Burning with Desire – The Conception of Photography

I bought this book, Geoffrey Batchen’s 1997 alternative take on the history of photography, based on a footnote in the EYV course notes which promised ‘a fascinating account of the origins of photography’. I eventually read it as part of my procrastination over assignment 2 of C&N.

The central part of the book is a post-modern take on what could be thought of as the pre-history of photography. Taking as his thesis the notion that Daguerre and Fox Talbot did not come up with the idea (of fixing the image of a camera obscura) from thin air, he looks back at philosophical thought and art in the 18th and early 19th centuries, to see the notions evolve. This is not something that started in one mind or one place; Batchen tracks down 24 people, who he dubs the ‘photo-photographers’, from eight countries, who expressed ‘the desire to photograph’ (although not in those words) before 1839. Beyond that, there is a cast of characters who have influenced or documented them.

The account is scholarly, picked-up in a lot of detail, well-referenced and difficult to summarise in review. Chapters 2, 3 and 4 carry the story and are worth reading. Chapters 1 and 5 are mainly postmodern theorist-speak and can be ignored if one is only after the history.

A final section, ‘Epitath’ (Batchen 1997: 204-216) echoes Delaroche’s ‘From today, painting is dead” with a prediction that digital imaging would be the death of photography as practiced for the previous 150 years. Like Mark Twain’s obituary, it was premature. While the popular use of film has fallen dramatically, it is enjoying a hipster revival. Of more concern is Batchen’s thesis that, with computer-generated imagery indistinguishable from in-camera digital imaging, photography would lose its privileged status as evidence of the real. With ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ very much to the fore at present, watch this space …


Batchen, G. (1997) Burning with Desire : The Conception of Photography. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Don McCullin – Unreasonable Behaviour

Sir Donald McCullin CBE HonFRPS is probably Britain’s greatest living documentary photographer. Known mainly as a war photographer, he has also covered poverty in Britain and abroad and the famines in Biafra (man-made) and Ethiopia (natural). In recent decades, he has reinvented himself as a landscape photographer, but that postdates this autobiography, first published in 1992. I read the 2002 edition, unchanged apart from a single-page preface.

The writing style is very direct and unflinching in its detail. This is not the work of a man showing off his education and erudition (McCullin is dyslexic and left school aged 15, on the death of his father) but one who has seen the worst that mankind can dish out and is trying to make sense of it for the general reader.

The early chapters cover his childhood in Finsbury Park, one of the poorer and rougher areas of London at the time, as a war child and occasional evacuee. He speaks first-hand of poverty and street gangs. He buys a camera during National Service, and afterward photographs Finsbury Park life and the street gangs. In 1959 a member of one of the gangs was arrested for killing a policeman and the Observer used one of McCullin’s photographs of the gang. An illustrious  career is started, with commissions to record poverty and street life elsewhere in Britain.

The main part of the book, however, deals with McCullin’s documentary work in pretty much every international trouble spot from the raising of the Berlin Wall, up to but not including the Falklands (McCullin is bitter about being excluded – too independent to toe the official propaganda line), in the Middle East, Vietnam, Africa and South America. He spent time in Idi Amin’s jail and has been wounded and caught malaria, in the course of pursuing his  stories.

In the context of this course (Context and Narrative) it is interesting to see how McCullin builds up his philosophy of what photojournalism and documentary mean to him. He pursues an individual course, even when on a commission, independently and honestly showing us what he sees. He deals with the question of voyeurism by concentrating on the ‘ordinary people’, civilians caught up in the horror, ‘other ranks’ soldiers etc. and bringing their story to the fore, and to the attention of readers (starvation in Biafra, for instance)

In the latter part of the book, it is clear that the work is taking its toll, and McCullin also charts the changing attitudes of newspaper owners and editors, looking for softer ‘lifestyle’ stories rather than the uncomfortable dramas he is used to recording. In the final chapters, he is obviously at a low ebb with rejection from the Falklands and the death of his first wife. The book was originally written as a form of therapy and ends on a low note. The 2002 preface tells us of a general upturn and his taking up landscape work.

I see that there has been a 2015 update, written to celebrate McCullin’s 80th birthday. It is on my Amazon wish-list.


