This collection surveys photography from its inception to the turn of the century, focusing on important technical and aesthetic advances and those who made them. The technical aspects are not overwhelming for a layperson (if you are not a layperson you may find them a little scanty) and the images themselves are mostly aesthetically excellent. The text is by and large quite good as well, although there were a couple entries that puzzled me.
There are three commentators. My favorite was Langer, who also wrote the introduction. My least favorite was Wiegand. Usually he is fine if a little less informative than the others, but for certain entries he seemed to be really coming from left field. For instance, regarding the Alinaris' "View from Torre di Arnolfo" he writes that
Many such precise historical views contain distortions that seem almost absurd to a modern eye... Although this picture of
Florence shows a favorite tourist view from the city hall to the cathedral, its vantage point already departs from the norm in that it gives much more importance to the outlook platform than to the city itself. Florence seems merely a pretext to acquaint the viewer with the bizarre spiral staircase, which may have been just installed, thus encouraging the photographer to show it out of a sense of civic pride. At any rate, this is one possible explanation for the idiosyncratic composition. Since the modest steel structure does not arouse much admiration in us today...
I don't get it. I like the photo.
I like the staircase. I like the composition. I don't find it "absurd" or "distorted" or "idiosyncratic" and don't need another generic cityscape of Florence (I'm sure there were plenty even a hundred and fifty years ago).
Likewise, I did not understand why Wiegand thinks Kuhn's shot of a crashed locomotive was "surreal" and "absurd" -- I would have gone with shocking or tragic, probably the reaction shared by victims and witnesses of the disaster.
Aside from suspecting that Wiegand is maybe kind of a jerk, I really liked the book. Many of the photos were familiar to me but some were not, and in some cases I hadn't realized why they were so important. A couple even portrayed historical events previously unknown to me, such as the doomed Swedish balloon expedition to the North Pole which claimed the lives of photographer Salomon Andree and his two companions, whose remains (along with written and photographic documentation of their final days) were only found decades later. Twenty of their nearly-200 celluloid negatives were able to be restored.
Thanks 19th-century photographers for endangering yourselves with inclement conditions, dangerous perspectives, and poisonous chemicals so that I don't have to!