BA Phot

C&N Part 4: Reading photographs

Page 1


Project 1 The language of photography - Exc. 4.1 - Project 2 - Reading pictures - Exc. 4.2 - Research point - Upsum

Arbus - Barthes - Derrida - Erwitt - Wall - Conclusion - Referencing

We hold these truths to be self evident.

[9Jan20] I noted the following quote from EyV when starting C&N and I'll note it again.

At OCA we believe that your position or viewpoint is absolutely as valuable as the position of any author that you read; the only difference is that you probably won’t have fully discovered, or at least articulated, it yet. Your viewpoint is the source of your imagination and ideas but it can be quite a long journey to bring it into the light. EyV Bloomfield (2017) p. 101

And there is another to add from Sue Sontag ,

photographs do not seem strongly bound by the intention of the photographer Sontag, On Photography, quoted in La Grange (2005) p.37


Asg. 2
Box A
1. Sharon Boothroyd, title unknown, n.d.
2. Asg.2 submission
© the artists, their estates or their agents

[spellchecked  ]

What a delight that the opening image for Part 4 of the course, by the course's author, Sharon Boothroyd, bears a passing similarity to one of my images about to be submitted for Asg. 2.

[21Mar20, [Boothroyd (2017) p.92]] I take issue with a lot of what is said on the first page of Part 4 which begins with the statement,

Photography is in many ways like a language: it’s used instead of or as an accompaniment to words as a means of expression and communication. Just as a language comes with its alphabet, photography comes with its own specific codes and grammar. C&N [Boothroyd p. 92]

I do not accept that art forms are comparable to languages. A spoken/written language is, at its core, a means of communication but also a means of record and of expression. Photography (and art in general) can be seen as fulfilling similar roles, but their principle purpose is not necessarily literal communication. I would argue that photography fails at the first hurdle of comparison with language, but it is when we come to examine the components that make up a language that the real divergence takes place.
If there is not general agreement between its users on its meaning (the definition of words, syntax etc.) then a language fails.
By contrast, in art forms, it can be the disagreement over meaning and usage that is central to their concept.

In the 1970s, Leonard Bernstein presented a series of lectures, The Unanswered Question, on the nature of music, based on Chomsky's analysis of languages. Such exercises may throw some light on the 'nuts and bolts' of musical composition, but miss the point entirely that music is largely experienced emotionally or viscerally, rarely logically. With photography, as soon as (and the further) it moves beyond the purely descriptive and into the interpretive, the more opinions will differ over meaning and views will diverge over worth (in its many forms).


At the end of the page we are asked to discuss 'any photographs that are not used as a means of expression or communication?'. The obvious category here is that which Barrett (2000) classified as descriptive - the main example being identification photographs as used in passports, driving licenses and so on.


I think it is time to reconsider the method of referencing for the site (see Blog, 1st December and Part 1).

Starting now.

Project 4.1 The language of photography

[23Mar, [p.93]] Pleasingly, this next page undermines the assertions on the opening page of Part 4.

How we ‘read’ a picture is determined by many personal and background factors. One person may look at a picture of a dog and be repulsed; another may feel affection. So there’s no such thing as a universal photographic language which can be directly understood in the same way as spoken or written language can C&N [Boothroyd p. 93]


A distinction is drawn between the more literal and direct (and shared) process of translation and the subjective, individual process of interpretation.

Regrettably, the course than strays back into nonsense, using different versions of the bible as an analogy. I will refrain from comment.

Humpty Dumpty's

When I use a word … it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’ Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, 1871

This is quoted as being used in Catherine Belsey's A Very Short Introduction to Poststructuralism. And consider Sontag's quote at the head of this page (and every other part of this course),

photographs do not seem strongly bound by the intention of the photographer Sontag, On Photography, quoted in La Grange (2005) p.37

The reason that I consider the Sontag quote as so important is because, in my view, any viewer's personal take on (i.e. interpretation of) a piece of art, whatever the medium, mediated, as it is through their life experience, is just as important as every other viewer's and, in equal measure, just as valid as the creating artist's original intention (if any).

There was a vogue (of which I was part) in the 1970s for est, or Erhard Seminars Training (one of the many life theories emanating from California, both in those times and to this day). One tenet of est is that the individual is entirely responsible for their actions and their reactions [i].
A consequential corollary of this approach is that art is both created and assimilated in the context of the individual's circumstances and experience: the one can never control the other and both are equally valid.

