Tag Archives: language

Reading Photographs – thoughts about Photos that are not intended for the means of expression or communication.

At the beginning of section 4, ‘Reading photographs’ for my course, ‘Context and Narrative’, I have been asked to try to think of any photos that may be produced that are not intended for expression or communication.

Assuming that the photo hasn’t been over of under exposed to a degree that the image is totally white or black then the short answer is no.  For surely all photos either express something or communicate something.

However, my first thought as to a possible contender would be a photo taken for say quality-control to record that something was made or fitted to a set standard or requirement.  components in a nuclear-power-station that once fitted can not easily be inspected or checked and therefor are photographed during installation.  But this still communicates a detail of information that may at a later date be referred to.

I can only suggest that a live picture from a CCTV that is both unrecorded and un-viewed comes close to this description, for as long as no one is watching the monitor screen then the images communicate nothing nor do they express any meaning.  There existence has little point.  Perhaps a philosopher can take this observation and apply it to any photograph arguing that for as long as no one is looking at a picture, the picture  communicates nothing and nor does it expresses anything  until there a pair of eyes to look upon it.  This argument may be stretched to argue that without cultural / or use of a humans recognized visual language then any photo may not make sense to the viewer.  For example as viewed through the eyes on an insect, domestic pet or a Martian.

 

Understanding a Photograph, by John Berger.

Understandin_a_Photograph_John_Berger

Understanding a Photograph by John Berger, published by Penguin.  This is the second book I have read by Berger, the first was ‘Ways of Seeing’.  I read this book whilst on holiday which I took with me as I thought that it would help in my preparation for my fourth assignment which is to write an essay about a photograph.

This book is a collection of essays discussing for example the image of the post-mortum image of Che Guevara and it’s similarity to two famous paintings one of The Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Nicolaes Tulp by Rembrandt and Mantegna’s painting of the dead Christ.  Berger also writes an interesting essay on the use of photo-montage for political use and essay on Paul Strand, W. Eugene Smith and a tribute to Cartier-Bresson.  He also has writes an interesting essay on a meeting the had with Henry Cartier-Bresson in his flat in Paris (who he was a friend) called ‘A man begging on the Metro’.

Berger is a good writer; but also a typical academic.  He studied art at college and is keen on photography but not a photographer therefore his writing can be regarded as a little dry for the hands on type (of which I am one).  However, I would recommend reading this book for ideas on constructing an essay for photography.  When reading these academic books I sometimes find it hard to gauge what I am actually learn from them. Where on the other hand an exercise book that may refer to these books are more clear and filters out the flowery academic language to explain the heart of the message.

I read these books as well as the text books to try to get a more rounded idea of the intended subjects however, the Jury is still out as to whether this is making a difference to my knowledge.

 

Reading Photographs, An Introduction to the Theory and Meaning of Images.

Reading Photographs

I have been reading this book whilst on holiday, in preparation for my next assignment, Reading Photographs, An Introduction to the Theory and Meaning of Images, by Richard Salkeld, published by Bloomsbury.  This is part of a set of about x10 text-books that are very good and this appears to be last last one of the series for photography that I hadn’t read.

This book  is divided in to 6 chapters covering the following topics:

  1. What is a Photograph – Briefly covers the history from invention and marriage of chemistry and optics, through to the evolution of photography and its practice. Case-study.
  2. Reading the signs – Briefly covers the theory of meaning, language, semiotics, ideology in an easy to understand way.  Case-study.
  3. Truth and Lies – Considers images reflecting truth in what is real, representation and reality, facts and fiction.  Case-study.
  4. Identity – Covers people and portraits, signifying identity, looking,the body.  Case-study.
  5. Big-Brother – The modern world, the bad, the mad and the other, surveillance society: and Panopticon (originally a 19th century idea to watch prisoners in a specially designed prison). Who is looking at whom? Public spaces – private lives.  Case-study.
  6. Aesthetics – Is it Art? What is art? Photography as art the history of an idea, into postmodernism.  Case-study.

This is a very good and useful book to read, in fact I read it twice.  An easy read and very well illustrated with profiles on key authors for further reading such as Roland Barthes and John Berger to name just a couple.  I would strongly recommend this book and I am surprised that it is not listed as either recommended or essential reading for my OCA course covering Context and Narrative.

