Part four: Reading photographs Assignment 4 draft

Student number: 514516      Nicola South

A Picture is worth a thousand words


Demonstration of technical and visual skills:

  • I spent much time reading around the technical, and semantic terms it was necessary to understand for this assignment- I believe that I understand them and have demonstrated this.
  • I tested my visual awareness and observational skills when learning how to read photographs and when reading my chosen photograph.
  • I would guess that the compositional skill needed in this assignment are in the pulling together all of these thoughts and material in a coherent manner
  • I am sure that I should continue to read widely to broaden my knowledge of these areas
  • It will be very interesting to use these enhanced skills when I visit my next exhibition. I am sure the exhibition notes that I wrote in this part of my coursework would have been much shaper if I’d viewed it before working through this section of the course.

Quality of outcome: 

  • I hope the content is both broad and relevant.
  • I believe I have applied the learning from the exercises and coursework whilst shaping and writing the essay and been discerning in my choice of material.
  • I trust that I have communicated my concepts clearly.

Demonstration of creativity

  • My imagination was needed both when choosing the photograph for the assignment and when reading the photograph, as ultimately there are assumptions to be made.
  • I believe that my interpretation of the photograph was original and unique and this was shaped from thinking laterally around the evidence and being imaginative.
  • I hope that my Personal voice is beginning to show in my analysis of the photograph.


  • I spent a lot of time researching the background before I began to draft the essay and have published a summary this research on my learning log.
  • I believe that the critical thinking and reflection that I did on this image shows in my analysis of the photograph.
  • I did talk to others about the image, non- photographers which was useful, however it may have also been useful to talk to my peers about my ideas. I have just joined an OCA photography group who meet monthly and this will add to my reflective process.






Part Four: Reading photographs Assignment four draft

Student number 514516     Nicola South


Assignment 4

“A picture is worth a thousand words”

Write an essay of 1,000 words on an image of your choice.

The image can be anything you like, from a famous art photograph to a family snapshot, but please make sure that your chosen image has scope for you to make a rigorous and critical analysis. 

  • If you choose a well-known photograph, take time to research its context – the intentions of the photographer, why it was taken, whether it’s part of a series, etc. Add all this information into your essay to enable you to draw a conclusion from your own interpretation of the facts. 

It’s not enough to write an entirely descriptive or historical account of your chosen image. You must use the facts as a means to draw your own conclusions about what the picture means to you. You may wish to apply what you’ve learned in Part Four regarding translation, interpretation, connotation, signs, punctum, etc., but be sure you get the definitions correct.   

Follow thought associations and other images that relate to the discussion, directly or indirectly. Look at the broader context of the image and its background and specific narrative as well as your personal interpretation of it and what thoughts it triggers for you. Follow these associations in a thoughtful and formal way. Allow yourself to enjoy the process! You may write about personal connections but ensure you express yourself in a formally analytical and reflective manner. 

“A picture is worth a thousand words”

bourke-white_margaret_6_gandhi_india_1946_L_large (1)

Gandhi at the spinning wheel. Margaret Bourke-White (1946) (Gallery M, 2017)


Who is the real subject Gandhi or the spinning wheel? 

The photograph was selected as I have a personal connection to it, having visited the exact spot it was photographed twice. This essay will deconstruct the image to uncover its meaning, as well as the intentions of the photographer. Much of the reality of an image can be redefined by a photographer so the truth of it may be “naive and illusory (for though the lens draws the subject, the photographer defines it)” (Szarkowski, 2009:12). It seems that “The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled” (Berger, 1972:7), however through analysing the formal contents and their contexts it will be possible to show the invisible meanings hidden within the image and expose whether it is the spinning wheel or Gandhi that is the subject of the photograph.


The signifiers (material elements) denoted in this photograph are: A spinning wheel, a seated bald or shaven man reading papers wearing a dhoti, floor rugs, a window and white walls. The frame is divided into two areas, the spinning wheel and the figure with the room behind it. The eye is drawn in by the prominently placed spinning wheel and led across diagonally to the top right of the image through the seated person up to the bottom of the window frame. The image is monochrome, grainy with strong contrast, though with a range of tones. The photograph is variously titled Gandhi at “his” spinning wheel or “the” spinning wheel, informing us both of the person’s identity and the foreground object.


So what do these objects connote (mean)? To move to this next level of meaning this it is vital to understand what Barthes terms the studium, the cultural, political and social meaning (Boothroyd, 2015) behind the photograph. There are four main contexts to explore, Gandhi, the spinning wheel, Bourke-White and their relationship to each other.

Gandhi (1869-1948) born in India, trained as a lawyer and developed a personal philosophy of anti-materialism and abstinence, living out his idea of truth force, powerful but non-violent argument (Von Tunzelmann, 2012). “Swaddled in just a shawl and a dhoti, with a long thin arm clutching a long thin staff, Mahatma Gandhi had quickly become the most recognisable symbol of anti-colonial protest” (Keay, 2010:484). He promoted the charka (domestic spinning wheel) as a symbol of penance, self-reliance and non-violence saying “We cannot visualise non-violence in the abstract. So we choose an object which can symbolise for us, the formless” (Gandhi, n,d, cited in: 2017).

The American photographer (1904-1971) began her career photographing industrial architecture with “dramatic use of perspective, light, and shadow on hard-edged industrial shapes, to create photographs that merged fact with the potent language of abstraction” (Johnson et al., 2005:589). She became a renowned journalist for Fortune and Life magazines demonstrating “her singular ability to communicate the intensity of major world events while respecting formal relationships and aesthetic considerations” (Handy et al, 1999:209, cited in: International Center of Photography 2017). She used heavy lighting for industrial subjects which “was obvious in many of her portraits which often looked staged” (Jeffrey et al, 2008:102). Bourke-White photographed Gandhi as part of an assignment covering the prelude to the partition of India.

             Welding-tire-rims-International-Harvester-Chicago-IL-1933             stalin.jpg                      (, 2017)                      (Bourke-White, 2017)

The relationship she had with Gandhi is key to unlocking the signified (invisible meaning) in this image. She was described as becoming “a friend to – as well as a close chronicler” (Time, 2017a). She realised “to understand another human being you must gain some insight into the conditions which made him what he is” (Bourke-White, M, 2016:1746). Passionate about machines she notes “some of his opinions I found difficult to reconcile. One was his opposition to industry and scientific agriculture” (Bourke-White, 2016:3715). However she understood that spinning was completely bound up with his identity (Anon, 2017a).

