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)