Photo Icons

June 10, 2011

Photo Icons: The story behind the pictures | title
Hans-Michael Koetzle | author
Taschen, 1996 | publisher
978-3-8228-4096-2 | isbn
Hard cover, 351 | # of pages

Highly recommended | rating
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Regarded by many to be the best book to get a first glimpse of great photographers and their pictures, encompassing the entirety of the history of photography. This book approaches the task by focusing not on picture descriptions or biographies, but rather on the context (whether cultural, historical, political or personal depends on what is relevant to each picture) in which they were taken.


Taschen is famous for the great care it devotes to the object attributes of its books and this one is no exception. The quality is impressive on all aspects: paper, print, layout, cover, typography, picture reproductions: nothing was overlooked. They all add up to something beautiful, durable and that makes reading an even more pleasant activity. The book is also available in a two-volume edition.

The text is well written and opts for a simple language, avoiding technical terms and academic photography concepts for the most part. Sentences are short, clear and objective, and such concision is welcome: each photographer occupies only a few pages, as it would not be possible to feature so many otherwise. Each chapter presents a famous photography in a double-page spread (or a full page if it is in portrait orientation), followed by the text on the photographer and context or anecdotes involving its creation. Other photographs from the same author are also presented, sometimes variations of the famous one — which is interesting as a curiosity, specially to judge what makes the famous one so special.


The book covers every period of photography history in a superficial manner, which is by no means a problem considering its purpose. The focus of the text changes from picture to picture: some dedicate greater length to its analysis, some tell the story that led to it (as the title of the book suggests), some talk about the photographer or its motivations and so on. What defines it is what is more relevant to the importance of each picture.

This diversity exposes the reader to different aspects of photography and gives the book entertainment value: some of the stories are quite interesting by themselves, even to someone who has no special interest in photography. Every chapter also has a very short biography on side-columns, focusing on significant years.

Target audience

There is no need for previous knowledge in photography or art history to enjoy the book. Some technical aspects are mentioned when they were crucial for the image (specially regarding chemical processes for the early periods) and understanding them leads to better comprehension of a few details, but it does not pose a problem for general comprehension. It is invaluable as a first contact with famous pictures, especially to those who do not want to delve into extremely long books on the history of photography.

It is also interesting for people who like art in general, or appreciate photography regardless of not producing them. The short, independent chapters also allow quick reading sessions for impatient students or to fill in gaps in one’s schedule. For the seasoned photographer, the book might offer some different perspectives on photographs he already knows.


Highly recommended

Buy this book through this link and help support this blog


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