When shooting she had to observe his rules, he disliked bright lights, be silent and learn to spin herself beforehand (Anon, 2017b). She shot unsuccessfully without flash, then her third and last attempt with flashbulb worked “In the end, she came away with an image that became Gandhi’s most enduring representation” (Iconic Photos, 2017), unusually without his staff and shawl. Curiously this image was not used in that May 1946 life article, but in a tribute to him following his assassination (1948) titled “India loses her great soul…a stirring visual eulogy to the man and his ideas” (Time, 2017b).

The context above reveals meaning in the image: the symbolism in the spinning wheel, the tidy room representing cleanliness and order, Gandhi reading newspapers signalling connections with the world, daylight alighting mystically on Gandhi’s head. The punctum that disrupts the rest of the narrative in the photograph is the spinning wheel; “Once we have discovered our punctum we become, irredeemably, active readers of the scene” (Clarke, 1997:32). Gandhi was a cunning man (Keay, 2010), but the vantage point was of Bourke-White’s choosing, “If the photographer could not move his subject, he could move his camera” (Szarkowski, 2009:126). She gave prominence to the spinning wheel, and interestingly a separation from Gandhi. Interpreting these actions enables us to find the signs and overall meaning of this image.


In any image “the primary frame of reference remains the subject of the photograph (although this in itself can be problematic)” (Clarke, 1997:30). Bourke–White herself admitted “only you would come with just that particular mental and emotional experience to perceive the just telling thing for that particular story” (Bourke-White, 1972:1756). We know “the photographer’s way of seeing is reflected in his choice of subject” (Berger, 1972:10); drawing on the visual gestalt- of the picture” (Shore, 2007:110), and the Intertextuality (background), I suggest the Spinning wheel is in fact the primary subject of this image. It is the wheel that provides the personal connection to other elements in the photograph, revealing its meaning. Whether Bourke-White was simply drawn to the industrial shape of the wheel and pursued her natural style by placing the shadow on it to give it dominance, or whether she intended to illuminate its symbolism, only she could tell us. Whichever, the power of this image to me is her photographing of the spinning wheel.

(1035 words)


Anon, (2017a). [online] Available at: [Accessed 4 Jul. 2017].

Anon, (2017b) Influential photographs: Ghandi at his spinning wheel 1946 by Margaret Bourke-White. [online] Available at: [Accessed 28 Jun. 2017].

Berger, J (1972) Ways of seeing. London. Penguin group.

Boothroyd, S (2015) Context and narrative. Open College of the Arts. Barnsley.

Bourke-White, M. (2016). Portrait of Myself. Kindle edition. San Francisco, UNITED STATES: Lucknow Books.

Bourke-White, M. (2017). Margaret Bourke-White. [Photograph] [online] Available at: [Accessed 4 Jul. 2017].

Clarke, G. (1997). The photograph. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gallery M. (2017). Margaret Bourke-White | Biography. [online] Available at: [Accessed 28 Jun. 2017].

Gandhi (n, d) Cited in: (2017). The Tribune…Sunday Reading. [online] Available at: [Accessed 2 Jul. 2017

Handy et al (1999) Reflections in a Glass Eye: Works from the International Center of Photography Collection, New York: Bulfinch Press in association with the International Center of Photography. Cited in: International Center of Photography. (2017). Margaret Bourke-White. [online] Available at: [Accessed 30 Jun. 2017].

Iconic Photos. (2017). Gandhi at the Spinning Wheel. [online] Available at: [Accessed 29 Jun. 2017].

Jeffrey, I. and Kozloff, M. (2008). How to read a photograph. London. Thames and Hudson Ltd.

Johnson, W., Rice, M., Williams, C. and Mulligan, T. (2005). A History of photography. Köln [etc.]: Taschen.

Keay, J. (2010). India. London: HarperPress. (2017). Master Photographers. Black and White Photojournalists. [Photograph] [Online] Available at: [Accessed 2 Jul. 2017].

Shore, S (2007).The nature of photographs. 2nd edition. London. Phaidon

Szarkowski, J. (2009). The photographer’s eye. The Museum of Modern art. New York. (2017a). Gandhi: Quiet Scenes From a Revolutionary Life. [online] Available at: [Accessed 30 Jun. 2017]. (2017b). Gandhi and His Spinning Wheel: The Story Behind an Iconic Photo. [online] Available at: [Accessed 28 Jun. 2017].

Von Tunzelmann, A. (2012). Indian summer. The Secret History of the End of an Empire. Kindle edition. UK. Simon & Schuster ltd.


Anon, (2017). [online] Available at: [Accessed 2 Jul. 2017].

Barthes, R (n,d ) Camera Lucida in: La Grange, A (2013) Basic critical theory for photographers. Uk. Focal Press.

Barthes, R (n,d) Rhetoric of the lmage [online] Available at: (Accessed 2 Jiul.2017)

BBC News. (2017a). How Gandhi’s last day was photographed – BBC News. [online] Available at: [Accessed 29 Jun. 2017].

BBC News. (2017b). Rare pictures of the last 10 years of Gandhi’s life – BBC News. [online] Available at: [Accessed 29 Jun. 2017].

Bourke-White, M. (2017). Margaret Bourke-White | ND Magazine. [online] Available at: [Accessed 2 Jul. 2017].

Golden, R. (2013). Masters of photography. London: Goodman.

Nehru, J. and Khilnani, S. (2004). The discovery of India. Penguin Books; London. (2017a). A New Way of Seeing Indian Independence and the Brutal ‘Great Migration’. [online] Available at: [Accessed 30 Jun. 2017 (2017b). See the Classic Cameras Used by LIFE’s First Female Staff Photographer. [online] Available at: [Accessed 30 Jun. 2017]. (2017c). ‘Great Lady With a Camera’: Margaret Bourke-White, American Original. [online] Available at: [Accessed 30 Jun. 2017].

Please note: Any images by other photographers used on this site are accredited and are being used for personal research and educational purposes only.


