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Evaluating photographs (IP)

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[11Aug20] This was engaged with at some length and without resolution during C&N and EyV. Battle was rejoined today for I&P Exercise 1.1. I will run this page as a blog with the most recent entry on top. My 11Aug summary will be the first post at the bottom of the page.

Logo v.2




12th August, 7th October

Initial summary

Putting that together, with #2 as a core:

When writing about a picture —

- last update 7Oct20 with Spence and Martin - and Bate on portraits

Who What When Where Why and how

1. Look at the objective, denoted, aspects - describe the picture, its subject and its peripheral contents. [what, where and when]

1a. Consider the title or accompanying text, Barthes' anchor and relay [this originally linked to my comments in C&N but those have been enlarged upon for I&P Exc. 4.2].

2. Find quotes from the artist and from critics on the particular work or their general approach. Comment on the photographer's physical and technical choices. If relevant, include the photographer's political or other views at the time the work was created (they might change). [who, how and why]

3. Look for the subjective, connoted, aspects and speculate on how they might be interpreted and why the artist chose to include them. Note how various viewers' backgrounds, environments and circumstances might engender different reactions. Include an overall reaction to the æsthetics of the piece, its technical qualities (or failings) and why the photographer might have chosen to create it. [more what, but a different what; and more why]

4. Look at the piece in the wider context of the artist's work, how it might relate to other artists and other art forms. [more how and why]

5. Comment on the display environment if reviewing a particular instance, or the effect of different environments. [a different where]

6. Deploy the appropriate technical terms throughout.

The sequence of these steps has yet to be determined: it could be that the sequence should be adjusted depending on the type of image. Time may tell.

In some circumstances it might be appropriate to discuss why a particular image was chosen as a subject.

There is some extra material in the online version of I&P which would be worth working into the above. Suggestions for how to break down the analysis of a portrait, developed by Jo Spence and Rosy Martin.

The Physical Description: Consider the human subject within the photograph, then start with a forensic description, moving towards taking up the position of the sitter. Visualise yourself as the sitter in order to bring out the feelings associated with the photograph.
The Context of Production: Consider the photographs context in terms of when, where, how, by whom and why the photograph was taken.
The Context of Convention: Place the photograph into context in terms of the technologies used, aesthetics employed, photographic conventions used.
The Currency: Consider the photographs currency within its context of reception, who or what was the photograph made for? Who owns it now and where is it kept? Who saw it then and who sees it now? Jo Spence and Rosy Martin in Boothroyd and Roberts (2019) p.38

also David Bate's four or five elements of the portrait (Bate, 2016 p.89) described with Exercise 1.2:
Face - personal appearance, facial expression
Pose - attitude, "upbringing"
Clothing - social class, sex / gender, cultural values
Location - social setting
Props - objects signifying status

11th August 2020

Initial entry

The cmat in I&P Exercise 1.1 instructs,

1 'elaborate upon the feelings and emotions generated whilst viewing an image … Read what has already been written about your chosen practitioner’s archive, paying particular attention to what historians and other academics have highlighted in their texts'

2 In my upsumming of C&N I wrote (bearing in mind the course spends quite a lot of time on Barthes and his approaches),

There are aspects of a photograph that most of us can agree on - the objective (maybe physical, maybe representational) aspects; and there are others (probably the more significant) which are personal reactions - the subjective aspects.
When writing about a picture,
look at the objective, denoted, aspects;
find quotes from the artist on the particular work or their general approach;
look for the subjective, connoted, aspects and speculate on how they might be interpreted and why the artist chose to include them;
look at the piece in the wider context of the artists work, how it might relate to other artists and other art forms:
deploy the appropriate technical terms. C&N notes

3 In C&N Asg.4, an essay evaluating a 1930s Bill Brandt photograph, against a tight word limit, I summarised my approach as,

There are numerous published approaches to analysing photographs. Combining Barrett (2000), Shore (2007) and Szarkowski (1978 and 2007) with Barthes and Derrida from the course, any analytical method should consider up to five main aspects of a photograph's trajectory from camera to publication and consumption: the subject; the photographer's physical and technical choices; their personal attitudes; the display environment; and the viewer's circumstances. C&N Asg.4

4 In a follow-up to C&N Asg.2, I examined the work of Merry Alpern and Trevor Paglen in terms of the æsthetics and then of their moral / ethical and / or political standpoints (or, more correctly, my interpretation thereof).


Barrett, T. (1997) 'Photographs and Contexts', in Goldblatt, A. & Brown, L. (eds.) A reader in philosophy of the arts. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall. pp. 110-116.

Barrett, T. (2000) Criticising photographs, an introduction to understanding images. 3rd ed. Mountain View, California: Mayfield Publishing.

Bate, D. (2016) Photography, the key concepts. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Boothroyd, S. and Roberts, K. (2019) Identity and place [I&P]. Barnsley: Open College of the Arts.

Bush, L., Clark, T., Hamilton, S., Smyth, D. (2014) Photography theory: a beginner's guide. The Telegraph 9 June. [online] Available from: [accessed 17 December 2018]

Dillon, B. (2011) Rereading: Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes. The Guardian. 26 March. [online] Available from: [accessed 17 December 2018]

Modrak, R. & Anthes, B (2011) Reframing photography: theory and practice. Oxford: Routledge.

Salkeld, R. (2018) Reading Photographs. London: Bloomsbury.

Shore, S. (2007) The nature of photographs. 2nd ed. London: Phaidon Press.

Sontag, S. (1983) Barthes: Selected Writings. London: Fontana.

Szarkowski, J. (1978) Mirrors and Windows. New York: MoMA.

Szarkowski, J. (2007) The photographer's eye. Revised 3rd ed. New York: MoMA.

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Page created 11-Aug-2020 | Page updated 02-Mar-2021