McCullin, D. (2002) Unreasonable Behaviour London: Random House


Rhetoric of the Image – Barthes (a first reading)

The text of Roland Barthes’ ‘Rhetoric of the Image’ can be found in numerous places online. My version is a book extract posted as a PDF by Georgetown University (Barthes 1964).

Barthes’ writings, to borrow a phrase from Paul Seawright, ‘give up their meaning slowly’. I have been able to extract sufficient meaning for use in this project ‘Image and text’; the deep theory of the latter parts of the essay will have to wait for another day.

The essay centres on the deconstruction of an advertising image into its various messages (significations). Barthes chose an advertising image on the basis that all signification in the image is intentional; we read into the image what its creator intends us to read.


There are multiple instances of this image online. My source is https://tracesofthereal.com/2009/12/21/the-rhetoric-of-the-image-roland-barthes-1977/

Barthes analyses the signifiers into three parts: the linguistic message and two forms of visual message, the literal (denoted) and symbolic (connoted). Later he notes that linguistic messages can be further subdivided into ‘anchorage’ and ‘relay’. I see an imperfect analogy between the two splits – anchorage can be related to a literal visual message, and relay to a symbolic message.

The literal image denotes what we see at what Barthes calls the ‘first level of intelligibility’. Against a red background is a string bag filled with, and spilling out, the ingredients of a pasta meal. Some are natural produce (tomato, onion, peppers) and some are the manufactured product of the firm (Panzani) being advertised. The products are oriented so that we can read the manufacturer’s name on the labels – which becomes part of the linguistic message.

The connoted message(s) are those things that the viewer ‘reads into’ the literal image. The string bag and the unwrapped vegetables imply a return from market with fresh ingredients. At a second level, this suggests personal choice or selection rather than a ‘Saturday big shop’ stocking-up at the local Tesco. Placing the manufactured goods in the same bag implies that they are as fresh or ‘natural’ as the vegetables, and selected as carefully.

The connoted image, to some extent, depends on the viewer’s cultural background and experiences. Barthes claims to see ‘Italianicity’ in the vegetables and the colour scheme – I only see fresh vegetables, but take ‘Italianicity’ from the labels and the nature of the product (pasta)

There are two sources of linguistic message, the caption at bottom right and the labels on the products. In this case, both fall into the category of ‘anchorage’; they ‘fix’ the meaning of the image, effectively selecting between alternative possible connoted meanings and directing the viewer toward those that the advertiser wants to promote.

Barthes says that every image is associated with some linguistic message, either (as in this example) in the image itself or in the context in which it is seen – for instance, the text in a book, the caption in a newspaper or the wall-notes of a gallery. In the case of still images this is most likely to be anchorage – either the image illustrates the text or the text attempts to fix the meaning of the image; one is subservient to the other.

The other form of linguistic message, ‘relay’ is more common with moving images (for instance a ‘talking-head’ TV broadcast) than with still images; Barthes mentions cartoons and comic strips as likely examples of relay in still images. For me, one of the best examples is Paul Crum’s brilliantly surreal 1937 cartoon in Punch.

The image and the text have equal status and bounce off each other to give an overall meaning that is not complete in either.

Going back to the example picture essays in project 1 (Telling a story), I see Smith’s text and captions as being pure anchorage. Briony Campbell’s picture captions are a mix of anchorage and relay.


Barthes, R. (1964). Rhetoric of the Image. 1st ed. [ebook] Available at: https://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/Barthes-Rhetoric-of-the-image-ex.pdf [Accessed 16 Apr. 2017].

Reading Photographs – Richard Salkeld

‘Reading Photographs’ is the first of Bloomsbury’s Basics: Creative Photography series. It is not on the reading list given in the course notes but it is on my tutor’s personal reading list and is the book that he recommends reading first. Having now read it (not first, unfortunately) I find that it has given meaning and a degree of understanding to some of my earlier reading.


source: amazon.com

The book is an introduction to many of the concepts of photography criticism, written in clear language, with interesting example images and case studies and (unlike many texts) does not assume any prior knowledge on the part of the reader. The six main sections introduce key concepts and will be more or less relevant depending on the reader. For me, section 1 (dealing with the history of photography) was revision and sections 4 and 5 (portraits and representations of people, and surveillance and voyeurism) may become relevant later.