Part four:Reading photographs Learning log

Assignment four: A picture is worth a thousand words



Gandhi at the spinning wheel. Margaret Bourke-White (1946)

bourke-white_margaret_6_gandhi_india_1946_L_large (1)

(Gallery M, 2017)

Mind map of brainstorm of image:

mind map prep


Gallery M. (2017). Margaret Bourke-White | Biography. [online] Available at: [Accessed 28 Jun. 2017].

Part Four: Reading photographs Learning log

Assignment 4: “A picture is worth a thousand words”

Background research


gandhi spinning not MBW(Anon, 2017)

  • Born 1869 Mohandras Karamchand Ghandi
  • Middle class family in Gujarat (Westcoast of India).
  • Vaishya Hindu caste, known for being hard bargaining salesmen.
  • 19 years to London trained as a lawyer
  • South Africa, worked as lawyer, 1st experience of colonial racism, campaigned for equal rights for Indians in South Africa, “The Mahatma, whose twinkle of compassion concealed a steely-eyed cunning” (Keay,2010:486)
  • Personal philosophy that God is Truth and anti-materialistic and abstinence values (from Hinduism, Christianity and Jainism). Convinced that any type of physical pleasure was degrading and lived out his idea of “Truth force”, powerful but non-violent argument.
  • 1915 returned to India
  • Campaigned for Indian independence from British rule
  • Confronted the moral behaviour of society, wanted India to move away from western ideals of progress and technology back towards a simple village life. and wished to return India to “godliness, simplicity and humility” (Von Tunzelmann, 2012:27).
  • He was famous for his tactics of passive resistance, civil disobedience, logical non-violent argument. He associated pleasure with self-destruction and lived a life of self-denial and discomfort.
  • He lived modestly in a self-sufficient community wearing the traditional Indian dhoti and shawl, woven with yarn hand-spun on a charkha. He ate simple vegetarian food, and also undertook long fasts as a means of both self-purification and political protest.
  • Adopted hand-spinning on a wooden wheel as a symbol of this simple life “Gandhi’s manner of dress and commitment to hand spinning were essential elements of his philosophy and politics. He chose the traditional loincloth as a rejection of Western culture and a symbolic identification with the poor of India” (Anon, 2017)
  • “Charkha was given a new meaning and novel interpretation by Mahatma Gandhi… To him spinning was like penance or sacrament, a medium for spiritual upliftment, a symbol of dharna, of self-help and self-reliance, of dignity of labour and human values. Besides, it was an emblem of non-violence” (, 2017)
  • He was against industrialisation “Machinery in the past has made us dependent on England, and the only way we can rid ourselves of the dependence is to boycott all goods made by machinery. This is why we have made it the patriotic duty of every Indian to spin his own cotton and weave his own cloth.” (6(p48)(The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. Vol 48 (September 1931–January 1932). Ahmedabad: Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India; 1971.(anon2017)
  • Led non-violent protests, such as the 1930 salt marches and fasting to speed political agreements and end religious violence.
  • 1948 assassinated by a Hindi fanatic who thought Gandhi’s methods too passive and compromising


Anon, (2017). [online] Available at: [Accessed 2 Jul. 2017].

Keay, J. (2010). India. London: HarperPress.

Nehru, J. and Khilnani, S. (2004). The discovery of India. Penguin Books; London. (2017). The Tribune…Sunday Reading. [online] Available at: [Accessed 2 Jul. 2017

Von Tunzelmann, A. (2012). Indian summer. The Secret History of the End of an Empire. Kindle edition. UK. Simon & Schuster ltd.

Margaret Bourke-White                  

116091753.jpg      margaret_bourke-white13       Welding-tire-rims-International-Harvester-Chicago-IL-1933

(, 2017)        (Bourke-White, 2017)      (, 2017)

  • Born 1904 New York
  • Early career industrial advertising and portrait work in Cleveland, wanted to earn enough from architectural photos to pay for her experimental industrial photos. “Her stock trade was a form of modernism, strongly composed but visually simplistic” (Golden, 2013:36).
  • 1929-1936 Chief photographer Fortune business magazine, however 762 job offer from fortune “I was not the least bit interested in photographing political personages” (Bourke-White, 1972:762)
  • 1936-1969 Staff photographer Life magazine: Worldwide photojournalist, covered: most wars, witnessed German invasion of Moscow (1941), accompanied bombing missions (1942), liberations of concentration camps, unrest in South Africa, Gandhi’s fight for Indian independence
  • “The technical side of photography always interested her, and in her books there are many passages on cameras and lighting equipment” (Jeffrey and Kozloff, 2008:102)
  • “Bourke-White had an excellent sense of simple, poster-like design, and a sophisticated photographic technique, both perhaps the legacy of her apprenticeship in the demanding field of industrial reportage. She was excited by the new opportunities presented by photoflash bulbs, which made possible clear and highly detailed pictures under circumstances that would otherwise have been difficult or impossible for photography”. Bourke-White, M. (2017).
  • 1930s social documentary style
  • 1937 “You have seen their faces” book which documented the human aspects of the depression a Collaboration with writer Erskine Caldwell
  • Wrote books on places she’d worked on assignments (Germany, Soviet Union, Italy and India).
  • Autobiography “Portrait of myself” (Bourke-White, 1972)
  • 1957 contracted Parkinson’s and abandoned career
  • 1971 died

Interesting quotes from her biography:

  • “ a man is more than a figure to put into the background of a photograph for scale”…I was learning that to understand another human being you must gain some insight into the conditions which made him what it is” (Bourke-White, 1972:1746)
  • I was awakening to the need of probing and learning, discovering and interpreting. I realized that any photographer who tries to portray human beings in a penetrating way must put more heart and mind into his preparation than will ever show in any photograph” (Bourke-White, 1972:1756)


Bourke-White, M. (2016). Portrait of Myself. Kindle edition. San Francisco, UNITED STATES: Lucknow Books.

Bourke-White, M. (2017). Margaret Bourke-White | ND Magazine. [online] Available at: [Accessed 2 Jul. 2017].

Golden, R. (2013). Masters of photography. London: Goodman.

Jeffrey, I. and Kozloff, M. (2008). How to read a photograph. London. Thames and Hudson Ltd. (2017). Master Photographers | Black and White Photojournalists. [online] Available at: [Accessed 2 Jul. 2017].

