Having selected an image (McCullin’s street gang) that should easily sustain a 1000-word essay, it is time to think about the essay structure. Available guidance is not actually contradictory – there is common ground and a broad consensus – but every prospective mentor has a different approach and (apparently) a different set of priorities.
Barrett (2006) gives the most complete overview, with his note that all criticism does one or more of the following:
- Description: This includes statements about the photograph’s subject matter and formal construction, and also its external context and ‘causal environment’ (although I would suggest that this latter category shades into interpretation). In the absence of the image itself, accurate description is an essential basis for any kind of meaningful criticism.
- Interpretation: To interpret something is to give it meaning, or (taking my more cynical view) to explain and advocate the reviewer’s understanding of its meaning. There are numerous approaches to interpretation: Barrett himself (1986 and 2006, 65-105) suggests categorising the photograph as a starting point. Salkeld (2014) and the OCA course notes promote a semiotic approach. Others consider the historical context in which the photograph was made, or the photographer’s intent (although Barrett warns against what he calls ‘the intentionalist fallacy’)
- Evaluation: To evaluate a photograph is to make statements about its worth or value. In order to do so, one needs first to establish the criteria for evaluation and, second, to offer objective reasons why (in the reviewer’s opinion) the image succeeds or fails against those criteria.
- Theorising: Theorising looks beyond the image notionally under discussion and uses it as a starting point to consider what Barrett calls the ‘big questions’
There is a useful guide to understanding photographs, produced by my tutor, Garry Clarkson (unreferenced), which divides into four categories, mainly covered by Barrett’s functions of description and interpretation.
- Visual: deals with the formal elements and composition
- Technical: the techniques used by the photographer, camera format, shutter speed, aperture, ISO, lighting etc. whether stated by the photographer (e.g. in a caption in a photobook) or assessed/guesstimated by the reviewer.
- Contextual: historical context, biographical background, psychological effect
- Conceptual: relationship with other images, connections with reviewer’s own knowledge, ideas communicated.
Salkeld (2014, 45-67) and others introduce the study of semiotics as a guide to interpretation. (I choose Salkeld as my example because he manages to explain the concepts in accessible language, unlike the originators, Derrida and Barthes).
A photographic image contains a set of ‘signs’ which can be ‘decoded’ or interpreted. A ‘sign’ is a link between a ‘signifier’ (what we see in the image) and the ‘signified’ (what we interpret it to mean). Semiotic signs can be arbitrary (e.g. the colour red in road-signs indicates danger or prohibition; text is a set of symbols with meaning in a given language), iconic (the signifier is similar in appearance to the signified) and/or indexical (the signifier is caused by the signified, e.g. smoke caused by fire).
Meaning may be denoted (a literal view of what the signified is) or connoted (ideas suggested by the image but not explicitly denoted. My simplistic interpretation is that ‘denotation tells us what it is, connotation tells us what it means’)
My view at this stage, before mind-mapping in preparation for the essay, is that it will major on description and interpretation. Evaluation would be presumptuous, but might be attempted. I doubt that I will attempt any theorising.
Barrett, T. (1986) ‘A Theoretical Construct for Interpreting Photographs’. Studies in Art Education 27, no.2 (Winter 1986), pp.52-60.
Barrett, T.M. (2006) Criticizing photographs: an introduction to understanding images. 4th edn. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Salkeld, R. (2014) Reading photographs: An introduction to the theory and meaning of images. London: Bloomsbury.