Cover of Good Pictures by Kim Beil
Good Pictures
A History of Popular Photography
Kim Beil


336 pages.

Paperback ISBN: 9781503608665
Ebook ISBN: 9781503612327

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A picture-rich field guide to American photography, from daguerreotype to digital.

We are all photographers now, with camera phones in hand and social media accounts at the ready. And we know which pictures we like. But what makes a "good picture"? And how could anyone think those old styles were actually good? Soft-focus yearbook photos from the '80s are now hopelessly—and happily—outdated, as are the low-angle portraits fashionable in the 1940s or the blank stares of the 1840s. From portraits to products, landscapes to food pics, Good Pictures proves that the history of photography is a history of changing styles.

In a series of short, engaging essays, Kim Beil uncovers the origins of fifty photographic trends and investigates their original appeal, their decline, and sometimes their reuse by later generations of photographers. Drawing on a wealth of visual material, from vintage how-to manuals to magazine articles for working photographers, this full-color book illustrates the evolution of trends with hundreds of pictures made by amateurs, artists, and commercial photographers alike. Whether for selfies or sepia tones, the rules for good pictures are always shifting, reflecting new ways of thinking about ourselves and our place in the visual world.

About the author

Kim Beil teaches art history at Stanford University and writes about modern and contemporary art for publications including Artforum, Art in America, and Photograph. She thinks of Instagram as research and can be found @kim.beil.

"This is a terrific book—once I'd picked it up, I couldn't put it down again. In a series of punchy and perfectly judged miniatures, Kim Beil introduces us to the forgotten influencers of photographic style, placing these voices front and center in all their stridency, certainty, and eloquence. In a great service to photographic history she retrieves from neglected how-to guides a treasure trove that has long been awaiting this sort of treatment. Good Pictures brings an elegant coherence to the great heterogeneity of photographic practice, but without ever losing sight of that heterogeneity."

—Peter Buse, author of The Camera Does the Rest: How Polaroid Changed Photography

"It wasn't until I read Kim Beil's Good Pictures that I understood my own small collection of instructional photobooks could be read not just for practical purposes or ironically, to scoff at their dated naïveté, but in a third way. Beil's essays opened my eyes to the enormous value these books hold for our critical understanding of the medium."

—Alec Soth, Magnum photographer

"Exploring the deceptively simple question of what makes a good picture, Kim Beil's fascinating and informative book delves into the chemistries, cameras, visual techniques, and subjects that have inspired photographers since the invention of the medium. In the process, she takes vernacular photography and photographers seriously and offers a fresh and essential new perspective on photo history."

—Catherine Zuromskis, author of Snapshot Photography: The Lives of Images

"In a lush and lavishly researched new book, Stanford art history professor Kim Beil breaks down 50 trends that informed what society has deemed a 'good picture'....As Beil notes, the rules are always changing—and tracing their evolution is a brilliant way to research and reflect upon broader changes in our society and ourselves."

—Shana Nys Dambrot, LA Weekly

"By studying the predilections and prejudices of photography manuals over time, Beil reveals a fresh and fascinating history of the medium that bridges high and low art, professional and amateur practitioners."

—George Philip LeBourdais, Los Angeles Review of Books

"This is an essential taxonomy of methods, eloquently described, that will be insightful for amateur and professional photographers, graphic designers and anyone interested in the impact of the reflected and exposed image on the history of vision and the vision of history."

—Steven Heller, Print

"[Biel]'s writing style is inviting and easy to follow... Good Pictures is an appropriate book for those wanting to learn more about the history of aesthetic trends in American photography." –Eboni Jones, ARLIS/NA Reviews

"The book is informed and intelligent, and Beil's focus, along with the approximately 200 photographs, makes this work an interesting and valuable addition to the literature. Highly recommended."

—W. S. Johnson, CHOICE