Bourke-White’s relationship with Gandhi

Her first assignment in India in 1946 for Life magazine was to cover the prelude to the partition of India; her stark photographs were taken in the aftermath of the riots, a “first-hand account of India’s struggle for independence in the late 1940s” (Johnson et al., 2005:591)

Then in 1948 post partition of India Bourke-White returned to capture more stories and photographs for Life magazine. “After the war, she documented the final years of Ghandi’s life, producing the iconic image of the proponent of non-violent protests with his spinning wheel” (, 2017a).

She was a friend to Gandhi:

It’s hardly surprising, really, that Bourke-White would be drawn to a figure like Gandhi…Gandhi’s emphasis on liberty and dignity in the face of brutal resistance and oppression spoke directly to her own passion for both justice and adventure”. (, 2017b)

She describes how she was with Gandhi during his last fast and how ten days later she was able to talk with him as he spun, “While frequently I did not agree with Gandhi’s point of view, talking with him helped me understand it” (Margaret Bourke-White, 2016:4015). She said “he was an extraordinary complex person, with many contradictions in his nature” (Bourke-White. 2016:3704)


Johnson, W., Rice, M., Williams, C. and Mulligan, T. (2005). A History of photography. Köln [etc.]: Taschen.

Margaret Bourke-White. (2016). Portrait of Myself. Kindle edition. San Francisco, UNITED STATES: Lucknow Books. (2017a). See the Classic Cameras Used by LIFE’s First Female Staff Photographer. [online] Available at: [Accessed 30 Jun. 2017]. (2017b). Gandhi: Quiet Scenes From a Revolutionary Life. [online] Available at: [Accessed 30 Jun. 2017].

Please note: Any images by other photographers used on this site are accredited and are being used for personal research and educational purposes only.




Part four: Reading photographs Learning log


A Picture is worth a thousand words

Choice of image

I reflected on which image I might choose for the assignment throughout the time I was completing the exercises and research.

The image that I initially thought that I would use was The damaged child (Dorothea Lange 1936).

I saw this at the Radical Eye exhibition that I’ve reviewed recently on my blog. The image itself haunts me; the obvious hardship and poverty etched on this child is clear, but what struck me was her steely stare and the inner strength and determination that I thought Lange had also captured. My personal link to this was the reminder it gave me of under privileged children that I encountered when teaching, who though possibly hungry and with difficult home lives seemed often to possess this inner strength for their own self-preservation. I was also interested in the back story as I know from an interview with Sir Elton John that Lange had written on the back of this print an alternative title “The damage is already done”.

damaged child.jpg

 (The Museum of Modern Art. 2017)

I also considered this image of Welsh Miners (Robert Frank 1953) taken in Caerau South Wales where he made a photographic story about a mining community, focusing on a miner and his family. I considered the fact that it was part of a series of 16 images and that when he travelled he sought to capture portraits of people that embodied a place as these miners do. I also thought that there was a strong narrative within this photograph alone, with the bright whites of the miners eyes contrasting with their blackened faces and their smiles disguising what must have been their weariness. I also felt some affinity with the subject having visited old mines in South Wales and spoken to men that have worked in them.


 (Anatomy Films, 2017) 

I also seriously considered this image “Shop in Rupert Street Soho” (1953) by Cas Oorthuys which first struck me when I saw it at the exhibition Strange and familiar at the Barbican Gallery London in 2016. I remember finding the context interesting, as I spent a lot of time photographing street markets in different contexts/locations and I was attracted by the vantage point he used, which I have tried since myself. I also thought that this would be interesting to research as generally Oorthuy’s approach was as a commercial photographer, pragmatic and objective and yet there is a narrative in her London photographs.

market stockings.jpg

(Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers, 2017)

 The last image that I considered was London 1958-9 by Sergio Larrain. It is the perspective, the blurred slight movement of the man in the foreground that appeals me to this image. Having travelled on the underground frequently as a commuter I could smell the people, remember the old wooden escalators and appreciate the depth of this image. Many of his images in this series he captures from dynamic angles with abrupt framing and often ground level viewpoints and blurred subjects; I wondered was this because of the subject matter, or if was this present in most of his work, especially when he gave professional photography up at a relatively young age (ten years after this photo), to have more peace and time. Could he have found a calmer way to photograph?

GB. ENGLAND. London. Baker Street underground station. 1958-1959.

 (Pinterest, 2017)

Finally and thankfully I stumbled again upon a photograph that I do really feel passionate about, Margaret Bourke White’s “Ghandi and his spinning wheel” (Margaret Bourke-White 1946).

My passion for this photograph comes from an affinity that I have with India, having travelled around the country many many times; but more specifically that I have visited the exact location that she took this portrait in twice, most recently March this year. I remember reading in the museum text at this past residence of Ghandi’s how Margaret Bourke- White had executed the photograph, and thought it would be interesting to see if the documentation available outside supports this information. It is a very poignant photograph as Ghandi was assassinated only two year later yards from this room, having been with the same photographer talking that very day. I have a good understanding of the subject of the photograph from my travels and previous reading and yet I know very little about the photographer. So I decided that I had a good basis to begin my reading of the photograph. Passion and interest and it would be very interesting to apply my new learning on reading photographs to this photograph.

bourke-white_margaret_6_gandhi_india_1946_L_large (1)

 (Gallery M, 2017)


Anatomy Films. (2017). Robert Frank – A Different View. [online] Available at: [Accessed 27 Jun. 2017].

Gallery M. (2017). Margaret Bourke-White | Biography. [online] Available at: [Accessed 28 Jun. 2017].

Pinterest. (2017). 1950s. [online] Available at: [Accessed 27 Jun. 2017].

Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers. (2017). Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers | Cas Oorthuys. [online] Available at: [Accessed 27 Jun. 2017].

The Museum of Modern Art. (2017). Dorothea Lange. Damaged Child, Shacktown, Elm Grove, Oklahoma. 1936 | MoMA. [online] Available at: [Accessed 24 Jun. 2017].

Please note: Any images by other photographers used on this site are accredited and are being used for personal research and educational purposes only.

Part four: Reading photographs Book Review

Book review: The Photographer’s eye. John Szarkowski.

