BA Phot

The importance of being a photograph


These are some jottings about photography, triggered by reading Thompson's Why Photography Matters. It started with my conclusion that the course is missing a vital point in discussing the way a viewer sees a photograph - I think that the subject of the image is key - the course does not mention it.
Then there's the issue of what constitutes merit in a photograph. I will continue to stash notes here and might one day get them organised into a coherent piece.

26th Mar 19 Dimensions of photography -

7th Oct 18 Brandt - 17th Sep 18 Friedlander - 6th Sep 18 The Market - 5th Sep 18 first posts

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20th June


A month or so ago I noted that whatever the other criteria for judging the merits of a photograph, it must, first of all, be eyecatching. If it is not the viewer will just pass it by; if it is then it deserves further analysis.

This may appear superficial, but it still seems to me to be fundamentally true. Two further points leading from that.
The viewing public is overwhelmingly superficial and there is no point in exhibiting a deeply meaningful photograph that does not get any attention. There may be a great deal of self satisfaction in creaing an image that is meaningful in some way, but if it is being exhibited it must be in order to gain attention: that is the point of an exhibition.
I spent so long on the first point that the second has now elluded me. It may return.

I have some material to add on photo criticism when I have digested two current books — Barrett's Criticising photographs and ....

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Dimensions of photography

There is a lot to be said for binary choices (and as the Brexit Boil comes to a head, a lot to be said against them). But here I propose a simple binary division or dimension as a means of understanding, or perhaps analysing, or maybe just classifying photographs.

Photographs are either documentary or artistic (GET ANOTHER WORD) in intention. There are overlaps in many of the other dimensions but that is a fundamental distinction.

Jerry L. Thompson (2016, pp.75-76) quotes his hero, Walker Evans,

[My] work is in the field of non-scholarly, non-pedantic sociology. It is a visual study of American civilisation of a sort never undertaken at all extensively by photographers who are all either commercial, journalistic or "artistic." … [My book] may call attention to the seriousness in certain small things; it may reveal the emptiness of certain big things. Walker Evans, letter 29th April 1960 to the Ford Foundation, quoted in Thompson (2016, pp.75-76)

And Thompson himself distinguishes between the journalistic and the pictorialist,

Photographers who care only about information might be called journalistic; their pictures need captions, and the captions often do the same work as the pictures, though with less visual impact, the way museum labels for "difficult" artworks do. Photographers who care only about how the picture looks might be called pictorialist; their pictures need captions no more than a symphony needs a "program", or a story the music can be thought to tell (a storm, the Resurrection, etc.). The richest, most fully realised photography is made by those who work somewhere in the middle. Thompson (2016, pp.41-42)

As mentioned at the start, it is, perhaps, the photographer's intention that is key here. A good example of the two extremes and the overlap is found in the work of Don McCullin, currently on show at Tate Britain.

Don McCullin Don McCullin Don McCullin
Dimensions Box A
1. Ibo soldier during the civil war, Biafra, Nigeria, 1967
2. from the Woods near my house series c.1991
3 Consett, County Durham, 1974
© Don McCullin

A similar exercise could easily be undertaken for Capa or Cartier-Bresson

McCullin's intention in fig. 1 and his other war photographs is clearly fundamentally documentary, although it is usually added, with justification that he "always has an eye for composition". That is, of course, what makes a decent photographer. By contrast, the intention of fig. 2 is entirely artistic: the label on this section of the exhibition states, "After a lifetime of war, McCullin says he has now 'sentenced himself to peace'". Fig. 3 was my favourite piece in the show and is a delightful meeting of the two poles. The initial intention and underlying purpose was probably documentary as it is part of a series from Consett illustrating poverty and hard working lives. The combination and contrast of dark satanic mills with the lighter mother and pram; the message of hope for the future while pushing along what seems to be a dirt road, surrounded by Lowryesque industrial squalor, the image has a complex narrative drive that rises above the purely documentary.

Returning to Thompson's point about photographs needing labels, fig. 3 is a prime example of one that does not (at least, assuming the viewer's foreknowledge of 20th century Western industrial and labour history).

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I am contemplating a survey of fellow students to ask how they react to Brandt's photograph. here's a draft. [26Mar19 - I didn't. Probably just as well.]

Heading - Reacting to photographs, a survey.

Hi - I'm Nick [etc. brief intro]

I would like to invite your help in exploring how we react initially to photographs. My view is that the most important factors are (1) the photograph's subject matter and (2) what the viewer brings subjectively to the transaction in terms of opinions, attitudes and personal history. It is only after this initial process that a relatively dispassionate view can be taken of, for example, technical aspects of the photograph.

