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Reference Books
CREDIT: Mark A Phillips FRPS

A list of books recommended or suggested by members as useful for photographic ideas or for undertaking documentary or long-term photography projects. (Listed in alphabetical order by author/editor)

Feel free to let us know of other useful and quality books on the practice of documentary photography, so we can add to this guide.



Cotton Tenants: Three Families; James Agee and Walker Evans (Melville House, 2014) 

In "Doing Documentary Work," Robert Coles waxes eloquent about James Agee's classic, "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men." The only problem is, "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" is virtually unreadable. Agee, accompanied by photographer Walker Evans, went to Alabama to write for Fortune Magazine about the plight of tenant cotton farmers. For one reason or another, Fortune never published Agee's article, and eventually the reporting resulted in LUNPFM. But recently, the manuscript he submitted to Fortune was found in the basement of a house Agee occupied, and it was published as "Cotton Tenants," which was readable, and worth the wait.


Another way of Telling; John Berger and Jean Mohr (Bloomsbury, 2016)

A new edition of the book first published in 1982, and attempting the develop a 'theory of photography', It is an eloquent account of photography in which Berger and Mohr set out to understand the fundamental nature of photography and how it makes its impact. Asking a range of questions – What is a photograph? What do photographs mean? How can they be used? – they give their answers in terms of a photograph as 'a meeting place where the interests of the photographer, the photographed, the viewer and those who are using the photography are often contradictory'.


Documentary Photography Reconsidered; Michelle Bogre (Bloomsbury, 2019)

Documentary Photography Reconsidered is structured around key concepts, such as the photograph as witness, as evidence, as memory, as narrative and as a vehicle for activism and social change. Chapters include in-depth inter- views with some of the world’s leading contemporary practitioners, demonstrating the wide variety of different working styles, techniques and topics available to new photographers entering the field. There is an accompanying website with in-depth video interviews.


Art as Therapy; Alain de Botton and John Armstrong, (Phaidon, 2013)

A conclusion, for the documentarist, ‘Art peels away our shell and saves us from our spoilt, habitual regard for all that is around us. We recover our sensitivity; we look at the old in new ways. We are prevented from assuming that novelty and glamour are the only solutions.’

This may not look like a book on documentary photography – nor photography at all -  but it has many foundation ideas highly relevant to any creative project. The book, ‘proposes that art .. is a theraputic medium that can help guide, exhort and console its viewer, enabling them to become better versions of themselves.’ It helps answer what art (widely defined to include photography, architecture and design as well as painting and sculpture) is for. Headings (for the functions of art) include remembering, self-understanding, rebalancing, sorrow, growth, hope, and appreciation.


Recorded Reality - Early Documentary Photography; Gail Buckland (David & Charles, 1974)

Presents documentary photographs taken with calotype and wetplate cameras up to the advent of the dry plate, around 1884: covers the barricades in Paris in 1848 and 1871; corpses on the fields of Lucknow after the Indian Mutiny of 1858; the opening of London’s first underground railway, 1862; a slave pen in Alexandria, Virginia, 1865; a British mental hospital patient, 1852; the bound feet of Chinese ladies, 1870. Pictures by the great photographers of England, France, and America are included - Fenton and Talbot, Bayard and Marville, Gardner, Brady and O’Sullivan and others.


‘The Likes of Us : America in the Eyes of the Farm Security Administration’, Stu Cohen (ed), 2009

An overview of the FSA and an extensive selection of images from FSA photographers – some less well known - Ben Shahn, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Sheldon Dick, Marion Post Wolcott, Russell Lee, Carl Mydans. 


Doing Documentary Work; Robert Coles (OUP, 1997)

A seminal work on undertaking documentary projects, but not just aimed at the photographer. For Coles, documentary work raises methodological, psychological or personal, and moral issues—primarily because he defines documentary work as research into the lives of people who are different from oneself—different in terms of class position, race, or origin. Coles sets out to explore a number of questions about documentary work—about telling stories, in a variety of media, about the lives of other people.


Storytelling for Photojournalists; Enzo Dal Verme (Amherst Media, 2016)

A book designed to help professional photographers and inspire photography novices who want to learn how to get the most out of a trip. It covers what it takes to shoot reportage—photojournalistic images—from developing an idea, to making travel plans, to gathering the requisite information about the subject/scene and locale, to packing the appro- priate gear and nailing the technical aspects of the shoot.

See / Saw, Geoff Dyer (Canongate 2021)

Sub-titled, Looking a Photographs.  A collection of essays on photography from 2010 to 2020


Great Photographic Essays from Life, Ed. Maitland Edey (1978)

Examples of some of the classics photo essays from Life magazine, including Bourke-White, Abbott, McCombie, Eugene Smith, Eisenstaedt and Dorothea Lange. A useful reference to see the development and construction of photo essays.  


