BA Phot

Reading Photographs

Reading Photographs: An Introduction
to the Theory and Meaning of Images

Richard Salkeld

Richard Salkeld

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Salkeld, R. (2018) Reading photographs: an introduction
to the theory and meaning of images
. London: Bloomsbury.

I bought this while studying the Context and Narrative course, one section of which is titled Reading Photographs. It is one of the few books I have paid full price for (I usually wait for a decent s/h copy and settle for an old edition if necessary). It was well worth it.

There are three particularly good sections:
(i) a fine explanation of semiotics, much better than OCA C&N
(ii) a masterful brief history of photography
(iii) a useful section on 'is photography art', although Salkeld rather ducks the issue at the end. That's where I am starting this summary as I have started a page on the subject.

The chapters of the book are:
1. What is a photograph (img: P)
2. Reading the signs - Barthes and semiotics (img: S)
3. Truth and lies (img: T)
4. Identity (img: I)
5. Big brother is watching you (img: B)
6. Aesthetics - is it art?, the history (img: A)

Reading the signs

(images prefixed S)

New Jersey, 1971 Elliot Erwitt
Box S(i)
1. New Jersey, 1971
Elliot Erwitt

On signs (and signifiers and signifieds, pp.51-52) Salkeld begins with a lovely Erwitt image of a dog, fig. S1. He tells us that both the letters D-O-G and fig. S1 are signifiers that both refer to an animal (the referent) and trigger the concept of dog (which is signified) in the mind of the reader or viewer.
An actual dog can also be a sign - a bark or a wagging tail are signifiers interpreted by a witness as meaning (or signifying) a warning or a welcome.

He goes on (p.52) to observe that signs can be arbitrary, iconic or indexical or a combination.
arbitrary — words such as 'dog' are arbitrary, as are the colour conventions of traffic lights: blue could have been used for 'stop'.
image by Peter Wolf
Box S(ii)
2. Untitled, 2019
by Peter Wolf
indexical — produced by the referrent, e.g. a dog's bark or the smell of cooking (where would Proust's madeleine sit in this context?) and photographs are indexical signifiers fo the process that leads from a subject via technology to a flat image (Salkeld suggests that thisgoes some way to explaining 'the popular idea that the camera never lies', p.52).
iconic — signifiers resemble the referrent e.g. sketches photographs and some street signs.
combination — extending Salkeld's own example, a photograph of a fire crew attending a house fire: the photograph is intrinsically indexical; the smoke and flames are indexical the writing on the fire engine is arbitrary, as is the warning colour of red (do I recall correcty that French fire engines are yellow?); warning signs around the site may be iconic, fig. S2 (Richards, 2019, image © Peter Wolf).

Denotation and conotation (p.53)

Everyone sees literally the same thing in a photograph, the denoted contents, such as a dog in fig. S1, but everyone then goes on to interpret the contents subjectively, based on 'experience, knowledge, taste and emotion' (p.53) — this is the connoted meaning and, in the case of fig. S1, would be affected (positively or negatively) by experiences of a dog as a pet and (almost certainy negatively) by having been bitten by a dog.
Probable positive collective connotations (e.g. sunny beaches, shiny cars, seemingly available sexual partners) can be used to try and influence relevent segments of an audience for an image. Salkeld uses the example of a bottle of perfume - the product (a particular smell) cannot be denoted in an image but positive associative connotations can be given by, for example, celebrity usage and allusions to glamorous lifestyles.
Barthes terms a photograph's 'capacity for generating multiple meanings' (p.56) as polysemy.


(images prefixed A)

In C19 painters and sculptors used photographs to ease their processes, but photography itself was not considered an art. As photographers imitated paintings with what amounted to blurred realism, painting moved away from realistic depiction, through impressionism to surrealism and abstraction, mean which in C20, photography returned to straight realism, but still was not regarded as art. In the 1920s, photography began to establish its own path with Rodchenko and Walker Evans.
He notes that photography is art de-facto because it is displayed in public museums and sold in commercial galleries alongside paintings etc., but how has this come about and is it justified?

Regarding Roger Scruton's view that photography cannot be art because the subject is causal - Salkeld summarises the argument as, art requires 'that it should express something about the world (not simply show it), and that it should be an object in its own right'. Regarding manipulations in post processing, Scruton regards this as just 'fiddling with the truth'.

Salkeld acknowledges that photography is 'both causal and mechanical', and that while it can involve some technical skill and aesthetic choices, those do not make it art.
But artistic expression is not necessarily discernible in all traditional art (so it cannot be a prerequisite); photographers may express something in their choices, but ultimately it is the viewer who imposes their judgment through personal interpretation on photographs, paintings, sculptures and all art forms.

While a definition of art itself is tricky, citing Duchamp's revolutionary urinal Fountain of 1917, Warhol's 1964 Brillo Box and Emin's 1999 My Bed, Salkeld states that 'anything can be a work of art' (p.152) and that includes a photograph of a photograph by Richard Prince, Cowboy, 1989. They are art because 'the institutions and discourses that constitute the art world have validated them' (p.152) and Salkeld goes on to assert that there is broad agreement on which photographs form part of that definition. While he admits that this definition puts us at the mercy (and whim) of an 'elitist clique', there is no objective, rational definition of art and so we just have to accept what is - (my words) if curators choose to hang it, galleries to sell it and collectors to by it, then it is, de facto, art.
His explanation, interesting though it is, ends in what amounts to a restatement of the question he started with - it is art because those to whom we have acceded authority over such matter have decided it is.

After Salkeld etc.
Box A(i)
1. After Salkeld etc.
Apr 2020

A quick and pleasing aside here. Salkeld mentions Sherrie Levine who (perhaps) exposes the questionable value of art (and made a living for herself in doing so) by exhibiting her photographs of photographs by good photographers. Inevitably, Salkeld has photographed a Levine and presents it here as After Sherrie Levine, 2012. Equally inevitably I, like, I am sure, many others, am going to take this one step further and bring to the world After Salkeld ... After Levine ... After Rodchenko, fig. A1.

Box A(ii)
2. Beaumont Newhall
History of Photography
first edition

[spellchecked to here]

Picking up on Duchamp's invention of the 'ready-made', Salkeld suggests that all unprocessed photographs are (using Scruton's logic) a form of ready-made and just as Duchamp prompted debate on the nature of art, so photographs can provoke debate and can come to be regarded as art.

Looking at the history of photography, Salkeld notes that there is a great deal of conformity on which are the great or good ones over the years. Newhall (1949), fig. B1, was the first such study and those by Rosenblum (1984) and Marien (2003) also get a mention. Newhall worked at MoMA and this was the beginning of the process of photography being accepted as art that was fully realised under Szarkowski.

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Marien, M.W. (2003) Photography: A Cultural History. London: Lawrence King.

Newhall, B. (1949) The History of Photography from 1839 to Present Day. NY: MoMA.

Robinson, A. (2019) Folkestone house fire in pictures: 20 photos show devastation caused after fire tore through three homes [online]. Available from [Accessed 7 May 2020].

Rosenblum, N. (1984) World History of Photography. NY: Abbeville Press.

author, (year) Title. Location: Publisher.

author, (year) Title. Location: Publisher.

author (year) title [online]. website. Available from url [Accessed nn April 2020].

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