Student number 514516 Nicola South
“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”
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: Tribuneindia.com 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.
(Monroegallery.com, 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.
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Please note: Any images by other photographers used on this site are accredited and are being used for personal research and educational purposes only.