Assignment 4 – a bit of structure

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 phonebook) 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.


Deconstructing an advertising image

This is a advertisement for Loaf furniture, torn from the Sunday Times Magazine of 7th January 2018, which I have marked-up with a black Sharpie to illustrate parts of this deconstruction.


For context, the majority of advertisements in the magazine are for high-value aspirational products or services: kitchen fitting, furniture, cruises etc. These are not day-to-day purchases – the majority of readers will not be interested in buying a sofa this week – but the advertiser must expect to do enough business to justify a £90,000 marketing expenditure.

To paraphrase Roland Barthes in ‘Rhetoric of the Image’, nothing in an advert is accidental. Everything is deliberately arranged to put across the advertisers’ message, explicitly or implicitly.

Although there is little text, it dominates the advert. The top half is taken up by apparently informal text.

(1) is the name/ logo ‘loaf’, displayed in lower-case joined-up script reminiscent of a primary school handwriting exercise. The effect is youthful and casual. There is also a visual pun – the logo can notionally be drawn in a single line, which echoes the single thread (8) at the base of the image.

(2a) is the immediate message. The advertisers have a sale (or at least claim they do). This text is bright red, an ‘advancing’ colour used to draw attention. The typeface is informal, reminiscent of a rapidly drawn, spur-of-the-moment sign. It is also intermediate in style between the logo above and the smaller text in the rest of the page.

(2b) is a text tagline, linked to 2b but in a more formal sans serif face. However, there is nothing formal about the message, “it’s loafing time…” which links the concept of leisure time with the advertisers’ name.

The text at the bottom of the page (3) is in the same sans serif typeface and contains more directed information. It tells us that the advertisers sell beds, sofas and other furniture – the hook ‘for loafers’ once again links the concept of leisure with a pun on the advertisers’ name. It also gives very limited contact information, describing the approximate location of three showrooms and the advertisers’ internet domain name. There is neither telephone number nor full address – it is assumed that customers will be sufficiently tech-savvy to find what they need online given this clue. This is a high-risk strategy (technophobes will shop elsewhere) but gives the target audience a sense of conspiracy, “We are young, modern and fun-loving – we want a Loaf sofa, and we know where to find it”

(4) The main image is a sofa with two people sitting on it, a child knitting and (probably) a young adult (parent or older sibling) reading a newspaper. The sofa appears large, but we must consider the possibility that this is an illusion created by employing petite models. The sofa is seen in a plain white environment, with no wall/floor line or other indications that it is in a room. We have a sense of ‘open space’ rather than the slightly claustrophobic impression of a large piece of furniture in a small room.

(5) The newspaper, with the masthead ‘Loaf Times’ (both referencing the advertiser and suggesting the social class of the reader) carries two notional headlines: “Secret knitter strikes” sets a context for the knitting child, causing us to wonder if he/she is the ‘secret knitter’ of the headline. “Britain casts off winter blues” suggests hope for better weather, the concept of spring cleaning (and by extension, redecoration or refurnishing) and also contains a knitting pun, linking to the ‘secret knitter’ theme. These are examples of relay text, rather than the anchorage of items 1-3.

(6) The scarf being knitted is red and white (definitely not ‘winter blue’), matching the sale text (2a) and also the adult’s socks (7), suggesting that they were a previous project. At this stage, having marked-up and scanned the image, I noticed the cable-knit trousers – a nice bit of Barthesian punctum. The connection between the two figures, and the various knitted items, is made by the loosely draped red thread (8), which also links to the lettering style of the logo (1)

Deconstruction – with or without Derrida

The Wikipedia (2018) article on ‘Deconstruction’ tells us that “While common knowledge in continental Europe (and wherever Continental Philosophy is in the mainstream), Deconstruction is not adopted or accepted by most philosophy departments in universities where Analytic Philosophy has the upper hand”. Britannica (2018) is more forthright, “Some philosophers, especially those in the Anglo-American tradition, dismissed it as obscurantist wordplay whose major claims, when intelligible, were either trivial or false.” , a comment which I read with considerable relief as it chimed with my own views when attempting to read ‘The Principle of Reason’ (Derrida, 1983) to place the quotation on page 100 of the course notes into context.

The quotation appears seven pages into an 18-page essay (apparently notes for a lecture at Cornell University) full (at least, for the seven pages which I read) of repetition, circularity and wordplay. To be fair, Derrida’s topic was essentially circular, a discussion of whether the principles underlying reason could be subject to reason itself. This sort of discussion is akin to DIY brain surgery and also crops up in mathematical number theory and discussions of deconstruction in the linguistic sense. In each case the philosopher (for lack of a better term) is attempting to define the basis of a system of description, while using that same system to do it.

The good news is that (in my opinion) it is not necessary to understand deconstruction at that level in order to make use of it at the level envisaged by the course notes. To continue the number theory analogy, most people can get by with mathematics at the ‘two plus two equals four’ level although it is vaguely reassuring to know that the basic structure of mathematics is underpinned by scholars considering questions like “Does two plus two always equal four?”, “Why?” and “What do we mean by ‘two’ anyway?”. Similarly, in physics, relativity and quantum theory are useful at the limits but most human engineering endeavour gets along very nicely, thank you, with a classical or Newtonian understanding.

