How do I read a photo? #1

I made a start on this in the first module – the Art of Photography, by reading quite a few books, visiting exhibitions and study days, participating on forums, and putting all the selective views of my camera club experiences into perspective. Now I’m moving up a step and revisiting a few significant books and buying some more. I’ll summarise what I find of use in the books under the same title – “How do I read a photo” – suggested by Ian Jeffrey’s book, which I didn’t really study properly first time around but which I recognise is worth putting some effort into.

First topic is Charlotte Cotton’s “The Photograph as Contemporary Art” which divides contemporary art into seven categories. There is much crossover, but this is a useful start in understanding what type of I might be reading, or taking.

1. “If this is art” where the photo is planned in advance, for example Phillip-Lorca diCorcia’s photos of passers-by on a New York street illuminated by a flash and captured with a telephoto lens. I noticed these also in the Genius of Photography DVD and was struck with the comparison with Joel Meyerowitz whose territory is also the New York streets but who just walks up to people and takes his photo with no attempt at concealment. Apart from diCorcia the only other photographer I’d come across here was Alfred Stieglitz, whose photo of a urinal used as an art installation in 1917 was included as an example of his work. (This shows that “modern art” as I understood it didn’t emerge in the last 50 years.)
On first reading I thought Gregory Crewdson might have been placed in this category but it’s more subtle than that and he is located in the second category –

2. “Once upon a time”. This advances beyond the first planned category into storytelling, where each individual photograph contains it’s own narrative. Photographers in this category include Jeff Wall, Phillip-Lorca diCorcia again, Tom Hunter (who I met at a recent RPS event in London), Charlie White, Thomas Demand (shortlisted for this year’s Deutche-Borse prize and seen during an OCA study trip), Rut Blees Luxembourg (who also presented at the same event as Tom Hunter under a “Photography and the City” banner), and of course Gregory Crewdson. It is already obvious that there is much crossover in the categories.

3. Chapter 3 – “deadpan” is where this begins to get difficult, but the explanation that this category should really be viewed live at full size where all its detail can be seen was helpful. Andreas Gursky is located in here, as are Ed Burtynsky, Thomas Struth (a future study trip in September), Joel Sternfeld, and Rineke Dijkstra.

4. “Something and nothing” shows how ‘non-human things… can be made extraordinary by being photographed’. I also find this difficult to read, but I’m hopeful that further reading of Ian Jeffrey’s work will provide further enlightenment. I think I may be asking too many questions, or perhaps the wrong questions when looking at these works, for example, Wim Wenders’ ‘Wall in Texas’. I would see a decaying wall with several cables running diagonally in front, and a kerb and then the road. Cotton’s review says ‘..the cracks in the road and the plaster on the wall that has fallen away to reveal the brickwork beneath create an allegory of the deterioration and fragility of the place..’, which is actually pretty much what I saw, but I don’t yet have the language to describe the photo in those wonderful terms.
Roe Etheridge is included here, and I saw some of his work earlier this year and didn’t understand anything. Perhaps my problem is that I should concentrate on describing what I see and then linking this to similar artifacts, as Ian Jeffrey does.
Must keep reading and described, and making connections however initially obscure.

5. “Intimate Life” as perfected by Nan Goldin, and summed up by Cotton as the difference between snapshots showing family and friends at significant moments and usually happy times, and that of Goldin (and others) work that shows it warts and all. Other photographers in this category are Larry Clark, Jurgen Teller, Wolfgang Tillmans, Richard Billingham, and Larry Sultan. I feel closest to this form of contemporary art than to the others described, perhaps because this is one of the most naturalistic photographic subjects. I have over the years taken more of this type of photo than any other type, and felt wary of showing the results because they weren’t pictorial or happy shots, but at the same time I kept many of those shots and still enjoy them for the memories they bring back. I must dig out a few examples and post them either here or in my paper learning log. I feel very happy to have made this connection.

6. “Moments in history” describes how photography records world events, but in contemporary art terms this means taking a considered, anti-reportage approach. I regret not having taken advantage of being in various interesting places during my life nd not hving taken a photographic record of such, for example, in Northern Ireland in the 1960’s and 70’s and then South Africa in the apartheid years. I do at least have many photos taken of people there at that time, and it may be fruitful to go through my archive (cardboard boxes of negatives) to see if any narrative can be found and displayed.
Photographers named in this category include Paul Seawright, Simon Norfolk, Paul Graham, and Martin Parr. I could add many more, such as Capa, Hetherington, McCurry, the South African ‘Bang Bang Club’, etc etc etc.

7. Lastly, “revived and remade” explores how photography is re-imagined to fuel various media such as advertising, surveillance, film stills, and scientific photography. Cindy Sherman is a good example of how photography is used to examine image and identity, and I do enjoy her work. Jemima Stehli is also in here for her copy (homage?) to Helmut Newton’s ‘Here they come’.

In the blog post I will move on to explore how Susan Bright classifies art photography in her book “Art Photography Now”.


About watlvry

Flaneur for my own ailments; government and corporate hypocrisy; guitar stuff; the music business; home made videos featuring home made tunes played at home; a bit of golf; and of course photography. Specifically "art" photography (doesn't exist) and contemporary photography ( sadly does exist in all its grotesque reality).
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4 Responses to How do I read a photo? #1

  1. Good review which inclines me to get the book in time.

  2. CliveW says:

    I found Ian’s approach excellent; he was my tutor at Goldsmiths. The thing that impressed me most, apart from him being a seminal figure in promoting the serious study of photography in this country from the late 60s on, was that he had the confidence to be unsure about things.

    He gets sent new photography to review from all around the world and it stuck with me when he said about one piece of work that he thought ‘there might be something interesting happening here’.

    For me that contrasted with those who’ve come after him who make definite statements about work as if they’re irrefutable.

  3. John Umney says:

    I had a copy of Cotton’s book before I enrolled on the course and having re-read it I think it is a very good backgrounder. I have spoken to and read other students reviews of Clarke’s “The Photograph” which I read as part of the course’s documents and the general impression is not favourable; for myself I found it contradictory and flawed – I wonder if the Cotton would be a better choice for students? I intend reading Well’s “The Photography Reader” shortly to get another perspective

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