Reading Photographs

 

NK1_1781Reading Photographs, an introduction to the theory and meaning of images (1) is a helpful primer introducing a wide range of subjects from semiotics to ethics. Overall I found it interesting and it stimulated several chains of thought that have helped me identify new paths of research.  It is written for students of photography by Richard Salkeld, a senior lecturer in the History and Theory of Art and Photography at the University of Gloucestershire and needs to be approached in that context. Slakeld presents each subject in the form of a short essay, occasionally accompanied by a case study. Whilst the case studies are usually interesting and often introduced me to the work of practitioners I had not previously known they are accompanied by exam-type questions for the reader that seem out of place in the overall structure of the book. If the subject is in any way contentious or open to debate Slakeld offers both sides of the argument but in doing so without offering us his own opinion the book lacks any critical bite.

The essays that most caught my attention were connected to the question of the degree to which a photograph can be read in isolation of its context. Not surprisingly this is a recurring theme throughout the book.  Initially touching on Walter Benjamin’s idea of the “The Optical Unconscious” which says that our visual knowledge base once comprised of things that we saw in person but the advent of the camera has dramatically increased our number of visual sources and this has created a background of visual memories that we subconsciously take into account when we look at photographs.

Benjamin documented this idea in 1931 at a time when the ordinary person’s life was far less impacted by the visual image than it is today, in fact large numbers of people, even in the UK, would have seen few images outside of a few family photos, religious imagery, advertising or the cinema. In 1931 a comparatively small percentage of a person’s visual memories would have been acquired second hand. Today, in the developed world, we are constantly surrounded by moving and still images and a high percentage of our visual memories are memories of those images, there is an argument that even when we “we were there” the memory of a photograph is often stronger than our direct memory of the actual event or person. We often remember photographs of family and friends rather than recalling a direct visual memory.

Much later in the book Slakeld presents the work of Marc Garanger (2) who was a conscripted French soldier  tasked with photographing Algerian women for their identity cards during the Algerian crisis. He took two thousand photographs in ten days (2). Each women is photographed in a nearly identical manner, full face and upper body, straight on. Garanger later said that he “saw that I could use what I was forced to do, and have the pictures tell the opposite of what the authorities wanted them to tell”  and he has suggested that the pictures speak for themselves but Salkeld asks whether this is really the case. He includes five of these photographs in his book and, with a reasonable amount of general knowledge, it is possible to read some of the clues. The women are not Caucasian, the jewellery on one appears to be North African, none of the expressions are relaxed and there is a tension about them. Ultimately we have read very little from the images.

If we are told that the photographs were taken by a French soldier in Algeria in 1960 we can begin to gain a fuller understanding because we can add previous knowledge to our reading. We bring a wide range of known subjects to the viewing:- colonialism, the relationship between the occupier and the occupied, the relationship between a French soldier and muslim women, the absence of veils in the photographs and add this to what we can see. Quickly our interpretation changes, we see the women’s expressions as one of protest not discomfort, we see suppression and abuse, and as Carole Nagger (2) suggests, they are symbolic of the collision of two civilisations.

The conclusion is clear. We can only read what Garanger wants to say when we are given enough clues to be able to put his photographs into context. Even as a group what they tell us is at best incomplete and, at worst misleading. In the example of the Algerian women we only needed a small amount of information to be able to unlock the meaning of the photographs which speaks to a question asked by Walter Benjamin:

“Will not the caption become the most important part of the photograph?”

The importance of the caption is an area that Salkeld does not explore in any depth but it reminded me of Anna Fox‘s idea of of using quotes from business books and magazines as captions for her study of office life in the 1970s, an idea I copied in my assignment 3. The use of a caption can provide enough information, or clues, for the viewer to proceed with interpreting the visual clues contained in the photograph. However, regardless of the hints they provide the photographer cannot control all the elements of context as ultimately “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” (3).

