Photography books: The democracy of seeing

Charles Darwent provides a snapshot of the year's most revealing photography books
Click to follow

Every now and then, photography changes the way we see. Our staid image of the Victorians comes from the long exposures of their cameras. Matrons, draped in bombazine, had to sit up straight or they'd blur: studio photography was a stiff affair, so its subjects seem stiff as well. George Eastman's 1888 Kodak loosened things up all round. Now people - even poor ones - could be outside, doing what they liked: we see the belle epoque as a freer time because of the freeness of its photographs. And, in our own day, the press-and-go aesthetic of digital cameras has led to a democratising of the way we see and, maybe, to doubts about democracy.

This change is worth remembering as you look through Paul Gilroy's excellent book Black Britain: A Photographic History (SAQI/Getty Images 19.99). A social theorist at the LSE, Gilroy has kept his photographs in black and white, differences between the two being what they are about.

A linear archive, Black Britain begins with early pictures of black people made for (and probably by) white people. There are musicians and sportsmen - the singer Mabel Lee in 1948, a pair of Barnardo's boys in boxing gloves in 1959 - together with a fixed repertoire of set pieces designed to make their subjects look exotic or droll or both. As with photography in general, Gilroy's pictures become freer with time. By Samantha Mumba's 2002 mobile phone self-portrait, we seem to be looking at a shift in power - a black woman in control of her own image, thanks to the democratising effects of digital photography. Mumba is still a singer, though, and the majority of shots in the last section of Black Britain are, as before, of black entertainers or sportsmen. Photographic and social freedoms are not necessarily the same thing.

This thought has clearly occurred to Martin Parr, a Magnum photographer whose work slips over the invisible line into fine art. Parr is best known for his pictures of Britain's social underbelly, most famously of holiday-makers in the working-class resort of New Brighton. In Sandra S Phillips's book Martin Parr (Phaidon 14.95), though, he looks beyond Britain, homing in on Miami Beach volleyballers or Irish race-goers or melting ice-cream cones at Lake Garda.

As with Gilroy's Black Britain, Phillips's book seems to tell a story of photographic democracy. Parr travels the world with fellow tourists, all of them with cameras at the ready. The tourists look at things - several pictures are of disembodied hands holding Sony Cyber-shots - and Parr looks at them. You sense the great commonality of the digital age, although what really matters is that this fellowship is a fake. Parr is an artist, not a tourist; the body of his Nikon costs 600 alone, while you can pick up a Cyber-shot in duty free for 80. Encrypted in his shots of tourists in Venice or Rome is the message that Parr isn't like them, really. His photographs are a critique of the new photography, a quick slap at the idea of a democracy of seeing.

I'd guess that this thought would never have crossed the mind of the subject of the monograph Edward Chambre Hardman: Liverpool through the Lens (National Trust 15.99). Where Gilroy slices the world racially and Parr socially, Hardman focuses on a geographical corner of it, namely Liverpool. For 65 years, from opening his studio in 1923 to his death in 1988, this ex-Indian Army officer used his Rolleiflex to record the city's economic freefall.

Except that decline isn't really what we see in Liverpool through the Lens. Such is Hardman's belief in the camera's power to redeem that the city's ruination seems oddly magnificent. The small girl sitting on a step in Hardman's "Little Inhabitant of Pitt Street" has the front-lit glow and side-saddle poise of a society photograph in Country Life; Hardman's dray horses and warehouses are touched with Expressionist grandeur. This is Liverpool as New York or Chicago, a city whose grimness is proof of its energy. Except, of course, that Liverpool had no energy during Hardman's career, his shots being neoclassical fantasies of a non-existent place. No democracy of seeing here. Liverpool through the Lens conjures up a better world, at least as it might be dreamed of by a bourgeois like Hardman.

There's urban romance of a livelier kind in Athol Rheeder's Unto London: A photographic essay of London's street performers (Haus 14.99). A study of the capital's buskers, Unto London is notable mostly for its air of yearning. Rheeder has spent 30 years snapping jugglers and unicyclists from up close - so close, often, that you feel he would much rather be on the other side of the lens. This is rough-and-ready photography, which is part of its charm: you feel that Rheeder is part of the gypsy culture he archives, possibly getting his shots by spray-painting himself silver and standing very, very still.

Two books, both by Phaidon, rank as favourites in this year's Christmas present stakes. William Wegman's tersely named Dogs (9.95) is just what it says it is, minus Wegman's trademark weimaraners. Instead, the US art photographer has put together a scrapbook of black-and-white snaps of mutts, occasionally alone but more often with token humans included: babies, Edith Wharton, a 500lb teenager. The striking thing about Wegman's doggiecentric view is that it turns the tables on humans, reducing us to the status of props for dogs - a view with which some of you may concur. And for those with deeper pockets and a more serious bent, Max Kozloff's The Theatre of the Face: Portrait photography since 1900 (39.95) is unmissable. A scholarly archive of 20th century portraiture, Kozloff's book draws clever parallels between the history of politics and the history of photography. It is also exceedingly beautiful, which means you can give it to everyone from Lord Snowdon to your Auntie Babs and be sure of a nice thank you.