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Touching Photographs

Photography does more than simply represent the world. It acts in the world, connecting people to form relationships and shaping relationships to create communities. In this beautiful book, Margaret Olin explores photography’s ability to “touch” us through a series of essays that shed new light on photography’s role in the world.

Olin investigates the publication of photographs in mass media and literature, the hanging of exhibitions, the posting of photocopied photographs of lost loved ones in public spaces, and the intense photographic activity of tourists at their destinations. She moves from intimate relationships between viewers and photographs to interactions around larger communities, analyzing how photography affects the way people handle cataclysmic events like 9/11. Along the way, she shows us James VanDerZee’s Harlem funeral portraits, dusts off Roland Barthes’s family album, takes us into Walker Evans and James Agee’s photo-text Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and logs onto online photo albums. With over one hundred illustrations, Touching Photographs is an insightful contribution to the theory of photography, visual studies, and art history.

288 pages | 37 color plates, 84 halftones | 7 x 10 | © 2011

Art: Photography

Media Studies


“This is essential reading for anyone interested in the newest thinking about photography. Beautifully argued, it reconceives our understanding of the photograph as an index of presence, seeing it instead as an event and a social practice that provokes relationship and community. Looking is tactile, embodied, interested, and often mistaken, but in Olin’s engrossing close readings, mistakes become revealing symptoms of the enduring power of images.”

Marianne Hirsch, Columbia University

“This book is a series of memorably profound excursions into the defining techniques of modernity. Olin is a simultaneously sympathetic and sharp reader of images and contexts, giving Touching Photographs considerable literary merit. This is a wonderful book.”

Christopher Pinney, University College, London

“By focusing our attention on the metaphor of touch, Olin reminds us of photography’s many layers of manifestation: as an indexical trace of the world it depicts, as a physical object that circulates in this world, and as a pictorial inducer of emotions and sentiments. Touched, touchable, and touching, the photograph is here submitted to Olin’s ‘tactile looking,’ allowing her to range widely, from her own personal snapshots to the work of masters, and even to encompass the searing experience of 9/11, in which photography played such a central role. Whether one chooses to ‘bask’ in her chosen photographs, as Olin suggests, or simply to learn from her erudition, this book will bring you in closer touch with what makes photography such a complex and fascinating cultural phenomenon.”

Geoffrey Batchen, Victoria University of Wellington

“Olin’s thoughts are provocative and sure to engage readers in further thought and response.”


 “Olin . . . delivers a stimulating call to action—and interaction—that invites readers to consider the lasting work that images do on us, and that we do with them.”

Invisible Culture

“Beautifully produced. . . . An important achievement of Touching Photographs is that it extends the discussion of photography and touch beyond the personal and the familial to explore how photographs create wider communities, and foster collective bonds. . . . Rich and compelling.”

History of Photography

Table of Contents

Introduction: Tactile Looking
     1  “It Is Not Going to Be Easy to Look into Their Eyes”: Privilege of Perception in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
     2  Roland Barthes’s “Mistaken” Identification
     3  “From One Dark Shore to the Other”: The Epiphany of the Image in Hugo von Hofmannsthal and W. G. Sebald
     4  Putting Down Photographic Roots in Harlem: James VanDerZee
     5  Looking through Their Eyes: Photographic Empowerment
     6  Five Stories of 9/11
Epilogue: Bad Pictures  

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