We cannot avoid using our prior knowledge when we view a photograph and that knowledge is outside of the photographer’s control but the photographer can sometimes control where we see the photograph and that element of context can significantly impact our interpretation of the image. John Berger says that if we take a photograph of a painting we multiple and fragment the meaning of that picture each time we show the photograph because, by moving it, we are constantly changing the context of the original painting. If a photographer makes a single print and shows that print in a gallery they are controlling its “locational” context. However, as soon as the image is reproduced and shown elsewhere that control is lost and our interpretation increases in subjectivity. I know that where I see an image prejudices my view of it so a news photograph on  the BBC website or on Time Lightbox will tell me that it is true and unadulterated, this, by the way does not make it true or unadulterated because another viewer might distrust one or both of these publishers and take a diametrically opposite view.

Another element of context that is not explored by Salkeld is the importance of the collection or series. Without knowing the answer I wonder whether the idea of a collection is much more important in photography than it is in the other visual arts. Martin Parr is very firm about the need for his pictures to be viewed in the context of the collections he publishes and we understand that the skill of curators is to create and display collections so that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

I am currently coming to terms with Stephen Shore’s latest book (From Galilee to the Nagrev) and trying to understand how his work has changed, or not, since American Surfaces and Uncommon Places. It has struck me that in “Galilee” there are a number of photos that verge upon being impossible to interpret if viewed completely in isolation, something I did not feel existed in, for example, Uncommon Places. This emphasises the point that, especially in documentary photography, the context of the “rest” of the set is absolutely fundamental to us reading the individual photograph.

This leads to a separate but connected point in that the name of the photographer has a significant impact on how we read an image . Shakespeare tells us that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” but I am uncertain whether this is quite so true in the art world. Leading on from my previous point I would suggest that the photographer’s name is less relevant when viewing collections than it is of single image.  Using Stephen Shore as an example again I don’t know how I would read “Tavor River Reserve, January 17, 2010” if it did not have his name on it or I had not seen it in the context of a collection. I cannot find this image on line but it is of a field of fairly featureless long grass taking up 60% of the frame with a pale blue sky. The grassy horizon slopes gently from left to right. It is photo of green emptiness in a flat light that I would not pause to look at if it was taken by the chap next door. Because it is “a” Stephen Shore I have spent quite a bit of time looking at in and interpreting its meaning in its relationship to the other “empty” spaces he has photographed in Israel and the West Bank. This is not to say that we cannot read unknown photographers work but we come at certain photographer’s work knowing something of what they are likely to be saying to us and, dare I say it, with a little awe and an inbuilt tolerance because we assume it must be good and must be meaningful because so and so took it. Being introspective I know that I am more tolerant of a photo that I don’t really like or understand by a photographer that I respect than I am about music. I love the Beatles but some of their tracks are, to me, truly awful. This is probably because we believe we are qualified to judge modern music but, if we don’t understand a famous visual artist’s work it is probably because we think we aren’t clever enough.

A final point might be that our age, race, education, gender, sexuality, faith, politics and nationality, i.e. aspects of our identity that are driven by birth and circumstance have a strong impact on how we read a picture. Marketing and adverting executives understand this better than most and design campaigns to target specific social groups based on these factors (and many more).

The conclusion is that we view a photograph through a lens of complex social factors, knowledge and emotions, where we see the photo, who took it, who published it and in front of that lens we put the filter of semiotics to read the image. It all suggests that the beholder has more influence on the meaning than the photographer.

I’ve enjoyed “Reading Photographs”, it is a primer and needs to be approached with that in mind. It covers a lot of ground at a summarised level but it points the reader in many useful directions for further research and it started me thinking about a number of subjects that I had not previously considered. It is succinct without being superficial, well laid out and because it is essentially a collection of essays it is a book that has longevity on the bookshelf and can act as a first port of call when researching specific subjects within the general area of photographic interpretation.

Sources

Books

(1) Salkeld, Richard. (2014) Reading Photohgraphs: An Introduction to the Theory and Meaning of Images. London: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC.

Internet

(2) Time Lightbox. lightbox.time.com/2013/04/23/women-unveiled-marc-garangers-contested-portraits-of-1960s-algeria/#1

(3) The Phrase Finder. www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/beauty-is-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder.html

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2 thoughts on “Reading Photographs

  1. Stephanie Dh.

    Thanks for the tip Steve, I have enjoyed most of the books of this collection that I have read and I have ordered this one too now! I don’t know if you have read Howells and Negreiros book “Visual Culture” but you might like it too!

    Reply

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