[24Mar] The joys of serendipity: I am gradually reading Bright & van Erp (2019) and it is currently dealing with the ethics of what should and should not be photographed. It notes, with reference to automated censorship of social media, that

while text can be screened for keywords, image-based content is much harder to screen, so even when the same ethical standards apple, there may not be the opportunity to impose them in real tine. For a company like Facebook, which has to determine the rules of conduct for 2 billion users, dealing with the use of controversial imagery and at the same time achieving worldwide consensus has proved to be virtually impossible, despite its army of thousands of moderators. Bright & van Erp (2019) p.133

And that brings us back to the language of photography, or rather the lack of one. While it is possible, relatively straightforward and relatively acceptable to censor profanities or extreme views in the software, attempts to regulate and automate the control of images results in the absurdities of Facebook removing Rubens (Allen, 2018 [ii]) and Nick Ut's Napalm Girl (Shahani, 2016 [iii]).


[24Mar, [p.96]] The cmat distances itself further from the assertion on p.92 that '[p]hotography is in many ways like a language': this section opens with the statement, 'there are clearly some differences between photography as a language and written and spoken languages.' Indeed,

Words are arbitrary sounds - 'cat', 'cut' and 'cot' are similar words signifying entirely different things, and all of those words themselves have multiple different meanings; different languages have different, arbitrary words (sounds) signifying those same things.

Elliott Erwitt,New York City, 1974
Box B
Elliott Erwitt,
New York City, 1974

By contrast, photographs represent their subjects, with varying degrees of accuracy - this is called a referent. But it is only an artificially (through a combination of chemistry, electronics and mechanics) constructed representation of some visual original.

Elliott Erwitt

We are directed to Erwitt's image, New York City, 1974 (fig. B1).

Exercise 4.1

Before you read any further, look carefully at Erwitt’s image and write some notes about how the subject matter is placed within the frame. How has Erwitt structured this image? What do you think the image is ‘saying’? How does the structure contribute to this meaning? C&N [Boothroyd p. 98]


This is an image that rewards a detailed inspection. Superficially, the main subject is a tiny dog with a hat, which always risible. A closer look reveals that:

This is conjecture, but on a balance of probability, I would guess that the photograph was, to some extent, staged. This is on the basis that the photographer and his camera would have been visible to the human subject and therefore some degree of co-operation is likely, if only in remaining briefly still. An alternative might be that the photographer was sitting on a park bench with the camera on the ground with a cable release, but that is unlikely given the configuration of the path the subjects are walking.

 Elliott Erwitt,New York City, 1974, contact sheet
Box C
Elliott Erwitt,
New York City, 1974
contact sheet

Regarding the composition, the foreground offers a strong horizontal base, supporting an otherwise almost entirely vertical array, principally the legs, of course, but also the out-of-focus trees and whatever that is on the right, litter bin, tree support or whatever. The plane of focus encompasses the legs, but especially the small dog's face which has an expression which can be anthropomorphically interpreted at the pleasure of the viewer.
It is notable that the photographer (or editor) has chosen to include a fragment of the large dog's hind leg. The reason for this could only be known if the decision maker has revealed it - speculation is interesting but ultimately pointless.

[next day] Interestingly, I have found a contact sheet for fig. B1, shown as fig. B2. Although the image quality is poor, this at least shows us that this was not a grabbed shot (an entire 36-shot film) , that there was at least a considerable degree of co-operation and the print is full frame.

The cmat goes on to make three points.
1. horizontals and verticals
2. crop (in camera) for the small dog;
3. although difference between a language and an image is that the former is delivered in a sequence chosen by the writer or speaker, in a photograph, it is all available to the viewer simultaneously who has the choice of which portions to concentrate on.


Photography is not a language, whatever the cmat might suggest.

Part 4 Project 1 - Local References

(i) Litwak, L. (1976) Pay attention, turkeys! [online]. Available from [Accessed 23 March 2020].

(ii) Allen, K. (2018) Facebook bans Flemish paintings because of nudity [online]. Available from [Accessed 24 March 2020].

(iii) Shahani, A. (2016) With 'Napalm Girl,' Facebook Humans (Not Algorithms) Struggle To Be Editor [online]. Available from [Accessed 24 March 2020].

Part 4 References

Arbus, D. (2003) Revelations: Diane Arbus. London: Jonathan Cape 

Bloomfield, R (2017) Expressing your vision. Barnsley: Open College of the Arts.

Boothroyd, S (2017) Context and narrative. Barnsley: Open College of the Arts.

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

Bright, S. & van Erp, H (2019) Photography decoded. London: Ilex.

Howarth S. (2005) Singular images: essays on remarkable photographs. London: Tate Publishing.

La Grange, A. (2005) Basic critical theory for photographers. Burlington, MA: Focal Press.

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

The full OCA C&N references are specified at the end of the course material and are repeated here for ease of access.

Page created 13-Mar-2020 | Page updated 27-Apr-2021