Basic Critical Theory for Photographers

Basic_Critical_Theory_for_Photographers

This is a must have book for any degree student for photography!  Basic Critical Theory for Photographers by Ashley la Grange, published by Focal Press.

This book debunks the sometimes baffling academic language from the likes of Barthes and Sontage and summarises the message that authors like these are trying to put across to the poor half comatose reader with assignments to help the student explore these theories more thoroughly.

The books covered: John Berger’s Way of Seeing; John Szarkowski’s The Photographers Eye; Stephen Shore’s, The Nature of Photographs; Susan Sontage’s On Photography; Roland Barthes’, Camera Lucida; Martin Rosler’s essay, ‘In, Around and Afterthoughts’; Abigail Solomon-Godeau’s essay, ‘Inside/Out’; Clive Scott’s The Spoken Image: Photography and Language; Andy Grundberg, The Crisis of the Real; Raghubir Singh’s River of Colour; Bertand Russell’s Appearance and Reality; Iatalo Calvino’s The Adventures of a Photographer; Poems by Felix Morrisseau-Leroy and George Szirtes.

Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes

Camera_Lucida

Camera Lucida, by Roland Barthes, (2000) London, Vintage Classics, ISBN: 9-780099-225416.

Barthes examines, photography, what photography is, and how it works as a medium for art, commercial, social and private use.  This is an important book to read, unfortunately it can be a little hard to read, perhaps because of the translation and Barthes academic language; but worth persevering with.

  • Barthes classifies photos as either, ‘Empirical’, (Professional / Amateurs) ‘Rhetorical’ (Landscape / Objects / Portraits / Nudes) or ‘Aesthetic’, (Realism / Pictorialism).
  • A photograph is never anything but an antiphon (chant) of, “Look see,” “Here it is.”  It points a finger at the relationship it hold, it can not escape its denoted meaning. (page 5).
  • A photograph never distinguishes itself from its referent (what it represents).
  • A photo is a ‘signifier’
  • Barthes identifies two elements to a picture that is needed to make it interesting and he named them ‘Studium’ and ‘Punctum’.  Words he has taken from the Latin language.  ‘Studium’ is the general pleasing or good composition of the picture and Punctum is an element that punctuates through the image, an element that ‘pricks’ / creates an emotional response of some kind. (Page 25 – 28.)

The one thing that I got but didn’t fully realise until now is his idea of studium and punctum, a fellow student helped me with this when he posted a link to a good video explaining this theory.  https://phlearn.com/punctum-better-image

 

Mythologies by Roland Barthes

Mythologies

I have just read this book ‘Mythologies’ by Roland Barthes, although it was not listed on my OCA book list for Context and Narrative, I am so glad I have read it.  I found it difficult to read, as I have to admit I struggled to understand the academic language even with a dictionary.  However, I think that I had understood the gist and Barthes ideas of mythology in combination with Semiology is giving me food for thought for subject matter for my next assignment.  The first section is a collection of essays about various subject matter that Barthes came across in day to day life that can be associated to modern day myths for example: The world of wrestling, Soap-Powder and Detergents Steak and Chips.  But it is the last section, titled Myths Today which is the gold-nugget of information to be read and if necessary re-read until understood. Hard work to read; but a must for all art students.

Rhetoric of the Image, Roland Barthes

Image_Music_Text

In Barthes essay, ‘Rhetoric of the image’ he uses photographs used for advertisements as an example of his argument.  Referring to an advert for Italian ‘Panzani’ pasta and salsas he describes the image as having a language that can be read, he suggest that by analysing the picture, three messages can be deduced: a linguistic message, a coded iconic message, and a non-coded iconic message.

Coded and non-coded iconic messages can be mixed together and they are visual queues often learned through cultural experiences.

A linguistic message is a message in text that accompanies the picture and this takes two forms ‘anchor’ and ‘relay’.

Anchoring is the most common and is commonly used for both advertising and press photography.  This is a form of text that anchors the meaning of the image to a written message of the advertisement or the news story.

Relay, is not so commonly used, it is often used for complementary relationships between fragments of text and images.  For example an appropriately complementing photograph to a section of text from a poem.  This type of message allows the picture and text to interact with each other. A picture of a green field dotted here and there with red poppies and a short section of a war poem suggests that the image reflects the text and the text reflects the image.  The image already has connotations of war and remembrance as does the chosen passage from a poem.

