Photo: A History From Behind the Lens
Athena // Unrated // $49.99 // November 26, 2013
Review by Randy Miller III | posted November 27, 2013
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Graphical Version

I have a background in fine arts, illustration and graphic design, but photography has never been much more than an enjoyable hobby of mine. In college I took a class or two several years before digital cameras were readily available, which allowed for some fun and experimental times in the darkroom. The process of "point and shoot"---now pretty much the norm with iPhones and the like---was in existence long before then, but I've always admired the time, skill and dedication needed to plan and create a beautifully composed picture. Or, you know, just mess around for fun.

The history of modern photography dates back to the mid-1800s and is loaded with fascinating techniques, ideas and crude equipment that required an undoubtedly high amount of patience, and it wasn't long before "the photo bug" bit just about everyone who stood in its path. This history---along with plenty of interesting detours and even plenty of recent developments---is covered nicely during Photo: A History From Behind The Lens , a 12-part French documentary series (dubbed in English) from Acorn Media. Featured work includes photographs by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Man Ray, Manuel Bravo, Andre Breton, Jean Painleve, Salvador Dali, Vera Lutter, Abelard Morell, Christian Marclay, Hippolyte Bayard, Adam Fuss and many more. Equipment, trends, influences and specific styles are also covered in modest detail during each 26-minute episode, granting viewers a thoughtful crash course in the basics of photography's brief but fascinating history. As a potential gateway to more thorough resources, viewers could certainly do a lot worse.

Unfortunately, the documentary series is loaded with playful Terry Gilliam-style animated gags, line-heavy scene wipes, and other added flourishes. These got old rather quickly and often distract from the history lesson, especially since most of them are also accompanied by grating sound effects. Don't get me wrong: the last thing I want is a documentary with zero personality or sense of humor, but Photo leans too heavily on this crutch and some episodes suffer for it. Perhaps these homemade quirks won't be as bothersome on repeat viewings (and despite their presence, this series is still quite enjoyable), but for now they might be enough to keep less forgiving viewers at arm's length.

Presented by Acorn Media's "Athena" imprint, Photo arrives in a compact but slightly expensive Region 1 package that documentary fans should enjoy digging through. 12 episodes are neatly divided across two discs, including standouts like "Surrealist Photography", "The Primitives of Photography, 1850-1860", "The New German Objectivity", "Pictorialism", "Found Images" and "After the Photo"; a complete episode listing and full descriptions can also be found at Acorn's official site. This obviously isn't a fully-loaded release but its strengths carry enough weight to warrant a closer look.

Quality Control Department

Video & Audio Quality

Presented in an anamorphic 1.78:1 aspect ratio, the bulk of Photo looks quite good. Many modern documentaries have the nasty habit of cropping or stretching footage and still photos to fit a 16x9 frame, but this isn't one of them. Aside from zoom-in shots, everything is presented in its original format and, more often than not, has not been unnecessarily cleaned up or retouched. The animated effects, despite their distracting nature, are cleanly rendered. A handful of minor digital imperfections were spotted along the way (including some aliasing and jagged edges), but this is largely a good-looking presentation only limited by the confines of standard definition. Sadly, no Blu-ray option is available.

DISCLAIMER: The screen captures featured in this review are strictly decorative and do not represent this DVD's native 480p image resolution.

The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo and sounds as good as needed for this type of documentary. Mathieu Demy's narration is crisply recorded and, again, the distracting nature of the animation is nonetheless as loud and clear as intended. Occasional music cues are present (typically in 2.0 mono), but the bulk of the limited channel separation comes in the form of added effects and other sporadic audio cues. Optional English SDH subtitles have been included during all 12 episodes, which may help those looking to do some additional research on certain photographers.

Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging

Seen above, the simple menu designs load quickly and are easy to navigate, though a handful of forced trailers on Disc 1 must be bypassed beforehand. Each disc gets half a dozen episodes, no apparent layer change was detected and this disc appears to be locked for Region 1 players only. The two-disc set is housed in a standard hinged keepcase with matching slipcover; a small but informative Booklet is also tucked inside. Unfortunately, there are no bonus features.

Final Thoughts

Photo: A History From Behind The Lens is a thoughtful, informative and accessible documentary series that casual fans will enjoy digging through. It runs a little short at just 12 episodes (less than six hours total), but each installment contains enough "negative space" to let interested viewers draw their own conclusions...or, in some cases, begin their own research. The playful nature of the documentary's animated flourishes can be very distracting at times, though some might find it a welcome diversion. As usual for Acorn Media's "Athena" line, this collection is a bit pricey for the limited content, but Photo is still strong enough to justify a purchase for interested parties. Mildly Recommended.

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.

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