Looking at Pictures

The reading list for the courses I have done so far contains books like “On Photography”, “Photography: A Critical Introduiction”, “The Photograph as Contemporary Art”. Reading these makes me think that this is the kind of artistic criticism I should try to emulate when I am looking at pictures and trying to read them. However, they uncover deeper meaning and hidden contexts which I simply do not see (often even when pointed out to me!) and when I try to write like that, it sounds like pompous nonsense!

This post was prompted by two influences. My tutor in his feedback suggested (more like commanded) that I start to develop more of an aesthetic critique of my work. Then on the OCA forum there was a thread started on “Analysing Work”. It seems there is some transcendental force at work, pushing me in a certain direction!

To counter my misgivings expressed above, there was some good advice posted:

· To learn how to analyse your own work you need to begin by analysing the work of well known and well regarded artists,

· You need to learn how to sort out the good points from the bad (composition, use of form, colour and so on).

· Analysing is not really any more than putting into words the reasons why in image speaks to you (or not I suppose!), what it says and how.

· There’s no real mystery to it, you just start off ‘saying what you see’, as in Catch Phrase, hahaha, and take it from there!

That’s advice I can relate to, “say what you see.”

There is an OCA study guide on “Looking at Other Artists and Photography” which contains lots of words and exhortations to visit exhibitions, buy or borrow art books and look at pcitures on the internet but not a lot of advice on what to look for in those pictures.

Another student posted a link to something he found useful (http://japanorama.co.uk/2011/02/25/building-visual-literacy/). This contained a 7 step guide to building visual literacy.

This started me on my quest. My view was that if I could develop a workflow for my photographic processing as taught right at the beginning of DPP, I could do the same for analysing pictures.

Searching on “Analysing Pictures” in Google produced a multitude of hits, including:


Written for Media Studies students at GCSE and advanced level it has an image analysis page which talks about deconstruction (denotation and connotation), mise en scene, organisation, composition, framing, lighting and colour with links to more in-depth articles.


provides a useful vocabulary to described photos, grouped under Basic Vocabulary, Visual Elements and Composition


Contains seven categories which can be used to describe photos


Contains a ten step guide to producing a picture analysis

Analysing pictures – Arcor.de

a four step analysis guide.

Putting all this together and trying to make sense of it we have:

Step 1

How does the picture makes you feel?

(Do this before you make any intellectual analysis of the picture. Immediate, unprepared and unguarded observation will often tell you more about the content communicated than rigorous analysis.)

Step 2

Describe the picture in terms of concepts from TAOP

(Points, lines, shapes, rule of thirds/golden section, colour, lighting, rhythm and pattern, how these lead the eye, balance)

Step 3

How does step 2 reinforce and/or contradict step 1

Step 4

Then with that in mind and at a deeper and more analytic level, (this is lifted directly from http://japanorama.co.uk/2011/02/25/building-visual-literacy/):

Building Visual Literacy

Level 1A: Building observation skills

What do you see in this picture?

Can you describe it more?

What else do you see?

What is going on in this picture?

What information in the picture makes you say that?

Level 1B: Building vocabulary

Can you guess where the photographer was standing when he or she took the picture?

Above the subject, looking down? Or below the subject, looking up? This is called point of view.

What is included in the picture frame? What is not included? This is called framing.

Describe the composition. What shapes do you see? What other patterns do you notice?

Level 2A: Building technical knowledge

What techniques did the photographer use?

What is the point of view?

How is the picture framed?

Describe the quality of the lighting. What direction is it coming from? Does it create a pattern of light and shadow?

Level 2B: Building an understanding of the choices photographers make

What choices did the photographer make?

Why did the photographer choose to use that technique?

Why did the photographer choose to compose the picture this way?

What is the photographer’s point of view? What effect does it have?

Why did the photographer choose to frame the picture this way?

What does the composition emphasize?

What does the lighting draw your attention to?

Level 3A: Understanding the context and intended use of the picture

What was the photographer’s purpose or the intended use for this image (e.g., magazine assignment, photo essay, fine art exhibition)?

Can you tell what genre of photography this is?

What do you know about the time period in which this photograph was made?

What does the photograph communicate about this time period?

Can you make comparisons to other photographers or artists working in this time period?

Level 3B: Relating context to subject and meaning

What choices did the photographer make? Can you guess why?

What is the photographer drawing your attention to? How is this accomplished?

What is the photographer’s point of view? What effect does it have?

