Collections of essays tend, by their nature, to be mixed bags. This anthology of 34 articles, catalogue entries and criticisms spanning the career of one of the most accomplished photographic historians of the 20th century proves no exception.

From the outset, it’s clear Inside the Photograph is going to be an unashamedly highbrow book – and, rightly, no apology is made for this. In his foreword, Malcolm Daniel, head curator of the photography department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, describes the contents as “plainspoken, insightful discourses about the soul of the medium, not its surface”. This may be so, but as one ploughs into the first piece, an appreciation of US photo-artist Alfred Stieglitz’s time editing the seminal journal Camera Work, it immediately becomes clear the collection is going to be anything but a casual read.

Not that it lacks accessible moments. In a mere six pages, Bunnell’s potted biography of Diane Arbus sketches in the highlights of her career in punchy, earthy prose that can’t fail to engage even the most impatient reader. It contains striking insights, too: Arbus, unlike many of her modernist contemporaries, was a “portraitist” rather than a mere “documentarian”, we are told. Such is the clarity of the author’s exposition, illustrated by a single, carefully chosen image – the self-explanatory A Jewish Giant at Home with his Parents in the Bronx, New York (1970) – that we can’t help be convinced.

Indeed, the most appealing aspect of many of the writings here is their brevity. The book’s potpourri structure allows one to bypass “chapters” about practitioners in whom one is less interested, and skip to subsequent ones. So, if Ruth Bernhard isn’t your thing, there’s an equally incisive deconstruction of Barbara Morgan’s work six pages on. Each can be read, and appreciated, in isolation – a “pick and mix” approach which exposes a distinct advantage of the anthology form.

For all these pluses, there’s one ingredient the book singularly lacks: photos. In more than 200 pages of text, there are barely 40. Admittedly, most of those used are stunning – from Emmet Gowin’s erotically charged 1978 portrait of his wife, Edith, crouching in a field, to the gothic fairytale imagery of Small Woods Where I Met Myself (1967) by Jerry N Uelsmann. But the book’s stodgier sections are, almost invariably, Bunnell’s academic treatises on the merits of specific publications and exhibitions. Devoid of illustration, they also lack context.

James Morrison