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)

toatsu

(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.

Conclusion

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

 References

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: https://uk.pinterest.com/pin/288723026082257843/ [Accessed 27 Jun. 2017]Plus.google.com, 2017)

PhotoPedagogy. (2017). The World is Beautiful. [online] Available at: http://www.photopedagogy.com/the-world-is-beautiful.html [Accessed 27 Jun. 2017].

SFMOMA. (2017). Shomei Tomatsu. [online] Available at: https://www.sfmoma.org/artist/Shomei_Tomatsu [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.

 

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