What do you notice about the subject? Or the people in the picture?

Do you have any questions about the subject? Or the style of the picture?

What is the photograph saying? Does anyone have a different interpretation?

Level 4A: Finding meaning

What choices did the photographer make?

Does this element contribute to the photograph’s meaning, or is it distracting?

What was the photographer’s purpose in creating this image? What was the intended use of the image? How well does it work in this context?

What is the photograph saying?

Level 4B: Relating meaning to creative choices and larger issues

What is the impact of this image?

What are some issues it raises?

How might you approach this topic matter?

Level 5: Discussing what the image communicates

Which technical or formal elements work well in this photograph?

What do these elements draw your attention to?

What is the photograph saying?

What is the impact of this photograph?

How does the picture make you feel?

What does it make you think of?

Does it inspire you to work creatively in any way?


The Camera Never Lies?

In his feedback to my first assignment, my tutor commented on this image:


Look at the graphic simplicity of the image, a slight rotation anti-clockwise would straighten the verticals and straighten the pavement line but you may lose the straight line along your top of frame, this may be due to the way the building is constructed but could be due to viewpoint and camera angle / precision. This correction could be achieved in post-production by using transform tools in Photoshop but then issues may be raised concerning truth in photography! Where documentary photography is concerned should we be altering images? research and comment in your blog!

There is something about a photograph. Unlike a painting, which is obviously man-made, a photograph by its nature is nature reproducing herself [i]. Oliver Wendell Holmes thought that truth should be as much inherent in God’s photography as it is in his other works [ii]. In this short discussion I am going to look at what we mean by the truth, what truth can mean in photographic terms (in particular documentary photography) and the ethical issues surrounding the subject.

According the Oxford Dictionaries online: [iii]

Definition of truth

noun (plural truths /truːðz, truːθs/)

[mass noun]

· the quality or state of being true:

Definition of true

adjective (truer, truest)

1 in accordance with fact or reality:

2 accurate or exact

A witness in court swears to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Without wishing to go too deeply into concepts of absolute truth, when talking about the whole truth I am reminded of the story of the blind men and the elephant:[iv]

Once upon a time, five blind men came upon an elephant.

"What is this?!" asked the first one, who had run headlong into its side.

"It’s an Elephant." said the elephant’s keeper, who was sitting on a stool, cleaning the elephant’s harness.

"Wow! So this is an Elephant! I’ve always wondered what Elephants are like!" said the man, running his hands as far as he could reach up and down the elephant’s side. "Why, it’s just like a wall! A large, warm wall!"

"What do you mean, a wall?" said the second man, wrapping his arms around the elephant’s leg. "This is nothing like a wall. You can’t reach around a wall! This is more like a pillar. Yeah, that’s it! An Elephant is exactly like a pillar!"

"A pillar? Strange kind of pillar!" said the third man, stroking the elephant’s trunk. "It’s too thin, for one thing, and it’s too flexible for another. If you think this is a pillar, I don’t want to go to your house! This is more like a snake. See, it’s wrapping around my arm! An Elephant is just like a snake!"

"Snakes don’t have hair!" said the fourth man in disgust, pulling the elephant’s tail. "You are closer than the others, but I’m surprised that you missed the hair. This isn’t a snake, it’s a rope. Elephants are exactly like ropes."

"I don’t know what you guys are on!" the fifth man cried, waving the elephant’s ear back and forth. "It’s as large as a wall, all right, but thin as a leaf, and no more flexible than any piece of cloth this size should be. I don’t know what’s wrong with all of you, but no one except a complete idiot could mistake an Elephant for anything except a sail!!!"

And as the elephant stepped aside, they tramped off down the road, arguing more loudly and violently as they went, each sure that he, and he alone, was right; and all the others were wrong.

The Elephant keeper sighed, and went back to polishing the harness, while the elephant winked solemnly at him

This story has its roots in an old Indian poem and it calls into question the concept of the “whole truth”. It points out very succinctly how we can only tell the truth as we see it from our own perspective. Each of the blind men was telling the truth as he understood it and they all thought they had the whole truth and argued accordingly. Yet each told just part of the story and even assembled together, the whole was not described.

When we see a photograph we do not see reality, we see a flat representation of it bounded by the edges of the image. The photographer has made a selection when he framed the piece; he decided what to include and what to leave out, he decided what part of the elephant to show us. We see the part of the truth that the photographer wants us to see.