This arises from my documenting Bill Brandt - one of his photographs had a particular resonance and it seemed to me that my particular, almost singular, combination of attributes is responsible.

If any fellow students would like to play this game, please note your reactions when you see the photograph and try to analyse the thought processes you went through. Alternatively, perhaps others are capable of an emotional detachment that I lack. Please let me know.

It would also be interesting for others to suggest images that have such an effect on them and let others respond.

When you are ready to "self-analyse", this link is to the image. Please make your response by replying to this post.

And, when you are done, this link is to my blog entry on the photograph.

Thanks, Nick

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Bill Brandt,
Northumbrian coal miner
eating his evening meal, 1937


Bill Brandt, Northumbrian Miner

I have lighted upon a good picture to use as an example. I happened to be documenting Bill Brandt yesterday and one of the images displayed was 'Northumbrian coal miner eating his evening meal', 1937. In the night it struck me that initial reactions to this image would depend upon a number of personal characteristics, including age, race and gender.

Brandt (1904-83) was a British photographer (although born in Germany with one German and one English parent) who worked with Man Ray in the 1930s before coming to London. In a long career, he proved an absolute master of several genres, social documentary, portrait, landscape, nude with a little artistic abstraction too. He is arguably Britain's greatest photographer.

The image of the Northumbrian miner and (presumably) his wife is a fine example of how a viewer's interaction with a photograph will be affected by its subject matter. For example, as a 60-something, Welsh, white, male the thoughts that sprang to mind unbidden on seeing this are,
1. The Aberfan disaster which happened in 1966 when I was eleven, living 30 miles away. I remember my uncle that evening driving to the area with food, clothes and blankets collected locally.
2. The miners' strikes of the 1980s.
3. But these are modulated by memories of Python and Beyond the Fringe sketches mocking Northern working class lifestyles.
4. I have a vague memory of controversy concerning pit-head baths but superficial subsequent research suggests that these began to be introduced in the 1930s. I also wondered why he did not at least wash his face before eating.

When I then examined the contents in some detail after the initial rush of thoughts, I wondered,
5. Why is the wife not eating?
6. Why is that handbag hanging on the wall (my wife thinks it is a school satchel and, having looked again, I think so too).
7. Regarding the photograph on the wall behind the hanging washing, the subject in the small section that is visible seems to be peering round the clothes. I thought that this must have been deliberate by Brandt who almost certainly adjusted the picture and/or the clothes to achieve that effect. Then, perhaps the unwashed face was also deliberate.

This chain of thoughts arises from my background. A few people, probably of about the same age, might react similarly, but not many.

I hesitate (well, no, I don't really) to speculate on how other people might react or why, but to give some examples,
Anyone born in Britain after 1980 is unlikely to have met a miner, unless, of course, they come from an area affected by the wholesale closure of the pits, in which case they might have stark views.
Anyone who served in the UK police force during the 1980s is likely to have a very different take on it.
A woman might give more thought to how the (presumed) wife is depicted.
A person of colour might regard this as an example of 'blacking up'.

I found a few online references:
Eve Bowen, The New York Review of Books
Coal miners, Pinterest
Richard Keys, Photosociology

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Lee Friedlander
Lee Friedlander, self portrait



Context is important. Consider Lee Friedlander's Provincetown, Cape Cod, Massachusetts, 1968 (right). At first sight, this appears to be a trivial, inconsequential image. With the back-story provided by Jackie Higgins [2],

[one of many self-portraits, this] seemingly narcissistic project started in earnest in 1964. While looking over his contact sheets, he noticed how often his shadow accidentally intruded, so he set about consciously including it. He photographed it on the backs of women walking (New York City, 1966), on their faces (Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1966). He photographed himself reflected in windows (New Orleans, Louisiana, 1968) … [etc.] … In the rare instances that he presented his face to the camera, he sought to obscure it with something as mundane as a light bulb. Why Photography Matters, Jerry L Thompson, p. 13

This context makes the self portrait far more interesting, in a similar way to knowing knowing that Tina Barney's family snaps are taken with a view camera puts them in a different light. Where this puts Friedlander's self portrait on a scale running from worthwhile to self-indulgent remains open to question, but the fact that it derives from a thought process and has a developmental context clearly works in its favour.