I am reading this book at the point where I am studying how to read photographs which seems extremely pertinent. So I rather than a standard book review this is a summary of my learning in relation to this.

Szarkowski sets out his intention for his book as “an investigation of what photographs look like, and of why they look that way” (Szarkowski, 2009).

I found it interesting how he makes clear that photography invaded the territory of art, could not work to old standards and had to find its own ways of making its meaning clear. Photography was invented by scientists and painters but the professional photographers it produced were varied in their skills and had increased vastly by the early twentieth century. There was a deluge of pictures, describing new things and in new ways, most especially the ordinary. Photographers learned from other photographers and photographs.

Szarkowski lists five issues he believes are inherent in photography and organises his selected images in these groups:

  • The thing itself: That the photographer deals with reality, though much of the reality can be filtered out by the photographer and as the photographer makes choices. He points out that our faith in the truth of the camera may be “naive and illusory …for though the lens draws the subject, the photographer defines it”. (Szarkowski, 2009).
  • The detail: The photographer could only record as he found it and had to “force that facts to tell the truth” (Szarkowski, 2009). He could however fragment details as well as put the details into a narrative. I hadn’t realised myself that the rise of photography freed painters from having to paint narrative stories. The images he chose for this section show a variety of significant detail and symbols, though these images I think could have equally have been placed in his groups of the thing itself.
  • The frame: Szarkowski considers that the central act of photography is the choosing and eliminating, which “forces a concentration on the picture edge…and on the shapes that are created by it” (Szarkowski, 2009). The frame he explains, edits meaning and patterns. Interestingly he poses the question whether painters’ use of the frame creatively was born from photography. Here the images that he chooses to illustrate seem to ideally do this, such as Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “Callejon of the Valencia Arena” 1933:
  • W1siZiIsIjE0NDM3MyJdLFsicCIsImNvbnZlcnQiLCItcmVzaXplIDIwMDB4MjAwMFx1MDAzZSJdXQ.jpg

  (The Museum of Modern Art, 2017)

  • Time: All photographs are time exposures, some shorter some longer, catching slices of time and movement. Szarkowski, helpfully explains that the new beauty of “seeing the momentary patterning lines and shapes that had previously been concealed within the flux of movement” (Szarkowski, 2009) as decisive moments not as dramatic climaxes but as visual ones. Many of the images that he shows here show time blurred such as Rene Groebli’s Nude dressing (1952) which was a new image to me.


 (Curiator, 2017)

  • Vantage point: He points out that it is photography which has taught us to see from different vantage points, challenging our notions of reality. So pictures can reveal the clarity and the obscurity of things. He also suggests that this has influenced modern painters. The images he has in this section of his book illustrate this well such as Clarence John Laughlin’s The fierce eyed building (1938).

fierce eyed building.jpg

 (, 2017)

Szarkowski has certainly set out his idea of what photographs look like, and why they look that way.

My learning points:

  • I have discovered another way to read photographs, to look at The thing, the detail, the frame, the time, the vantage point; have any of these influenced the photographer more than the other and how?


Curiator. (2017). Nude dressing by René Groebli. [online] Available at: [Accessed 25 Jun. 2017] (2017). From the Harvard Art Museums’ collections The Fierce-Eyed Building. [online] Available at: [Accessed 25 Jun. 2017].

Szarkowski, J. (2009). The photographer’s eye. The Museum of Modern art. New York.

The Museum of Modern Art. (2017). Henri Cartier-Bresson. Callejón of the Valencia Arena. 1933 | MoMA.

Please note: Any images by other photographers used on this site are accredited and are being used for personal research and educational purposes only.

Part four: Reading photographs Book review

Ways of seeing – John Berger (1972)

I have had this book for many years but thought that whilst working on reading photographs that this is the time to revisit it. It was with this purpose that I re read the book.

The book comprises of seven essays, though I reread the whole book I would like to focus on the first chapter where many of the ideas presented have been taken from a previous essay “The work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” by German critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin.

Berger proposes that “The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled” (Berger, 1972, p7) as the way that we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe. So seeing is not just mechanically reacting to stimuli:

  • We chose what we look at
  • Can only see what is within our field of vision
  • Never just look at one thing
  • We look at the relation between things and ourselves (p9)
  • We are aware that we too are visible

He describes images as man-made objects that have been reproduced but detached from the place and time they were seen. Photographs are not accurate records as “the photographer’s way of seeing is reflected in his choice of subject” (Berger, 1972, p10). The photographer has selected “that sight from an infinity of other possible sights” (Berger, 1972p 10), though we know the object is affected by much more than this.

I have learnt that images were first taken to make up for something that was absent, rather like portraiture I guess, it was only later that the influence of the image maker on the subject was recognised. Berger also explains how images are beset by other assumptions when presented as works of art, concerning beauty, truth, genius, civilisation, form, status and so on. He suggests that these assumptions are often historical and may mystify our vision. In terms of paintings he suggests that it is the social and moral values that we hold that affect the way we see, rather that the painters skills.

Never having been an artist I found Berger’s explanation of how the understanding of perspective has altered historically. The original Renaissance convention of perspective was that everything was centred on the eye of the beholder, the single eye was the centre of the world with everything converging on the eye. There was no reciprocal vision, the visible world was arranged just for the spectator, just a God was the centre of the world, it was as if everything converged on the human eye. Apparently it was after the invention of cameras that the contradiction that spectators unlike God could not be in many places at the same time and that there must be reciprocal vision. The camera could change its perspective, and unlike paintings could separate time passing from the visual experience so that what you see is totally dependent on where you were when, so is relative to a person’s position in time and space. Berger asserts that “The camera changed the way men saw” (Berger, 1972).

This was taken into paintings, the cubists in particular presented views from all points around an object. Neither had I realised that the camera also changed the way in which historical paintings were seen. I hadn’t thought that originally paintings were unique due to the place that they were situated as they were integral to the design of their building. However with the invention of the camera where a painting could be reproduced and placed elsewhere they could take on different meanings divorced from their original context and placed in another. Reproduction can also transform meaning when paintings are partially reproduced and not shown in their entirety.

