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Hardcover | $15.95 Trade | £10.95 | ISBN: 9780262019286 | 104 pp. | 5.375 x 8 in | 7 b&w illus.| August 2013
Paperback | $12.95 Trade | £8.95 | ISBN: 9780262529013 | 104 pp. | 5.375 x 8 in | 7 b&w illus.
Ebook | $11.95 Trade | ISBN: 9780262316859 | 104 pp. | 7 b&w illus.| August 2013
About MIT Press Ebooks

Why Photography Matters


Photography matters, writes Jerry Thompson, because of how it works—not only as an artistic medium but also as a way of knowing. It matters because how we understand what photography is and how it works tell us something about how we understand anything. With these provocative observations, Thompson begins a wide-ranging and lucid meditation on why photography is unique among the picture-making arts.

Thompson, a working photographer for forty years, constructs an argument that moves with natural logic from Thomas Pynchon (and why we read him for his vision and not his command of miscellaneous facts) to Jonathan Swift to Plato to Emily Dickinson (who wrote “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant”) to detailed readings of photographs by Eugène Atget, Garry Winogrand, Marcia Due, Walker Evans, and Robert Frank. He questions Susan Sontag’s assertion in On Photography that “nobody” can any longer imagine literate, authoritative, or transcendent photographs. He considers the money-fueled expansion of the market for photography, and he compares ambitious “meant-for-the-wall” photographs with smaller, quieter works. Forcefully and persuasively, Thompson argues for photography as a medium concerned with understanding the world we live in—a medium whose business is not constructing fantasies pleasing to the eye or imagination but describing the world in the toughest and deepest way.

About the Author

Jerry L. Thompson is a working photographer who also writes about photography. He worked as Walker Evans’s principal assistant from 1973 to Evans’s death in 1975. He is the author of The Last Years of Walker Evans and Truth and Photography.


“How photographs work is the challenging subject of Jerry Thompson’s radiant new book. Once considered revolutionary in their illumination of the world, photographs have long since been reconceived as prestigious aesthetic objects. Against this turn Thompson argues reflectively and philosophically for a restored sense of need and purpose. The book offers a stunning recovery of the original raison d’être of camera work as revelation and knowledge.”
Alan Trachtenberg, Professor Emeritus of English and American Studies, Yale University; and author of Reading American Photographs and other books
“It would be hard to imagine a more effective and refreshing demonstration of why photography matters than Jerry Thompson's book of that title. It is demonstrative as reasoning and also as a display of the way photographs can awaken and engage all the human powers of intellect and sensibility. To look along with the author is to embark on a dialectical path that describes a long arc through regions rarely embraced in one view.”
Joe Sachs, translator of Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Physics
“In photography, content is often confused with aesthetics. In his concise and focused study, Jerry L. Thompson, gifted with an artist's eye and a philosophical mind, requires but a few examples—from Atget to Evans—to illustrate what remains when all narrative has been exhausted: the true essence that turns a photographic image into a work of art.”
Heinz Liesbrock, Director of the Josef Albers Museum, Bottrop

Related Media

EPISODE 57 (OCT. '13): Jerry L. Thompson