Photography critics and art historians have developed their own language for critiquing and talking about photographs. Much of this is based on in-depth theory and can be daunting to even experienced photographers. But in the end, all of these ideas are based on everyday responses we all have to art, or in this case, photography. We like or dislike photos, we interpret the story behind the scene, we feel certain emotions. All of this goes beyond just the composition.
Art critic John Berger famously said; “The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.” This article attempts to explain some of the things that define that relationship.
'Reading' a photograph
When we look at photographs, we don't just look at them passively; we search for meaning and message, even if we are not consciously aware of doing so. In this way, you could argue that we read images as we would a piece of writing, trying to discover the meaning and the message behind it. At its simplest, the message could be that the photographer decided the scene was worth recording. At its most complex, an image can provoke problematic and ambiguous relationships between the reader and the image.
The language of photography often leaves us with paradoxes. For example, the notion of looking suggests something very passive, but nothing about photography is passive, in fact, the very act of ‘taking’ a photograph itself is a conscious action. Ultimately, photographs are the physical record of the choices made by a photographer in a single moment. All of these, such as composition, colour and subject matter affect how we see and understand the image and read its message.
“The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.”
- John Berger
An image always contains a message that reflects the codes, values, and beliefs of the photographer. The eyes of the viewer and the eyes of the photographer influence how it is read. In this way, the photograph is never a true representation of a scene, but a representation of how we see the world. But then the real question is if a photograph is to be ‘read’, how do we read its message?
The photograph as a frame
It may seem obvious to suggest that the content of a photograph gives us the best frame of reference to read it’s meaning, but according to semiotic theory (the study of signs and symbols) there are two ways in which we read the subject of a photograph.
The denotative meaning is the literal understanding of an object in a scene. For example, a black cat is just an example of a four-legged animal which happens to be a certain colour. These literal details form the base of our understanding of what the image is. From this starting point, we begin to investigate the connotative meaning of these things.
Here, the difference between denotation and connotation is decided by what society has told us that certain symbols, colours, expressions and such mean. In this way, the connotations of a black cat in western society might suggest unluckiness, or evoke ideas of ‘slyness’ or an association with witchcraft (among many other things). The key thing to remember here is that these connotative ideas can vary from culture to culture.
According to Roland Barthes, most famed for his writing Camera Lucida, there are two factors which influence how we look at these aspects of a photograph.
The first he labels Studium. This is the emotive initial appeal of the overall image, or the way the image as a whole draws our interest. Newspaper photographs are a good example of this, we engage with them, but may not read them for deeper meaning, and generally do not love them unless they display the second characteristic; punctum.
Punctum is described by Barthes as a small element which rises from the overall scene and causes you to engage emotionally and question the subject matter more deeply. These small elements inform our reading of the photograph on all levels.
At first glance (the ‘studium’) the image appears to show a traditional middle-class American family. However, as we engage with those ‘punctum’ aspects of the image we read into smaller details. As we read these details it can be considered a statement about this middle-class life, rather than just depicting it.
The image is composed so the lawn takes up a large proportion of the frame, suggesting a sense of emptiness and isolation within the photographic space. The visual weight of the trees that border the frame make the atmosphere slightly dark and overshadowed. As we read the image, we form connotations of a slightly uneasy physical space, which leads us to also form these associations with the figures and emotional side of the scene.
We notice the small ‘punctum’ elements that add to these ideas. Every small detail of the figures, such as the fact that their hands are outstretched but not touching adds to the sense of isolation we read from the image. The objects of play have been pushed to the back of the frame, the lounge chairs face the camera in a formal structured manner, but the body language of the subjects does not suggest relaxation.
All of these small elements combined lead us to develop a perception of the whole culture in the one image. This acts as a typical example of layers of meaning within the photograph.
How these details relate to larger themes is typical of Diane Arbus’s photography, which brings us onto the next factor in reading images – the role of the author.
The photograph as a product of its creator
This idea of a photograph being an abstract representation is based on the idea that there is always a photographer behind the image making choices. Their conscious and sub-conscious bias affect the image. When we create images, we often consciously and subconsciously highlight or eliminate subjects and objects within the frame and change the composition of the frame as we shoot.