The course notes appear to be working at a sensible level, also expressed by James May several times in the TV series “The Reassembler” that it is only when one reduces something to its component parts and carefully rebuilds it  that one fully understands it. It is possible to take metaphor too far on occasions. While James May working on the parts of a lawnmower is certain to reassemble a lawnmower, somebody deconstructing a Lego or Meccano model could rebuild something entirely different from the original.

On the whole, I am happier working with deconstruction at a May level than a Derrida level.


Britannica, . (2018) ‘Deconstruction’. in Encyclopedia Britannica. Vol . [online] : . Available at <; [Accessed 3 January 2018].

Derrida, J. (1983) ‘The Principle of Reason: The University in the Eyes of Its Pupils’. Diacritics Vol 13, No.3 (Autumn 1983), pp.2-20.

Wikipedia, . (2018) ‘Deconstruction’. in Wikipedia. Vol . [online] : . Available at <; [Accessed 7 January 2018]. [NB: This article seems to be subject to frequent change. It had been edited on 22 December 2017 and 6 January 2018; in both cases this was a matter of days before my access]

David Bate on portraits

My tutor’s list of recommended reading following assignment 3, the self-portrait, included a chapter by David Bate, ‘Looking at portraits‘ from his 2009 book ‘Photography: the key concepts’ (Bate 2009, 66-86). The chapter covers some key concepts in a readable way, demonstrating that being theoretical and accessible are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The 2009 edition is available as a free download, and there is a 2016 second edition (which I have just ordered) with new chapters on snapshots and ‘the act of looking’. The snapshots chapter will feed into another suggested line of enquiry and a probable future posting.

If the photographic portrait is a shorthand description of a person, then portraiture is more than ‘just a picture’, it is a place of work: a semiotic event for social identity. (Bate 2009, 67)

A portrait ‘fixes’ the identity of the subject/sitter in some way, dependent on why it has been taken and for what purpose it is used (gallery, social media, police mugshot, etc.). The photographic portrait is ubiquitous as a result of, and arguably was a driver for, the massive impact of photography itself.

Over the next six pages (68-73) Bate looks at the history of photographic portraiture, linking it both to painterly conventions and to the development of photographic technology. When cameras were constrained by tripods and long exposures, the artist’s studio was a convenient location and had lights, props, backgrounds etc. There was a two-way flow of influence – Bate tells us that the chin-on-hand pose was a photographers’ device to keep the head steady, which then appeared in painted portraits as well. Improving and cheapening technology led both to the carte-de-visite and the passport/bureaucratic identity image (‘mugshot’). There is a brief discussion of eugenics, the images of Francis Galton and the effect of facial expression on apparent character.

Unsurprisingly, the face and its expression takes up the major part of the next section, the elements of a portrait. Bate lists these as the face, pose, clothing and location – which can be thought of as a hierarchy, each as the ‘external context’ of the previous element. Facial expressions (and, as viewers, we are attuned to even very minor changes) and poses can hide or reveal elements of character – or simulate or falsify our reading of the subject’s character: a consideration in advertising or propaganda.

Clothes (or lack of them) and setting give clues to social status, occupation, etc. and are also capable of manipulation. Bate describes the combination of the four elements: setting, clothes, pose and face as the ‘rhetorical argument’ of a portrait, a phrase which I would normally regard as relevant to language rather than images, and segues neatly into the final section on ‘reading’ portraits.

In reading a portrait (photographic or not) we are literally expected to take the image at its ‘face value’; Bate’s discussion starts from Plato’s distrust of surface appearance. This section deals with the interlinked concepts of recognition (even if only that we are looking at a human face) and identification (‘of’ and ‘with’), digressing into narcissism, projection, soft-focus and deadpan blank expressions.

In the concluding paragraphs, Bate argues for the role of the viewer (‘the processes of spectatorship) in fixing the meaning and value of a portrait.

If various forms of portraiture are concerned with establishing social identities, then we surely need to consider the pleasure in viewing these images and begin to interrogate our own investment in them, if only to begin to understand how and why pleasure in looking, and psychological and social identity, are all intertwined within the external question that portraits seem to address: who are we? (Bate 2009, 84)


Bate, D. (2009) Photography : the key concepts. Oxford UK: Berg.

Felix, Gladys and Rover

We are asked to comment on the formal structure of Elliott Erwitt’s image ‘Felix, Gladys and Rover. New York, USA. 1974’, and whether the structure contributes to the meaning of the image.

I recall that, when I first saw this image, my attention was first drawn to the woman’s (Gladys?) booted legs and the chihuahua, which are the darkest and highest-contrast parts of the image. I saw the second pair of larger legs en passant but concentrated first on the chihuahua which appeared to be the main subject and the focus of humour. It has an odd expression (wall-eyed) and is clothed in a knitted wooden hat and jacket – suggesting a cold day, as reinforced by the woman’s overcoat and boots.

