raghu Rai’s books. They find pride of place in the lobby of every self-respecting hotel and corporate office. I have seen   Steve McCurry‘s photos too, because there is no escaping the soulful gaze of Sharbat Gula no matter what magazine you pick up.

Researching on how to negotiate street photography in New York post 9/11 on my maiden visit to America in the summer of 2012,  I stumbled upon Bruce Gilden.  But after watching this video of him taking photos in Brooklyn, I quickly abandoned him but not before I savored his amazing pictures. Then there is Raghubir Singh. I got acquainted with him in my avatar as a journalist when after his death I interviewed Raghu Rai about Raghubir’s work .

Prabuddha Dasgupta is another photographer whose work I have begun to study closely only recently after his death.  (I also realize many students know a lot more  of  his work than just his nudes as I had imagined.)

 (sanjay austa austa)

I have browsed  works of Henri Cartier Bresson, Edward Weston and few other Magnum members  but not really ‘followed’ anyone with any sense of sincerity.  I don’t have any book of any photographer in my house either- except Dayanita Singh’s wonderful  Myself Mona Ahmed . No I did not buy the book- it was given to me by  Ahmed when I interviewed her ages ago.

This is obviously a big failing not just because it may be preventing me from discovering aspects of photography that I haven’t  explored but more importantly because it makes me look dumb in drawing room conversations with colleagues who always seem armed to their teeth with names of photographers around the world.

While I promise to work on this shortcoming, I must insist that reading photography books alone should never be enough for photographers. The list of 10 books below may not be about photography  but I think they are relevant to photography in more ways than one.

Its important to talk about them for many reasons. Primarily because no photography institute  talk about them. They  recommend photography books alone. Just as medical schools recommend  only medical books or psychology schools list Freud ,  Jung or  Adler as essential reading . And architecture colleges  will advocate works of Louis Sullivan, Frank Genry or Le Corbusier.

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

I believe in their pursuit to specialize, all professions only become more  parochial. In our world we respect the specialists but the specialists   are  often  navel-gazers. Knowledgeable in their field yes but one-dimensional and therefore shallow as a whole.   If becoming an ‘expert’ requires narrowing our vision, it bears asking if its worth it after all.

Photography is no different. Rather this argument is more pertinent in the case of photography- a profession that claims to give us a sense of the world we inhabit.

Therefore a good   photographer  has a certain sensibility towards  the world around him. Before he  loads himself with the   ‘equipment’  and tempers  his  vocabulary   with photography jargons , he  develops a simple awareness about  the world he inhabits.   He is   aware of the culture and history of a place before he  begin to ‘capture’ it. Or he knows something about human psychology before he  gets into the megapixel game.

It can be argued that good photos can be taken without knowing any of the above. And this  cannot be denied, because good  photos have been taken that way. But then one can also avoid stupid gaffe like the one made several years ago by Vogue magazine when poor village folk who lived on less than a dollar  a day were photographed with $200  Burberry umbrella and  $10,000  Hermes Birkin handbags.  It was not just a lack of taste and sensitivity but also a case of absolute ignorance about a country and its people.

The same magazine in its French  edition made 10 year old model Thylane Blondeau pose as an sexy adult thing for one of their shoots. Perfecting Ansel Adam’s  zone system  can hardly give  you  common sense.

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

Suggested Books: 


1. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirig: There are usually two types of photographers. The technician and the artist.  Both respond to the left and right brain depending on how they are  inclined. Photography is perhaps the only profession where the use of both sides of the brain is equally important. What the scientists call the ‘left brain’ and  ‘right brain’ Pirig calls it the ‘classical’ mind and the ‘romantic’ mind. Using the parable of his bike journey with his son from Minnesota to California he argues the importance of walking right down the middle and using both the ‘minds’ equally.

2. A History of Ancient India Vol 1. by Romila Thapar:  There is no running  away from history if you are in the business of documenting a country and its people. And what’s better than starting right at the beginning of it all. Thapar  a master historian writes about India starting from  Mohenjadaro and Harrapan civilization down to the coming in of the Europeans. She has been at the crosshairs of the loony Right for debunking some of our glorified Mythologies. She called the great Mahabararaba a ‘village feud’ between some villages and has been reviled for suggesting that ancient Indians ate beef.

3. Indian After Gandhi by Ramachandra  Guha– To my knowledge this is the best book on modern Indian history. In it you will learn how the Muslims of Junagarh (In present day Gujrat)  fought to stay back in India  during the Partition. ( And we know  how Narendra Modi’s Gujarat paid them for this in 2002). The book is filled with  interesting nuggets  like how during the Partition of India, the then Jodhpur Maharaja wanted to join Pakistan. He had to be prevailed upon by this nobles,  village elders and the ruler of Jaisalmer to do a rethink. But when he had to sign the Instrument of Accession in the Viceroy’s office, he  threw a regal tantrum. He is said to have held a revolver to the secretary’s head saying ‘I will not accept your dictation’. But after this display of royal bluster he signed on the dotted line.