Berger summarises how visual art has moved from existing in sacred preserves, then a variety physical preserves and later particular social preserves in particular those of the ruling classes. Of course now reproduction has removed art from these preserves which he suggests may render them “ephemeral, ubiquitous, insubstantial, available, valueless, free” (Berger, 1972). He concludes in chapter one that the authority of the art of the past is lost and in its place is “a language of images” (Berger, 1972) where what matters is who uses it for what and that visual art has become a political issue.

A revisit of this text was really useful at this point in my learning as it widens my increasing understanding of how photographs are read.


Berger, J (1972) Ways of seeing. London. Penguin group.

Benjamin, W. (n,d) The work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Found in (1970) Illuminations. Cape. London

Part four: Reading photographs Book Review

How to Read a Photograph (Jeffrey, 2009)

In the foreword Max Kozloff discusses the history of photography and how photographs are seen as secondary sources by general historians but as primary sources by historians of photography. He points out that photographs can be used as evidence of “vanished material conditions, ideals, cultures and epochs(Kozloff, 2009), whilst it may also be used to express feelings, so being both discursive and figurative. As he says the difficult part is how to move on from a description of the contents of a photograph to an account that makes sense of it:

The visual facts convey a material reality of their time; as they’re composed and framed, they reflect a narrative desire of their time” (Jeffrey, 2009).

He believes that Jeffrey addressees this in his interpretations of the photographs in this book, as well as the biography of the artist, the psychological relations implied in the frame and through this work develops meaning for the photographer’s visualisation.

In the book Jeffrey explores the work of 69 photographers in 384 photographers with the images arranged roughly in the history of photography, divided by The Great War, World War Two and The Farm Security Administration photographers.

I have selected three photographers to give an overview of how Jeffrey analyses photographs.

Children fetching milk (Robert Doisneau, 1932)

chn milk

 (Pinterest, 2017).

Again he gives the pertinent points of the artist’s biography; his perceptive portraits of Parisians, his background in lithography and his work photographing for advertising Renaults. This picture shows his awareness of acute observation (Their clothes, their class, the shop name) and clever composition as well as his sensitivity to the human condition that the artist would have accumulated in his work.

This analysis is less insightful for me than some of the others in the book, though there are many like this in the book that are simple biography combined with observation.

Shoe making irons (Albert Renger-Patzsch, 1936)

shoe making

(PhotoPedagogy, 2017)

For this photograph he gives the biography of the artist, in particular his preference for purist photography and his objective manner often obscuring the contexts of his subjects. He also gives the context to the photograph, the Fagus shoe making factory not far from where he was freelancing. Jeffery assumes that he was asked to do some publicity photographs for the factory  of equipment, but the image eventually ended up in Die Welt ist schon (The world is beautiful); possibly as a symbol of contemporary regimentation. Apparently in the 1920s Renger-Patzsch was interested in forces like the German expressionist (1910-14), though he associated it with stillness, heightened alertness, the moment before the strike.

Jeffrey’s analysis does provide me with a context for the image and a possible motive as well as the possible philosophy behind it.

Tomatsu Shomei (Memory of defeat 2 Ruins of Toyokawa naval dockyard, Aichi prefecture, 1959)


(SFMOMA, 2017)

Jeffrey describes Tomatsu as a symbolist and a materialist as well as a history artist. He worked for a periodical where each issue was devoted to a single subject and everything was expressed through images replacing language; this was in contrast apparently to Europeans hat thought that images should be supported by texts. Jefferey’s interpretation of the picture knowing this, is that this wall of corrugated iron peppered with shrapnel with the light behind it appears like the night sky lit by gunfire. He suggests that “Those defunct meters in the foreground stand in contrast to the liveliness of the cosmos beyond” (Jeffrey, 2009).

This analysis is more insightful giving us his thoughts about the purpose and possible thinking behind the image that matches with the background and philosophy of the artist as well as the context.


The book is perhaps more an exploration and history of the 69 photographers than explicit ideas about how to read a photograph, however the book has introduced me to new photographers. Certainly I gained more generally from his analyses of photographers that were new to me, like the last two of my three selected than those that were not. Is this just because they closed gaps in my knowledge rather than that they were better analyses?

My learning points:

When reading photographs

  • My aim should be to move on from a description of the contents of a photograph to an account that makes sense of it
  • I should find the psychological relations implied
  • Look for the photographer’s motive
  • Know the photographers philosophy
  • I will have to make some assumptions


Jeffrey, I. (2009). How to read a photograph. New York: Abrams.

Kozloff, M (2009) in Jeffrey, I. (2009). How to read a photograph. New York: Abrams.

Pinterest. (2017) French touch. [online] Available at: [Accessed 27 Jun. 2017], 2017)

PhotoPedagogy. (2017). The World is Beautiful. [online] Available at: [Accessed 27 Jun. 2017].

SFMOMA. (2017). Shomei Tomatsu. [online] Available at: [Accessed 27 Jun. 2017].

Please note: Any images by other photographers used on this site are accredited and are being used for personal research and educational purposes only.


Part four: Reading photographs Exhibition visit

The Radical Eye. Modernist  photography from the Sir Elton John collection. Tate Modern November to May 2017

The Sir Elton John Photography Collection is one of the largest privately owned collections in the world (8000 works), ranging from the beginning of the 20th century to today. Its focus is “modernist photography”, from the objective clarity of modernist portraits to experimental darkroom manipulations and abstractions. It enables the viewer to see from the Bauhaus, the social commitment of early documentary photography and the imaginative surrealism how the ways in which the world was seen through photography changed. The exhibition is divided into five parts: portraits, experiments, documents, bodies and objects.

For the purpose of where I am in my OCA learning currently I will focus mainly on the portraits and documents section and detail the others at more appropriate times in my learning journey. I will say however that I was stunned by the breadth of his collection and the numerous and varied images of historical importance that are in this one collection. The curator of the exhibition Jane Jackson interviewed Sir Elton John Elton John to discuss his collection and the importance of photography in his life. He talks of how surprised he was to find that photographers could achieve things that he thought only painters could do, such as distortions, rayographs and light abstractions; he says that “for me photography is a journey of discovery” (Baker et al., n.d.), giving him pleasure and in an artistic way increasing his wellbeing.


