Contemporary Photography in France

Between Theory and Practice

Olga Smith

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Monograph - paperback

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An innovative study of contemporary photography in France
This compelling publication traces the broad arc of photography’s development in France from the 1970s to the present day. A decade-by-decade account reveals unexpected points of convergence between practices that are not usually considered in a comparative perspective. These include photographic practices in contemporary art, documentary, photojournalism, and fashion. Author Olga Smith sets these practices in dialogue with French philosophy – the writings of Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard, and Jacques Rancière – to produce an innovative study of the intersections between the photographic image, text, practice, and theory. This analysis is guided by an understanding of photography as deeply engaged with historical, cultural, and intellectual events that defined French national experience in the contemporary period. Landscape provides a particular focus to study issues of key significance, including national identification, colonial past, legacies of modernization and environmental breakdown.

This publication is GPRC-labeled (Guaranteed Peer-Reviewed Content).

List of Figures
List of Plates

Chapter 1. 1970s: Engagement and Subjectivity
Roland Barthes and the Science of Subjectivity
From The Family of Man to Families in France: Documentary and Professional Photography
Mythologies of the Self: Photography in Artistic Practices

Chapter 2. 1980s: Objectivity in a Dematerialized World
Jean Baudrillard: The Era of the Object
A Quest for Legitimacy as Art
Staged Photography and the Culture of Simulacra
“The Form Tableau”: Photograph as Object and Picture

Chapter 3. 1990s–2000s: The Future of The Photographic Image
Jacques Rancière: Photography as Milieu
Forms of Resistance and Participation
After Photography

Conclusion: The Landscapes of France
Landscape and the National Imaginary
The DATAR Photographic Mission: Picturing “le territoire des Français”
The Anthropogenic Landscape: The Environmental Perspective
A Sense of Belonging: Territory, Borders, Identity
Towards a Non-Nationalist History of Photography


Format: Monograph - paperback

Size: 230 × 170 × 14 mm

230 pages

32 pp. full colour

ISBN: 9789462703445

Publication: October 21, 2022

Series: Lieven Gevaert Series 32

Languages: English

Stock item number: 150594

Olga Smith is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow at the University of Vienna.

Contemporary Photography in France. Between Theory and Practice constitutes an interesting and well-documented addition to the already rich body of critical work on the subject. It strives to analyze and describe numerous artistic practices that are esthetically diverse. Its intellectual scope is therefore broad and far-reaching. Finally, its numerous illustrations allow for an accurate visualization of the most recent developments of photography in France. - Pierre Taminiaux, H-France Review Vol. 23 (June 2023), No. 97,


Olga Smith uses contemporary photography in France - since the 1970s up until the present-day - to show, very persuasively, how philosophy and critical theory have dovetailed with creative practices. - Andy Stafford, Source: Issue 111, Summer, 2023,


This highly readable text, with its detailed coverage of cultural conditions and its survey of photographers, provides a valuable resource for curators, researchers, photographers, and students.
Jill Glessing, Ciel variable, no 123,2023, p. 101-102

'Ce dialogue entre philosophie et photographie est la qualité première de ce livre pour qui connaît déjà un peu la scène française.'
Lunettes rouges, 31 janvier 2023,

Smith’s history of contemporary photography, both detailed and very readable, is a decidedly innovative publication, even for readers already familiar with the field and the critical debates that surround it. The major novelty of the book is, paradoxically speaking, the choice of a nonphotographic point of departure. [...] As (re)written by Smith, the recent history of French photography makes room for a wealth of images, excellently printed in a rich gallery of color plates, and a great variety of ways of doing photography criticism. One can only hope that this excellent overview will spark new interest in what is going on in France, both in terms of the production of new images and in terms of critical discourses on the role and place of photography in society.
Jan Baetens, Leonardo Reviews Archive, January 2023


Olga Smith offers here a remarkable study of the French photographic scene of the last decades, which benefits from her in-depth knowledge of the historical context, theoretical debates and artistic practices. In a real tour de force, she succeeds in repatriating some of the key concepts of the so-called French Theory into their original cultural context, thus intervening in the ideological struggles between modernism and postmodernism. Books on photography in France in English language are rare. I've been waiting for this one for a long time.
Clément Chéroux, The Joel and Anne Ehrenkranz Chief Curator of Photography, MoMA

Olga Smith’s book bridges the histories of philosophy and photography in a compelling way. This rich and detailed study provides a fascinating insight into French theory and art, yet it moves beyond the national paradigm to open new perspectives in global media historiographies. Concise in its argumentation and lucid in its style, this book will find readership far beyond its specialist focus.
Steffen Siegel, Folkwang University
At once erudite and engaging, Smith's book shows how French photographic practices since the 1970s have been bound up with thought, politics, history, and art. The book constitutes essential reading for anyone wanting to understand French culture today.
Shirley Jordan, Newcastle University