How to Read a Photograph

Some thoughts jotted down while reading the book

Focus in book is on the historical greats. Most now deceased although some not

  • Need to know the background of the photographer to understand the image
    • Where from
    • Interests
    • What else they have done in the past (or are doing now)
      • Andre Kertesz, moved to Paris after a stint ion the Great War. Apolitical and interested in people. Lived where popular culture was important for photography and of great interest, therefore published.
  • What is photographed changes over time, but also will often reappear
    • But – this may not be for the same reasons
      • Atget – rag pickers and rubbish, street scenes with the emphasis on people as opposed to Krull where the emphasis is on the equipment
      • Cartier-Bresson – transit camps pre-echoes the pictures of refugee camps at Calais. Photographer as a witness
    • Photographers and writers often work together to produce a book.
      • Sometimes one is the driving force e.g. An illustrated story versus a photobook with additional words
        • Brassai and Morand – Paris de Nuit
        • Godwin and Hughes – Remains of Elmet
  • Need to understand the wider art context of the era images were made.
    • An idea, thought or feeling versus straightforward documentation of an event
    • May be staged
    • Or only minimal parts shown enough to tell the story
      • Bravo and his idea of the invisible and showing states of mind
      • Moriyamo street scenes similar intent now
        • Understanding and meaning of image does not remain static, will change with the viewer and over time
  • War photography may tell stories about people that are not always the soldiers
    • Reportage with stories
    • Immediacy
    • Story may be more important than the technique
      • Capa – feeling not focus
  • What is the person in the photo saying?
    • Do we have their words recorded?
    • Do we imagine it?
    • Do you need the words or do the objects tell the story?
      • Lange versus Rothstein
  • Photographs as montages
    • People placed against a background – constructed images
    • Pictures placed side by side
  • Information by inference
    • Shahn
    • Farm security administration
  • Relationship between the photographer’s art and their take on religion
    • Minor White and Zen – the indifference of the camera
  • Interesting note that lots of photographers initially trained as something else
    • Why? Why not start out as photographers
      • Seymour (Chim) a pianist
      • Ansel Adams also a pianist
      • Winograd a weather forecaster
  • Use of night photos
    • High contrast, graphic detail
    • Use areas of excitement e.g. Movies, fairgrounds
    • Allows focus on the idea of a place rather than the detail
      • Faurer
      • Bovis
  • Put personal anxieties into pictures
    • Think about communities and how do they affect you
    • Community versus exclusion
    • Are you an insider or outside them?
      • Winograd
      • Arbus and the strange people
  • Use of words in images
    • May be factual but also ironic
    • Give meaning/ explanation of time or place
    • Often tiny but critical
    • Over time became more deliberate as photographers aware of importance of sign and symbolism
      • Eggleston
      • Adams
      • Friedlander
  •  Japanese photographers – images without text
    • The pictures alone are enough
    • Witnesses to history, recording but possibly / probably not making a difference
    • Atmosphere rather than detail
    • But maybe need explanation of thought processes
  • Topography
    • Use of transit landscapes
    • How important is where an image is taken rather than what it is?
    • Use of colour
      • Meyerowitz
      • Shore

Overall impression:

Knowing the history and background of the photographer may change your understanding of the image

Things go in circles over time, however, while the types of images may be similar, the reasoning behind them may be very different

Look carefully as a tiny detail may change the entire meaning

Each generation builds on the previous therefore the more you look and study images from different eras the more you can understand the present thoughts.

Compare with Photography as a Contemporary Art by Cotton (Cotton, 2015) where the focus is on the style of photography rather than the individuals and their personalities. Both approaches are useful.

Think about the purpose of the image: as art, to instruct, to give information, advertisement, propaganda

Would have been interesting if went on to cover more of the recent photographers in a similar style.

References

Cotton, C. (2015). The photograph as contemporary art. London: Thames & Hudson.

Jeffrey, I. (2008). How to read a photograph. London: Thames & Hudson.

 

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