If the picture does not show us the whole truth, does it portray nothing but the truth. Consider the Boy with the Toy Grenade by Dianne Arbus.


We see a skinny child, one of his straps is hanging off his shoulder, his face carries a distorted expression, his hands are held in a tense grip. This picture is untouched, it’s obviously true. It’s obviously a picture of a child showing some kind of distress or derangement. Or is it? Here is the contact sheet where this picture came from:


Apart from the one, now famous image, and another family scene, there are ten pictures of a happy, normal young boy. The one the artist wanted us to see is just one aspect of this boy’s personality.

Perhaps Dianne Arbus never intended to show us the whole truth and nothing but the truth, perhaps the misrepresentation lies with the viewer in assuming that Daguerre was right, that the photograph can only be a true portrayal.

To consider the situation with documentary photography, we need to start with a definition of documentary. Again referring to the Oxford dictionary:

Definition of documentary


1 consisting of or based on official documents:documentary evidence of regular payments from the company

2 using pictures or interviews with people involved in real events to provide a factual report on a particular subject:a documentary programme about Manchester United

Definition 2 places a clear responsibility on the documentary photographer to “provide a factual report”.

One of the great feats of documentary photography was the Farm Security Administration’s cataloguing of the depression in 1930’s America. An enduring image of this collection is this one from Dorothea Lange:


A desparate mother, a sickly child, a family losing their dignity in the struggle for survival. Another one in the same series was taken after the father took a damp towel and cleaned his child’s face, specially for the photographer:


Which of these is the “factual report”? John Edwin Mason claims that between them the photographer and the father created a lie[v]. Did they? Isn’t it natural for the father to want to show the world that his family is happy and clean despite their hardships? Surely both pictures represent parts of the truth but it is the former that helps tell the story the FSA wanted; it is the former that triggers the emotional response in the viewer. “Perception is reality,” American political consultant Lee Atwater is reported to have said, a conception the FSA exploited to show this family how they wanted them to be perceived.

James Curtis’ essay “Making Sense of Documentary Photography” [vi] contains other examples of this selection process. He also points out some early examples of more blatant image manipulation. For this picture by Alexander Gardner of the American civil war, he had the body dragged forty yards to get the picture he wanted.


William Henry Jackson had to wait for the spring thaw before he could get his bulky camera equipment into position for this 1873 picture of the Mount of the Holy Cross. Unfortunately by this time, one of the arms of the cross had melted. He replaced it in the darkroom later!


More blatant still, yet not claiming to be documentary photography is this seagull by Bill Brandt. In the first picture, the seagull was added to the image of London docks in the fog. Later, Brandt made a second version, reversing the image and adding the sun.

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This historical context illustrates two ideas. Firstly. image manipulation is not new and is not an invention of Photoshop. The software is responsible for making it easier and put it into the hands of more photographers but it has been going on since the dawn of photography. Secondly, I think it shows that what the photographer needs to be aware of is not how he manipulates his images, but how his images manipulate the viewer. It is natural and right to use pictures to tell a story and the story being told needs to be truthful. However, the story being told can only be part of the truth, just as it was beyond the skill of the blind men to be able to describe the whole animal individually. The storyteller needs to be aware of this and this should be the guiding foundation for his ethical standards.

Equally the viewer needs to aware that he is only seeing the part of the truth the photographer intends him to see. Part of the burden of responsibility of faithful imaging lies in how the viewer sees and interprets the picture.

[i] Louis Daguerre in a notice circulated to attract investors 1938, taken from Gunnar Swanson “On Notions of Truth in Photography: Semiotics and the Stereograph”

[ii] Oliver Wendell Holmes “The Stereoscope and the Stereograph” taken from Gunnar Swanson “On Notions of Truth in Photography: Semiotics and the Stereograph”

[iii] http://oxforddictionaries.com/

[iv] http://www.robinwood.com/LivingtreeGrove/Stories/StoryPages/Elephant.html

[v] http://johnedwinmason.typepad.com/john_edwin_mason_photogra/2010/03/how_photography_lies.html

[vi] http://historymatters.gmu.edu/mse/photos/intro.html


One of the first things my tutor said to me when I embarked on Digital Photographic Practice was always to shoot in RAW. I can honestly say that I have never set my camera to RAW so I suppose now is the time to try. I realise it is covered in the course in part three but I thought I might research it beforehand and try to understand better the file formats available and their relative pros and cons. (more…)