I noticed the legs at the left of the frame but, on my first viewing, assumed they were human and uninteresting. It is only on a longer examination that we realise that the second pair of legs belong to a very tall dog, probably a Great Dane. This is the element of Barthesian punctum, or what Michael Freeman calls ‘the reveal’. This double-take realisation forces us to re-evaluate the picture and the relationships between its three subjects, particularly the size difference between the dogs which we assume are both owned by Gladys. We might speculate about details of their day-to-day life; are there two different sized dog-baskets (or kennels, or food dishes) for instance? Certainly, there must be practical differences in the exercise regime.

This is not a conventional rule-of-thirds picture. Gladys is centrally located and the chihuahua (is he Felix or Rover, by the way?) is entirely within the right-hand third. OK, the left-hand vertical third line coincides with Dane’s left leg and it is possible to draw a weak lower horizontal third through the ankles of the four longer legs and the belly of the chihuahua, but I do not see those as major elements. To me, the main organising elements are the expressed vertical lines (four long legs, the lead and the secondary elements of the tree to the left and gazebo to the right) and the implied horizontals (hemline of the coat, bottoms of the feet, and a weak central horizon line), giving an overall grid to the image. The even spacing of the main elements contributes to the impression of an ordered grid.

This is not an HCB ‘decisive moment’ grab shot, but something more considered. I do not know whether we are looking at models or a group that Erwitt has met by chance  and persuaded to pose, but he has taken time and trouble to arrange the elements properly. By getting himself (or at least his camera lens) down to chihuahua eye level, we are able to get an idea of its viewpoint and to emphasise with it; nearly everything in its world must be taller. If this were a grab shot as the subjects were walking toward the photographer, all four Great Dane legs would be in frame and the element of punctum would be lost. Instead, the Dane has been posed side-on so that its rear legs are out of frame to the left. (Well, nearly so. The Magnum image above shows part of a thigh in the top left corner, which has been cropped out from the version presented in the course notes).

Erwitt clearly loves dogs. At least four of his books (Son of Bitch, To the Dogs, Dog Dogs and Woof) are devoted to them, and his doggy images have elements of anthropomorphism and humour. Felix, Gladys and Rover is no exception. Although the chihuahua is part of the image, we feel that we see the world from its viewpoint, emphasised by the low camera angle and the decision to crop the other two subjects at knee level. Its expression and clothing inject the sense of humour, but we also know that it is cared for to the extent of keeping it warm on a cold day. I also get a feeling of closeness, love and/or friendship between the three subjects, emphasised by the grid structure and their physical closeness.

[according to WordPress, that was 683 words – which is a good indication of the level of detail that will be required to produce 1000 words on a single image in assignment 4]

A Philistine’s progress – on re-reading Terry Barrett

I am currently reading Terry Barrett’s ‘Criticizing Photographs‘ as a prelude to making a serious start on Part Four (Reading Photographs). I will blog a review when I finish it, but I am already finding scope for a bit of personal reflection.

Actually, I am re-reading the book and this is the second copy that I have owned. I originally bought it in 2010 when I had just joined a camera club and was hoping to get some insight into how judges evaluate images on competition nights. I found it useless for that purpose, full of irrelevant and off-topic material and promoting a view of ‘art’ that  I did not recognise, so I disposed of it.

Now, seven years on and two years into the OCA degree course, I have a second copy which I am re-reading with different eyes and finding it quite fascinating. It is dealing with topics that I recognise, and I am now familiar with (or at least have heard of) many of the photographers, critics and photographs that he references.

The point of this post is a realisation that my horizons have broadened since starting this course. I am not knocking camera club judges (and I have seen some snobbish comments about camera clubs on the OCA Facebook and forum pages) but I recognise that there are different ways of looking at photographs. The club approach looks at images in a formal, technical and aesthetic way but does not look behind them at the meaning. Judges will often say that they are only interested in the image as presented, not in the process by which it was made. On the other hand, the technical quality and composition of club competition images is superior to many of the examples that the OCA course promotes. I hope that, by immersing myself into both cultures, I can become a photographer encapsulating the best of both worlds.

Null photographs

This is a brief posting in response to a question posed in the introduction to part four (C&N, p92). The thesis is that photography is much like a language, although expressed in imagery rather than words. In most photography, the goal is to communicate or express something. We are challenged to think of photographs that are not used as a means of expression or communication.

This is equivalent to voicing a semantically null sentence. While individual words in sentences can be semantically null (‘do’ or ‘that’ can be used to improve the flow of a sentence without adding to its meaning, as can the caricature teenager’s ‘like’) it is difficult to frame an entire sentence entirely without meaning. Similarly with photographs; almost all have some message, even if only as simple as “This is what [subject] looks like” or “This happened in front of my camera at the moment I pressed the shutter button”

It may be a matter of intent. The simple message may not be the goal of the photograph, just a byproduct. However, meaning exists.

A photograph may not have a goal at all, simply a random pressing of the shutter (accidental or otherwise). Those photographers who rebel against HCB’s concept of the ‘decisive moment’ can fall into this category, which may explain why I find it difficult to enjoy (or even take seriously) their work.

At the other end of the scale, an image might have been taken deliberately but the subject has been deliberately distorted or obscured to the extent that the image becomes completely abstract and potentially meaningless.