The portraits show a range of technical and psychological styles, from Man Ray’s portraits of the surrealist artists and thinkers, to Edward Steichen’s Gloria Swanson, to Alfred Stieglitz’s Georgia O’Keeffe and to Tina Modotti’s studies of Edward Weston. I am going to comment on those that impacted on me the most as I viewed them.

There were many interesting self- portraits, of which one that is still imprinted on me is Herbert Bayer’s self-portrait (“Humanly Impossible”, 1932).


(, 2017) 

I really could not work out at first how this image of a man with an arm truncated arm was achieved. Then I realised it was a montage, in fact this is the original montage. Sir Elton John asks whether the image is about Bayer or about Nazi Germany in the 1930s.


 (Monroe et al., 2017)

This self-portrait by Arthur Fellig (Weegee) circa 1955 is technically interesting; it was probably achieved using distorting mirrors and double exposures putting two negatives together as faint repetitions of the image can be seen especially around his left eye.

I found Man Ray’s “Self-portrait in bathrobe” (1929) somewhat at odds with his other work in the collection; In contrast to the solarisations, rayographs and the glamourized portraits of others it is strangely ordinary and realistic. It is quite a contrast to his celebrated “Glass tears” (1932) which was a photograph that again led me to ask how he did it; apparently it was a mannequin with the glass affixed to it.

may ray bathrobe

 (My Favorite Arts, 2017)

I found many of the portraits taken in the 1920’s stiff and posed and generally disliked then. However you cannot help but admire Edward Steichen’s “Gloria Swanson” (1924). Sir Elton John describes it as “perfect and has such a tactile look that it seems like you could actually touch the lace” (Baker et al., n.d.); he also alludes to the hidden meaning of this silent actress behind the veil. It is direct, haunting and alluring, extremely 3 dimensional.

Steichen gloria swanson

 (Iconic Photos, 2017)

I was drawn to Brassai’s “A costume for two” (1931) with two men sharing a suit, probably still posed but full of tension, life and possibilities.


 (Anon, 2017)

I admired the Irving Penn series of Portraits posed in corners, in particular Noel Coward (1948) and Duke Ellington (1948).

            irving penn n coward.jpg               Irving Penn duke E            (, 2017)                   (Pinterest, 2017)

He used parts of a left over set from a commercial shoot, and made portraits of writers, artists, musicians, politicians and other celebrities. They were asked to position themselves in a small corner and having viewed some of the others in the series since it is interesting how their personalities were revealed as they reacted to the claustrophobic limits of the setting. Penn said that “limiting the subjects movements seemed to relieve me of part of the problem of holding onto them” (text accompanying exhibition portraits).

Portraits of photographers are always interesting. Tina Modotti’s “Edward Western with his camera” (1923) where the perspective that she used juxtaposes his head with the cameras, as if she was comparing the human eye and the mechanical world; the camera’s lens appears to dominate.


 (, 2017)


In the 1930s photographers enabled viewers to see some of the less palatable aspects of society, marrying creative appeal to gain viewers trust in their visual records. They combine historical evidence, propaganda and the appeal of art.

The documentary photographs that interested me the most were the portraits, in particular the depression era photography which is distinct from the celebrity studio portraits and self-portraits that I’ve illustrated above. These portraits are scientific documents of social types.

It was a privilege to see “Migrant mother” (Dorothea Lange 1936) first hand. This is an iconic timeless image of the hardship of a woman and her seven children who’d sold the tyres from her car for food and living on wild birds caught by the children. It was taken at a camp for seasonal agricultural workers when she was working for the Farm Security Administration as part of a team of photographers documenting the impact of federal programs in improving rural conditions. Of the 160,000 images taken for the Resettlement Administration, Migrant Mother has become the most iconic picture of the Depression.  Lange said when photographing that it needed her total attention, Sir Elton John points out of the “photographs she took the pain in them- it just grabs you…It’s an exhausting photograph (Baker et al, n.d), and not so much that this is such a sad photograph, as that it is a resignation of this woman’s suffering.


 (Migrant Mother and Migrant Mother, 2017)

Lange’s The damage is already done ( 1936) left a bigger impression on me probably as unlike Migrant Mother, it was the first time I had seen it, this portrait also reaches out to you and has a story all of its own which as a viewer I wanted to know more about. Though the portrait is titled “The damaged child” on the back of Sir Elton John’s print Lange has written “The damage is already done”. This child shot against a harsh tin background, exudes determination and steely character even though she is grimy, grubby, in ragged clothing and has a black eye. She is not flinching in front of the camera and looks older than her years. Maybe it is possible that she will rise above any damage done?

damaged child.jpg

 (The Museum of Modern Art, 2017)

Another Lange image “White angel bread line” (1933) also struck me as particularly poignant as the migrant man with tin cup depressingly leans on fence behind a queue. I think it’s the way she’s captured his look of grim determination that arrests me.

This the first time also that I had seen any Walker Evans photography and it had an equally strong impact on me. Floyd Burroughs (1936) an Albania tenant farmer taken with a shallow depth of field extracts him from his start background. It is his look of ease but resignation which stops me in my tracks. He was known for finding dignity in ordinary lives and this photograph illustrates this.

floyd burroughs

(The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2017)

Outside of portraits there were two other images in the documents section that particularly interested me. The first is Helen Levitt’s images of children at play in New York in 1939. As I understand it the Leica camera revolutionised street photography, with its range of film speeds it was able to capture movement and difficult lighting. This image shows both.

helen levitt

(, 2017)

She began as an art teacher seeking to document children’s street chalk drawings and expanded from there. She associated with Walker Evans on the late 1930s though her street photography was much rawer and more playful than his.

Robert frank was an improvisational street photographer and this image showcases this. I was struck by this photograph as the technical quality appears to be prior to that time but his candid composition is of more of the 1940/50s.


(, 2017)


Whilst many of the portraits in this collection were artists, writers, musicians or celebrities, I was able to see from the portrait work in particular how from the early 20th century photography moved from not being seen as art to the artists pushing the conventions of portraiture, and the period covered by this exhibition is certainly crucial. This period in particular with its growth to include documentary, surrealist, realist, fashion, and celebrity, brought a harmony between technique and subject. Sir Elton John believes that there’s not a painted portrait that is better than a photographic portrait. I will look more closely at painted portraits to see whether agree with his analysis.


Anon, (2017). [online] Available at: http:/// [Accessed 23 Jun. 2017].

