Helen Ennis reviews 'Lives of the Great Photographers' by Juliet Hacking

One of the big attractions of this book is the portraits and self-portraits of the photographers who are its subject. Diane Arbus, in the early stages of pregnancy, looks whimsically at her reflection in a full-length mirror; Robert Mapplethorpe's face leaps out of the darkness, paired with his skull-topped walking stick; Margaret Bourke-White perches with her camera on a gargoyle on the sixty-first floor of the Chrysler building (she must have had an amazing head for heights).

The point of these photographs is to individualise and personalise the photographers Juliet Hacking would like her readers to know better. Hacking is based at Sotheby's Institute of Art in London, where she teaches the history of photography in the graduate program. As she explains in the book's introduction, her project is self-consciously art historical: she begins by referring to Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (1550), which for many marks the origin of the genre of artists' biographies. Hacking wants to rectify a situation that she suggests has persisted since the last quarter of the twentieth century, in which biography has been pushed to the margins because of 'its emphasis on interiority and singularity', and to re-introduce its pleasures to her readers. She also aims to counter what she considers the prevailing view that bio-graphy is 'anti-intellectual'. Curiously in light of this claim, her approach isn't particularly scholarly; it is reliant on published sources, both primary and secondary, and not, as she disarmingly points out, 'on original research'.

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Published in March 2016, no. 379

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