4. India – A Million Mutinies Now by V. S. Naipaul.  Naipaul’s writings on  on India have been caustic to say the least, so when he published this  third book on India more than 20 years ago, everyone was up in arms.  ‘’What Mutinies? ‘’ they wailed. But today the book reads like an accurate prognosis of our times.  From Kashmir in the North to the North East States and to the Maoist bastions across much of middle India, there are more mutinies in India today than ever before. I would recommend Naipaul’s previous two books on India too ( India- An Area of Darkness and IndiaA Wounded Civilization). Unfortunately India’s belligerent  Left, rejects everything Naipaul writes  on the basis of the Rightest leanings he displayed in A Wounded Civilization. 

5. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie: This book is banned in many countries this side of the Atlantic.  And like most banned books its brilliant. Its great not because of its literary merit but because it teaches us to question.  The Verses questions the whole idea of Revelations. Therefore it’s a critique not only of Islam but all the Semitic religions. Religion has from time to time been questioned by writers but unfortunately photographers are happy to meekly ‘document’ it. Let alone question, photographers are usually sentimental endorsers of religious beliefs. The Satanic Verses teaches us to push that envelope of thought and have the courage to admit  that religion is also some sort of bizarre nonsense.

6. Shakespeare’s Plays:  It would seem really odd not to mention  the Bard  in any listing  of books.  His understanding and depiction of human nature remains unparalleled .  I would say one play each from his tradegies, histories and comedies should be essential reading. I list my favourite here.  a) Julius Caesar (Histories). b) King Lear  (Tragedies) c) Tempest (Comedies). 

7.  Listening to Grasshoppers by Arundhati Roy:  If you live in India you would have learnt to hate Arundhati Roy.  Leading the charge is the Indian media and for  obvious reasons. Roy has raked up issues that the Indian media had conveniently ignored and by raising  a stink, has forced it to talk about them. For instance the Kashmir issue. The India media has by and large been the spokesperson of the Indian government. But Roy not the one to  mince  words  called it an armed suppression of a people by India. She has forced the media to read beyond the official handouts and talk about the brutality of the armed forces in the state and focus on the deaths of thousands of innocent Kashmiris over the decades.

8. Jonathan Livingstone Seagull by Richard Bach. The book is about the courage to stand apart from the herd and go down that  untrodden road despite ridicule and handicaps. All artists begin by mimicking the greats. Only a few are able to find their own voice. This is primarily because they don’t want to leave the comfort of the crowd. This book demonstrates the importance of thinking different through the maverick seagull Jonathan who, unlike others gulls, loved to fly.

9.  Animal Farm by George Orwell: The book is a political allegory and a satire on the Russian Revolution but I think if there is any book that is relevant to the social landscape in India today is it the Animal Farm. The kernel argument of the book that  more things change more they remain the same, needs to be revisited in the wake of the Anna Hazare Movement. How do we know that those who promise to  deliver us from the ills of the world would not become the same  once in power?

10. The Prophet: Khalil Gibran :  Gibran was not an enlightened master but The Prophet  had flashes of insights that a Buddha would have been proud of.  I’ll  leave you with a quote from the book. ‘Your joy is your sorrow unmasked…

The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain…

I say unto you, they are inseparable.

Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed’’.


 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

6 Responses to “Ten ‘Photography’ Books All Photographers Should Read.”

  1. Manjunath Shenoy says:

    What an enlightened approach to photography Sanjay Austa. You are right in saying that photography is so much more than recording images on silver bromide or a CCD. It IS putting across your take on the world answer and making a stand on a topic

  2. Anoop Negi says:

    Well if you do photography for getting heady acceptance at Delhi parties, than you have a valid point. If one really wants to attain something unique and different than it has to be your own visual approach to your art. You may make a mess of it but given a bit of time, I guess everyone finds a style and approach that is unique to the individual.

    I am reminded of a conversation I had with a great connoisseur of art and his name bears the same name as the famous art gallery in Kala Ghoda. He asked me the same question as to whose work in photography did I admire or was influenced by. I guess my reply was similar in cadence but my only point was that I was happy not being influenced or follow the approach and style of Mr X or Mr Y or Mr Z howsoever humbly fashionable it may be in societal terms.

    That said, yes we are all creatures of this society and we have to stay and struggle in it. What one can learn, from others, one must.

    Nice choice of books. Never too late to start ;-)))

    That choice of Arundahti Roy is the only odd one, purely on merit of course.

  3. Prateek Ahuja says:

    Thanks for sharing Sanjay. However, I have read the following and believe they are amongst the best you’ll come across the subject of Photography per say – Ways of seeing by John Berger and On Photography by Susan Sontag. Must read for anyone who is interested in this or any other form of art. Speaks volumes

Leave a Reply