The denoted image.  Barthes writes that the denoted image for a photograph is a message without a code, the photograph is able to transmit the literal information but a drawing must first follow rules which even when denoted is still a coded message.  A drawing requires a certain amount of training thus introducing style as a second cultural coded message.  The photograph simply denoting the relationship of nature and a single culture coded message from the image itself.

Rhetoric of the image.  In an image rhetoric is the message based on cultural and educational experiences that communicate to the viewer at different levels based on education and life’s experiences this is done at an unconscious level. Objects that can be recognised as symbols for example the net bag holding the Penzani pasta products suggesting to some connotations of a fishing net or harvesting together a meal, tomatoes, peppers, mushrooms, connotations of the Italian flag, fresh healthy meal, etc.

 

The Photographers Eye

The Photographers Eye by John Szarkowski is an illustrated book compiled from photographs collected for an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1964 and the theme of this book is based upon the theme of the exhibition.

Szarkowski introduces his book by explaining that it’s theme, ‘is an investigation of what photographs look like and why they look that way. It is concerned with photographic style and with photographic tradition: with the sense of possibilities that a photographer today takes to his work.’  Szarkowski looks at how the art of photography has evolved through the period of 125 years from the earliest surviving pictures to the 1960’s.  Szarkowski looks at how photography has created and taught us new ways of seeing; how photography could make it’s own rules independent of the established art world partly through ignorance and from the practicality dictated by the camera and its view and enthusiastic experimentation.  Szarkowshi has selected a range of photographs to illustrate how photographers from different backgrounds all came to share the same photographic vision that was not taught but learned through years of practice and considers the history of this medium, ‘in terms of photographers progressive awareness of characteristics and problems that have seemed inherent in the medium.’

He has divided his book into five sections examining five issues that he believes are characteristics inherent and problematic in photographs and understanding these five sections will help in the understand of the language for the ‘reading’ of a photograph.

The thing itself.

Outside of the studio the photograph, unlike a painting, is captured not created therefor the photographer has fewer choices in composition, he can only choose what to and what not to include in the frame.  However, instead of limiting what photographers would choose to make pictures of the camera’s ability to capture anything in an instant making a permanent record of it opened up opportunities to create images of the ordinary and bland subjects that artist would not have drawn or painted and make them interesting .  However, black and white images would leave out certain details and exaggerate others and yet the final image would still be accepted as a true representative of the subject.  Holgrove wrote, “The nineteenth century began by believing that what was reasonable was true and it would end up by believing that what it saw a photograph of was true.”  The almost lifelike reproduction of the black and white image helped raise the naïve notion that the camera doesn’t lie for which many photographers  were happy not to discourage.  George Bernard Shaw wrote that this was a double edged sword, “There is a terrible truthfulness about photography. The ordinary academician gets hold of a pretty model, paints her as well as he can, calls her Juliet, and puts a nice verse from Shakespeare underneath, and the picture is admired beyond measure.  The photographer finds the same pretty girl, he dresses her up and photographs her, and calls her Juliet, but somehow it is no good – it will still be Miss Wilkins, the model. It is too true to be Juliet.”

The detail

“If your pictures aren’t good, you’re not close enough.” Robert Capa.  Outside of the studio, unlike drawings and paintings, photographs can only record what is actually in from of them and in the real world of photography it is usually impossible to alter the position and distance of various subjects to simply improve the composition of the picture.  Therefore often a photographer can only position himself in a place that will only capture a part of the image.  Unlike drawings and paintings photography is unable to produce a story type narrative, as successful painting will often combine several events that have occurred over a period of time and the artist has combined them into one scene that can tell the whole story.  Photography can only capture one scene at a time and when a selection of images are put together to tell the story these images still require text in order to explain the connection to each picture and the event itself.  However, it was soon realised that the photograph could use symbols instead to represent the intended narrative, therefore photographers focused on detail some that may have seemed to ordinary and trivial or dull to the painter but when photographed could symbolise the scene / event / for the narrative that the photographer could not otherwise be so easily produce.  An example of this is a photograph of cannon balls scattered across a road symbolising the recent ferocious battle and bombardment.  The chosen detail is the spent and discarded ammunition on a deserted road symbolic of the recent action.  In this style of imagery few words are needed, the photographer is taking advantage of the viewers own imagination to complete the story for the picture.