Section 2: Identity  is an introduction to semiotics. It gives the clearest explanation I have yet seen of the vocabulary of signs and reading images.

Section 3: Truth and lies covers documentary photography with a discussion of ‘reality’, manipulation, objectivity and viewpoint.

Section 6: Aesthetics introduces the ‘… is it Art?’ question with a potted history of photography’s relationship to the ‘fine arts’, together with comments on postmodernism, conceptualism, appropriation and the current attitude of galleries to photography.

I doubt that there are any really deep insights in this book but, as an introduction allowing this level-1 student to approach the works containing the deep insights, it does exactly what it says on the tin.


Salkeld, R. (2014) Reading photographs: An introduction to the theory and meaning of images. London: Bloomsbury.

100 Photographs from TIME

If you ask a photographer’s opinion of the most influential photographs of all time, you will probably get a list of 5-10 images. Of course, we will each have a slightly different list but most of us will find our lists well-represented in this book.

‘100 photographs’ (Dyer, 2015) is the book of the website of TIME’s project to assemble the most influential photographs of all time (or at least since 1826, which is when time started for photography – and, yes, the Niepce rooftops image is here).

There is no formula that makes a picture influential. Some images are on our list because they were the first of their kind, others because they shaped the way we think. And some made the cut because they directly changed the way we live. What all 100 share is that they are turning points in our human experience. (100photos.time.com)

An influential photograph is not necessarily a good one – the book includes the 2014 Oscars selfie yet has nothing from Ansel Adams or Walker Evans. It is also rather US-centric (unsurprisingly given the source) and appears biased toward more recent images. In part, this is because there are overwhelmingly more photographs taken since the birth of digital than before (see previous post) but I suspect the same kind of bias that packs lists of ‘the ten best films (or songs, albums or whatever) of all time’ with recent examples.

The book is divided into three parts, Icons, Evidence and Innovation.

Icons are the images that stick to your consciousness in a way that a mere photograph does not. Examples are Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’ (presented here, rather than in the ‘Evidence’ section), Joe Rosenthal’s flag-raising on Iwo Jima or – more quirkily – Betty Grable’s legs and the vertigo-inducing ‘Lunch atop a Skyscraper’

Evidence is the largest section and contains the photos that say “This is happening now”. From Gardner’s 1862 ‘The Dead of Antietam’ which brought the reality of the America Civil War home to New York society, through Nick Ut’s napalm girl which did the same for Vietnam to more recent images of famine in Africa, these are the photographs that changed public perception and, indirectly, changed the world. We also see the rise of the citizen-journalist with Filo’s Kent State shooting and Tami Silicio’s defiance of the ban on showing flag-draped coffins.

Innovation is the shortest and, perhaps, the lightest section and covers the development of photography itself and of photo-journalism. [If I may ride a personal hobby-horse for a moment – while the Niepce rooftops picture and Daguerre’s Boulevard du Temple are landmark early images, why is there nothing from Fox Talbot? After all, the daguerrotype was a technological blind alley while the calotype ushered-in the negative-positive workflow that dominated the film photography era and which made photographs infinitely reproducible, therefore democratic and influential.] This section includes Muybridge’s horse, Röntgen’s X-rays and the Apollo 8 ‘Earthrise’ picture which showed us just how delicate our planet is.

Not all is doom and gloom. We also see the Beatles pillow fight, Buzz Aldrin on the Moon and Michael Jordan in flight. Plenty for everyone.

I have referenced 18 images, which means I have missed 82. None of them is trivial; all repay viewing, but I have to stop somewhere.

Having said, in the first paragraph, that most of us will find our personal lists well-represented I would go further and say that, after reading this book, most of us will add a few images to our lists. I know I did.


Dyer, G. (ed.) (2015) 100 photographs: The most influential images of all time. United States: TIME

TIME (s.d.) TIME’s 100 most influential images of all time. [online at:] http://100photos.time.com (Accessed: 13 February 2017).