Baker, S., Mavlian, S., Harbin, N. and John, E. (n.d.). The radical eye. (2017). ROBERT FRANK (B. 1924) , Paris, 1949. [online] Available at: [Accessed 24 Jun. 2017]. (2017). Humanly Impossible | Bayer, Herbert | V&A Search the Collections. [online] Available at: [Accessed 23 Jun. 2017].

Ades, D (nd) Instument of a new vision: photography in the first machine age. In: Baker, S., Mavlian, S., Harbin, N. and John, E. (n.d.). The radical eye.

Iconic Photos. (2017). Gloria Swanson by Edward Steichen. [online] Available at: [Accessed 23 Jun. 2017]. (2017). Helen Levitt – Artists – Laurence Miller Gallery. [online] Available at: [Accessed 24 Jun. 2017].

Migrant Mother, 1. and Migrant Mother, &. (2017). Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936, Dorothea Lange | [online] Artspace. Available at: [Accessed 24 Jun. 2017].

Monroe, M., Taylor, E., Kennedy, J., II, E., Lennon, J., McCartney, P., Loren, S., Presley, E., Kennedy, J. and Warhol, A. (2017). Weegee Self-Distortion. [online] Getty Images. Available at: [Accessed 23 Jun. 2017].

My Favorite Arts. (2017). Self Portrait in Bathrobe by Man Ray. [online] Available at: [Accessed 23 Jun. 2017]. (2017). online] Available at: [Accessed 23 Jun. 2017].

Pinterest. (2017). Irving Penn – Corner Portraits 1948. [online] Available at: [Accessed 23 Jun. 2017]. (2017). Master Of Photography: Edward Weston | Icon Photography School. [online] Available at: [Accessed 23 Jun. 2017].

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, i.e. The Met Museum. (2017). Walker Evans | [Floyd Burroughs, Hale County, Alabama] | The Met. [online] Available at: [Accessed 24 Jun. 2017].

The Museum of Modern Art. (2017). Dorothea Lange. Damaged Child, Shacktown, Elm Grove, Oklahoma. 1936 | MoMA. [online] Available at: [Accessed 24 Jun. 2017].

Please note: Any images by other photographers used on this site are accredited and are being used for personal research and educational purposes only.







Part Four: Reading Photographs Research point

Research point

Visit [accessed 24/02/14] for a blog about Jeff Wall’s, Insomnia (1994), interpreted using some of the tools discussed above.

Read and reflect upon the chapter on Diane Arbus in Singular Images: Essays on Remarkable Photographs by Sophie Howarth (2005, London: Tate Publishing). This is out of print but you may be able to find it in your local university library: some of the chapters are available as pdfs online. You’ll find the Arbus chapter on the student website.

If you haven’t yet read any of Judith Williamson’s ‘Advertising’ articles (see Introduction), now would be a good time to do so. See:

OCA tutor Sharon Bothroyd in a blog uses Jeff Wall’s image “Insomnia” to show the process that she goes through to deconstruct an image. She attends to the formal level, denotations first. In the case of “Insomnia” The denotation of house is bricks and mortar whilst the “connotation of the word home which is a place of warmth, familiarity and comfort are warmth and home”. Whilst the kitchen is denoted by its furniture, its feeling of starkness and unease are connoted by its colours, lighting; this is “delivered to us via a series of signs and signifiers” chosen and used by the photographer”. She then turns to her personal reading of the image, how her experiences relate to it. Next she places the image in the wider context of film art and literature to add to her understanding, looking at the artist’s influences and references; from this she makes assumptions about the artist’s possible intentions. Lastly she considers the format of the image (in this case big, 2m x 1.75m) and what this adds to the author’s intentions.  I will certainly uses these as pointers when reading images in future.

Judith Williamson in her analysis of an advertisement for an apple I pad also begins with a literal analysis of the image (the subject, the iPad) though quickly moves into the connotations suggesting that the way it lights a child’s face and the way it is held is to give the impression that it is illuminating her and giving her heavenly powers. She then backs this up by looking at the product’s strap lines and lastly she explores the wider context of the product advertised. So she analyses the text, caption and the image to ascertain its meaning. In her paper Decoding Advertisements (nd) she says that adverts can only be understood by finding out “how” they mean and the way that they work, as “what an advertisement says is merely what it claims to say” (Williamson, nd). She talks of signs consisting of signifiers, the material object and the signified, its invisible meaning.

Liz Jobby offers another way of reading a photograph in her essay on Diane Arbus’s image “A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing. N.Y.C 1966. Interesting she begins by asking questions about the subjects, “You can’t help wondering what will become of them” and then expresses subjective judgements about them “Why did they agree to be photographed in the first place?” After this she moves onto deconstruct the literal elements but intersperses these with her interpretations of them. She then addresses the composition, format, and the text that accompanies the image but again adds her interpretations and questions of these. Next Jobby sets the image in the context of Arbus’s work, outlining that her work was not philanthropic but that she looked for subjects with a difference and then propositioned them; believing she could show things that would not have otherwise have been noticed. Jobby also considers the personal background of the artist “The distrust of the family façade was based on her personal experience” and that “photography allowed her to enter worlds forbidden to nicely brought- up Jewish girls” (Jobby 2005). Jobby also gives her opinion on the artist work, such as she is disturbed that Arbus’s subjects were trapped into being photographed. She cites other’s opinions on her work, such a Sontag charging Arbus’s photographs with a lack of compassion. Finally she reflects on Arbus’s dislocation from her subjects which allows for the power of the image which comes from its ordinariness.


Anon, (2017) (Online) available at:,%20Decoding%20Advertisements%20smaller.pdf [Accessed 20 Jun. 2017].

Jobby in: Howarth (2005) Singular Images: Essays on Remarkable Photographs. London: Tate Publishing.

WeAreOCA. (2017). Beneath the surface. [online] Available at: [Accessed 20 Jun. 2017].

Williamson (2013) Advertising, Apple. (online) Available at: (Accessed 20.Jun.2017)

Williamson, J (nd) Decoding Advertisements. Ideology and Meaning in Advertising, London. Marion Boyars. (online) Available at:,%20Decoding%20Advertisements%20smaller.pdf (Accessed 20 jun. 17)