The Frame

Where as in drawing and painting the frame is conceived, in photography it can only be selected forcing the photographer to choose what to include or not to include.  In this way what ever the photographer includes in to the frame will now have a relationship with one another that they may not of done in real life for example, two strangers photographed standing together on a platform waiting for a train can now appear to be companions simply because both were selected to be in the frame.  The painter begins with a blank canvas, the draftsman from the centre of his sheet the photographer from the frame.  The photographer must learn how to edit the real world, to isolate and juxtapose when unexpected elements come together within his frame.  The frame contains, what is inside the frame is subjected to close scrutiny but a photograph can also imply beyond the frame.

Time

A photograph is a moment of time captured by the camera this moment can be 1/1000’s of a second in length or up to several minutes or more.  A photograph captures this moment and freezes it in to an image describing a parcel of time which may allude to the past or future can only ever be viewed in the present.  This can mean that an image’s meaning can change or be re-interpreted by future generations of viewers.  Early photography required longer lengths of exposure time for the slower chemicals, often resulting in images never before seen, dogs with two heads babies with two faces transparent or elongated people as they moved during the exposure period.  Often theses early images have been regarded as photographic failures which ironically as film and cameras have improved and become faster modern photographers are now being deliberately replicating the affects for modern artistic styled pictures.  As the exposure time became faster images could be captured never before seen by the human eye, how the horse gallops, a bullet in flight, droplets of water thrown out from a splash as a stone hits the water, and many more sights invisible to the human eye due to the speed of the moment.  Cartier-Bresson defined the expression “The decisive moment” a visual climax a moment when the camera has captured a moment when all the elements came together to capture that image at the right moment.  Thanks to modern cameras with fast shutter speeds and fast continues shooting these decisive moments can be more easily captured providing of course you are prepared for them.  For example, sports photographers positioned to see and focused on the spot he or she will predict the moment will occur.

Vantage point

Unlike a drawing or a painting the photographer has limited choices when choosing a vantage point and so the photographer has sometimes been forced to use unusual view points such as very low level worm eye views, views from backstage seeing only the backs of the actors, birds eye views looking down, distorted and strange views created by lens distortion or patterns of light.  Through the necessity of moving his camera to see his subject clearly or to see it at all the photographer learned that the appearance of the world was a lot richer and less simple than he would have first guessed.  He also discovered, ‘that his pictures could not only reveal the clarity buy also the obscurity of things, and these mysterious and evasive images could also, in their own terms, seem ordered and meaningful.’

 

 

 

Ways of Seeing by John Berger

I have just read a good book by John Berger called Ways of Seeing (1972) London: Penguin. ISBN: 978-0-141-03579-6.

The book complemented a BBC four part TV series of the same name first broadcasted in 1974 and is available to watch on YouTube.  The T.V. series and book was ground breaking work for demystifying the Art of oil paintings and demonstrating how the reading of pictures has changed and been adapted for modern life.  John Berger begins by explaining how photography has had a dramatic effect on art particularly for the oil painting by both making it more democratically available to be seen by many but by producing facsimile copies it has also changed the way pictures are and can be seen.  For example a facsimile of Adam and God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome will not be identical (a perfect double) as there will only be one original and can only be seen in situ above your head.  Therefor any facsimile will be seen out on context of it’s location and out of context from the rest of the fresco.  By removing the original context will potentially change the meaning and interpretation of the picture.

Publicity – John Berger has used examples of advertising (he refers to it as publicity) to demonstrate how the meanings of pictures can be changed and manipulated.  He also discussed how the Nude has been used in art and how the pictorial language for the female Nude has changed over the centuries from medieval Adam and Eve frescos to the 19th century realists illustrating the symbols of vanity, desire, purity, and ownership, etc. that have been associated with the Nude in the language of the picture.  Again John Berger has illustrated how modern photographers have used oil painting of nudes to construct their own nude images by copying poses and themes and how advertising has also used the nude to convey a message for commerce.

Ways of Seeing is made up of seven chapters, three of these chapters are picture essays with no text.

A good book but perhaps a little hard to understand without watching the BBC series as well.  However, it is easy to find on YouTube and I am sure the BBC still broadcast it for Schools and Colleges.