On Composition and Improvisation; Larry Fink (Aperture, 2014)

A collection of images from the idiosyncratic American photographers published work, the best known of which is 'Social Graces' (1984) - images from  two settings – the upper crust socialites at prestigious events in Manhattan and the working-class rural community in Pennsylvania. The New York Times reviewer wrote that the photos explored social class by comparing ‘two radically divergent worlds while accomplishing one of the things that straight photography does best: providing excruciatingly intimate glimpses of real people and their all-too-fallibly-human lives.’  Other books include ‘Boxing’ (1997); ‘Runway’ (1999), a behind the scenes look at the world of fashion and couture; ‘The Vanities’ (2011)– Vanity Fair parties 2000-2009; ‘The Beats’ (2014) photographs taken in 1958 by the eighteen-year-old Fink, of members of the ‘Beatnik’ Community as they travelled from Greenwich Village to Mexico and Houston; ‘Somewhere There’s Music’ (2006) collects Fink’s mostly unpublished black-and-white jazz photographs from the 1950s to the late 1970s; ‘Kindred Spirits (2014), photographs of the Horvath family and farm. 


The Documentary Impulse; Stuart Franklin (Phaidon, 2016)

Franklin explores why we are driven to visually document our experiences and the world around us. He focuses on photography but traces this universal need through art, literature and science. Looking at photojournalism, war

photography and work recording our culture, Franklin identifies some of its driving impulses: curiosity, outrage, reform and ritual; the search for evidence, for beauty, for therapy; and the immortalisation of memory. As our understanding of ‘documentary’ continues to expand, Franklin considers photographic staging - where, perhaps, the future of the genre may lie: in search of truth over fact.


Grierson on Documentary; John Grierson & Forsyth Hardy (Faber, 1979)

Presents writing of John Grierson, who first used ‘documentary’ as a term in 1926. This collection of essays represent the man and the movement he helped form.


On Being a Photographer; David Hurn and Bill Jay (LensWork Publishing, 1997)

Now in it's third edition, On Being a Photographer has become one of the most popular books ever written with practical advice for photographers.


The Photo Essay – Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark (Smithsonian Inst Press 1990)

Although a monograph of her work, the book contains an extensive interview where Mark describes her working practice and approach, and thus provides useful insights for the documentary photographer.


‘Things as they Are : Photojournalism in Context since 1955’, Mary Panzer (intro), (World Press Photo, Chris Boot publishing, 2005)

A collection of 120 picture stories, organised by five decades 1955-2005.  


Bending the Frame- Photojournalism, Documentary, and the Citizen; Fred Ritchin, (Aperture 2013)

Addresses the new and emerging potentials for visual media to impact society. Also addresses online efforts, uses of

video, and a diverse range of books and exhibitions. The book provides challenges and aims for a wide-ranging and far-reaching a discussion, asking the critical question: how can images promote new thinking and make a difference in the world?


Context and Narrative in Photography; Maria Short et al. (Bloomsbury, 2020)

Reference book and exercises that introduce practical methods to help plan, develop and present meaningful, com- municative images. With many of examples from a range of thought-provoking photographers. Begins with an explora- tion of different narrative techniques, through selecting and developing a concept for your project and how it might be conveyed. Also covers how to incorporate text into your work and to present the finished work to your audience.


New Ways of Seeing; Grant Scott (Bloomsbury, 2020)

New Ways of Seeing explains how to both learn and teach photography as a visual language, appropriate for both professionals and students working today. Scott challenges us to think of photography as a visual language. The approach taken here develops the metaphor of ‘learning a language’ when attempting to explain what photography can be and what it can give a student in transferable creative and life skills. This begins with challenging the student pre-conception that successful photography is defined by the successful single image or ‘the good photograph’. The book emphasises instead the central role of narrative and visual storytelling through a technique of ‘photo-sketching’ which can be used to develop the building blocks of visual creativity and ultimately to craft successful bodies of photographic work.


What does Photography Mean to you? , Grant Scott (Bluecoat,)

Insights from contemporary photographers, drawn from Scotts' the podcast series UNoP.  Thought provoking and interesting. 


Decolonising the Camera: Photography in Racial time; Mark Sealy (Lawrence and Wishart, 2019)

The book examines how Western photographic practice over the past hundred years has been used as a tool for creating a Eurocentric (colonial) view. The book presents a critical methodology for developing 'others ways of seeing' and of making, using, reading and thinking of photography.


Photo work: Forty photographers on process and practice; Ed. Sasha Wolf (Aperture, 2019)

Sasha Wolf ask a group of forty young and established photographers questions about: How does a photographic

project or series evolve? How important are “style” and “genre”? What comes first—the photographs or a concept? The book is structured through a Proust-like questionnaire, in which individuals are each asked the same set of ques- tions, creating a typology of responses that allows for an intriguing compare and contrast.