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We will have to engage with Barthes' Semiotics.

see Semiotics for Beginners Daniel Chandler
The Semiotics of Photography, Jack Person
Semiotics of photography, Wikipedia

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Why Photography Matters, Jerry L. Thompson
Why Photography Matters


The market

Jerry L. Thompson writes [1],

Since about 1975, a high-dollar market for photographs has existed. In it, the rules of the old market for works of art apply; color sells for more than black and white; larger costs more than smaller; rarer brings a better price. So talented photographers began to work in color, make large prints, and print in limited, numbered editions. And at precisely this point in its history, photography began to change from what most workers thought it had been into something else - a something which could still be called photography (because of the tools and materials used), but a something which had lost interest in that unique connection between inside and outside so charming to [Fox] Talbot. The door leading back to ancient epistemology closed. A thing new (and, to many, exciting) appeared. But another thing - a thing older, and thought by many to be worn out - was, if not lost altogether, then eclipsed as many of the most talented younger workers took up the newer, more fashionable photographic practices.
Another rule of the market is that price at auction determines importance - art we see in museums and handsomely produces catalogs today, and what important critics will write about and students of art history will study tomorrow. Today, we believe that the best artists get the highest prices. If high prices happen early in a career, the artist gets rich. As a character invented by Scott Fitzgerald famously put it, the rich are different from you and me. Yes: like the very brightest, they are less likely to engage in lengthy, laborious, uncontrollable and humbling dialectic. Fame and its advantages can distract from such unglamorous work. The dialectic-like relationship between photographer and subject-world is fragile, difficult to sustain. Why Photography Matters, Jerry L Thompson, pp. 23-24

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It was later noted that once an artist has established a reputation there tends to be an acceptance that all their subsequent work will be of merit. This seems to apply to fine art, photography and 'serious' music but far less so to literature. This may be partly because while the others are consumed passively (with little effort on the part of the viewer), the consumption literature is active and longer term (e.g. the amount of time it takes to read a novel): when the consumer has to invest effort and resource into the appreciation of the art there would naturally be a tendency to be more discriminating.

Consider also the role of galleries, dealers and auction houses manipulating the market, maintaining and inflating prices and managing supply

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The importance of being a photograph

originally posted on the blog, 5th September 2018

I have just bought a book called “Why Photography Matters” by Jerry L. Thompson and will summarise its arguments on the Books page in due course. I intend to write a companion piece, titled something like “What’s important about a Photograph” and hope to finish it by the end of my first year. I will give it its own page (this is it).
My motivation is two (or more)  fold.

  1. I disagree with quite a few portions  the course material so far. To my mind (as I have commented on several of the exercises – LIST THEM) it is that the subject matter of a photograph is of paramount importance in determining the viewer’s immediate (and prolonged) reaction to it. You can talk all you want about leading lines and the rule of thirds and eye movement detection studies, but such things are of secondary importance. As  say at the end of Part 1,
    When confronted with a photograph of police violence or struggling refugees, or a nude study, or even a kitten, the detail of the subject and the viewer's engagement or emotional response will determine eye movement more than proximity to the edge or converging diagonals. Part 1
  2. The ongoing documentation of numerous photographers of various periods and genres continues to be enthralling (I have abandoned my nightly World of Warcraft sessions to work on it). In most cases, I merely quote selectively from the sources found, but I’m sometimes drawn to comment, see, for example, Murtha, Barney and Taylor. This is beginning to crystallise as something along the lines that,
    it is difficult to distinguish quite a lot of contemporary photography from what would have been (when photographs were routinely printed) in a family snapshot album, other than by size and location. The subjects are frequently of no particular or apparent interest to a third party until they are dignified as art by enlargement and display. A notable example here is Tina Barney (who I wrote up last night). blog

Some other relevant points:
a) Blog 3Jul18, regarding Napoleon, "to understand a person, you must know what was happening in the world when they were 20"
b) Maybe the course covers this later.
c) The jury is out over whether techniques and media are important. Arguably it is just the outcome (i.e. the photograph) that matters. Against that, an image created through “alternative processes” might get special consideration, depending on the viewer – e.g. if they are aware of what a cyanotype is. This might be something to do with the amount of effort involved and how far it is removed from the point and click digital age. Again, Tina Barney is a case in point, taking family snaps on a 8x10 field camera. It probably also means that pre-digital workers gain automatic brownie points and respect just for using analogue methods. E.g. it doesn’t matter what Fox Talbot photographed, the fact that he invented the process and “that’s the first ever snap of a hay rick” give it interest and gravitas. Knowing that Atget turned down the offer of a Rolleiflex from May Ray, preferring to stick with his 18x24 plate camera is important for some, when viewing his work. BUT ALL OF THIS only if you know about and care about the history of photography.

1. Why Photography Matters, Jerry L Thompson, 2013, MIT Press
2. Why it does not have to be in focus, Jackie Higgins, 2013, Thames & Hudson

Page created 05-Sep-2018 | Page updated 20-Jun-2019