Therefore, our photographs are always born from our life experiences and reflect our point of view, not just physically but aesthetically, polemically, politically or ideologically, whether we like it or not.
The degree as to which the photograph makes the photographer's decisions apparent and the effect this has on the overall meaning can vary. As a result, the way we read a photograph changes depending on not only our understanding of the objects in the photograph and its context but also our understanding of the author.
Every photographer is an author by the act of creation; as a result, their work can be the summation of a style, influences, and photographic discourse as much as the work of a writer, or musician.
In his book Great Artists Steal, Austin Kleon argues that “If you ever find that you're the most talented person in the room, you need to find another room.” In a metaphorical way, this applies to the process of developing as a photographer. The photography that we consume, whether through photo books, galleries, or magazines can drastically alter our own style and artistic development.
At first, the image above appears to be a ‘literal record’ or neutral scene (that we’ve established doesn’t truly exist). The girls are framed in such a way that it is difficult to place them within a social or historical context. Further to this, the framing of their location against a white wall and matching attire also strip them of any social or personal cues into which we could read. However, these small factors together begin to create a language or discourse of ‘difference and similarity’ around the photograph.
The smallest differences, such as facial expressions, now have larger impact thanks to this framing. This is further emphasized by the title, Identical Twins, which opens up questions within the image – in this case, whether they are truly identical.
In this way, all titling of photography has an immediate impact on how we read meaning within the image as much as the image itself. Both of which will reflect the authors specific point of view, making it very much an interpretation of a scene rather than a literal reflection.
The photograph as a self-critical medium
As writing or painting have associations with them, so does photography. In 1955, The Family of Man Exhibition in New York divided 503 photographs into categories such as ‘creation, birth, love, work, death, justice, democracy, peace’. This suggested universal themes for photography; ways of grouping images by theme. Today photographers often label their work as ‘documentary photography’ or ‘art photography’ and we read a photograph within its own terms of reference, own genre and own norms.
While painting has a surface and makes its methods visible, photography makes its methods and strategies invisible. As a result, we tend to look at it as a mirror or reflection. A key example of this is war photography, which we tend to read as a literal record, even though factors, as we have already seen, will come into play and inform the image in front of us.
As a result, photography has a history of being a very self-critical and self-conscious medium, with many photographers trying to question what a photograph is, make their methods more visible and challenge stereotypical associations with how we ‘read’ a photograph. In this way, some photographers choose to take a photo as an abstract view of the world and deliberately make them confusing to read so they appear less of a direct representation. A key example of this is the work of Lee Friedlander (1934 – present)
In his image Route 9W New York in 1969, the surface of the photograph is broken up in such a way that it is incredibly difficult to read. It breaks standard composition rules and as a result, our eye struggles to visually read it for symbols that would give us the denotative and connotative meaning. While there is depth to the image, the angle of the shot creates a slightly ambiguous space where it is hard to get a sense of the setting.
The reflection of the photographer in the wing mirror makes the methods known and clarifies that we are looking at a photograph, rather than focusing on the subject. In this way, it breaks traditions of the ‘invisible’ method of photography. The act of looking and reading is mixed amongst the process of construction, in the same way that you see a painting but can also see the brushstrokes. Here then, the way we understand and read a photograph is not only influenced by the subject or by the author, but also by the methods of production.
Understanding photographs has never been straightforward. This is because, ultimately, a photograph is the result of human choice being exercised in a given situation. The degree to which a photograph reveals its meaning and explains its methods, messages and the photographer’s decisions is variable. Thinking about the denotative and connotative aspects, the studium and punctum and the role of the methods and author can help us ask questions that make these meanings more visible to us.
However, it should also force us to view photography critically, to look at the way in which the photographer imparts his own experiences onto the image. How do the photographer's own viewpoint, life experiences, and prejudices impact their work?
Arguably, the person reading the photograph can also impart as much meaning on its content as the photographer. Do the viewer's culture and life experiences mirror those of the photographers or do they conflict? Does this lead to a unique view and a different message being imparted? It’s this ambiguity which is part of the joy of photography and provokes so much discussion and emotion around the craft.
Note: All the images in this post are the property of the respective photographers.