Looking at Pictures – Kenneth Clark

It was through thinking about how to analyse pictures that I came across this book by Kenneth Clarke. This is not Kenneth Harry Clarke, the conservative MP, but Kenneth McKenzie Clark, the art critic who came to public prominence with the BBC series “Civilisation” in 1969. By this time, this book had been nine years since first publication.

In the introduction, Clark describes his way of looking at pictures, whilst acknowledging that it might not be the only way “No doubt there are many ways of looking at pictures, none of which can be called the right way.”

He follows this with some pithy, but profound advice:

“I believe that one can learn to interrogate a picture in such a way as to intensify and prolong the pleasure it gives one.”

“Looking at picture requires active participation, and, in the early stages, a certain amount of discipline”

“First I see the picture as a whole, and long before I can recognise the subject, I am conscious of a general impression, which depends on the relationship of tone and area, shape and colour…”

“…followed by a period of inspection in which I look from one part to another…and naturally I become aware of what the painter has intended to represent…”

“…quite soon my critical faculties begin to operate, and I find myself looking for some dominating motive, or root idea, from which the picture derives its overall effect.”

“In the middle of this exercise my senses will probably begin to tire, and if I am to go on looking responsively I must fortify myself with some nips of information.”

There follows a collection of essays that first appeared in the Sunday times describing, in Clark’s own style, 16 major works of art. The paintings covered include Titian – The Entombment, Raphael – The Miraculous Draught of Fishes and Turner – The Snowstorm.

Each description follows Clark’s pattern of analysis described in the introduction: leading from and initial impression into more detailed perception, punctuated by forays into the background of the artist and the picture. Clark’s knowledge is immense and he uses this to place the picture into a context, so he explains how the picture means so much more than what it is portraying.

Kenneth Clark has an easy going, easily-read style that makes this book a delight. There is nothing pompous or stuffy about his descriptions; instead they are very warm and genuine. This is a reminder that any critical analysis of a work of art should be honest and as much a reflection of the critic as it is of the artist.

So what do I get from reading the book:
1. an overall impression, leading into closer scrutiny is a good start,
2. to understand the picture at a deeper level it is necessary to know something of the artist and the context in which it is produced,
3. I might not know the context of someone else’s picture but a bit of research will help,
4. Be prepared to commit time and effort to the process, go away and come back refreshed if necessary,
5. stay honest and be prepared to say what the picture is saying to me.

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On Photography

There seem to be two types of photography book; one explains the nuts and bolts of picture taking, the mechanics of the craft; the second goes more into photography as an art. My technical background gives me a definite leaning towards the former; their style of “this is what you do, why you do it and how it is done” is much more accessible to me. I have tried several of the “photography as art” type books with varying degrees of accomplishment. Susan Sontag’s collection of essays published as “On Photography” is a member of the second group and the one I have had most success with.

Susan Sontag is not a photographer. If she were writing a how-to book, this might be relevant but not in a book like this. Neither is she a photography critic. She is a writer with an interest in photography that has led her to research the subject extensively and the depth of her knowledge and the level of her understanding is apparent on every page. Then her writing ability takes over to produce a book that is both erudite and readable.

Not being a photography critic is occasionally apparent when she does not differentiate between opinion and fact, or even personal opinion and considered peer group opinion. Being personal opinion, I found myself having a different opinion but had to remind myself that her personal opinion is based on more extensive research and has been read more times than mine and is considered more worthy. And having a different opinion opened my mind and forced me to challenge my way of thinking.

Other parts are predicated on esoteric background knowledge and not having that background made it difficult to understand the point. An example lies within the second essay, “America, Seen though Photographs, Darkly”. References to Walt Whitman had me scurrying to Google to see the relevance.

Then there are little snippets that give hope to struggling students. On page 132 we read “…there are pictures taken by anonymous amateurs which are just as interesting, as complex formally, as representative of photography’s characteristic powers as a Stieglitz or an Evans.”

I found it interesting, against a context of finding one’s own personal voice, that she did not consider individual photographers to be particularly individualistic. She compares them with composers and uses Stravinsky as an example where a particular style runs through all his works that enables compositions separated by many years to be instantly identifiable. She asserts that this is not the case with photographers.

The final “essay” is an anthology of quotations; some humourous, some profound, some puzzling but all carefully chosen to have something worth saying:

• I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed. – Garry Winogrand
• I photograph what I do not wish to paint and I paint what I cannot photograph – Man Ray
• If I could tell the story in words, I would not need to lug a camera – Lewis Hine

Photography: A Critical Introduction

The first sentence in the introduction to this book sets out its purpose as “…to introduce and offer an overview of conceptual issues relating to photography and to ways of thinking about photographs.”

In fact what it does is to discuss the history of photography and its place within society in relation to certain defined subject areas. As such it contains chapters entitled “Thinking About Photography”, “Surveyors and Surveyed”, “Sweet it is to Scan…”, “Construction of Illusion”, “On and Beyond the White Walls” and “Photography in the Age of Electronic Imaging”.

“Thinking about Photography” is mainly about the history of photography and discusses various approaches to chronicling the history.

“Surveyors and Surveyed” chronicles issues principally around the development of documentary photography, both from the aspect of photographer and subject.

“Sweet it is to Scan…” talks about personal photography and the taking of pictures for family record.

“Construction of Illusion” is sub-titled “photography and commodity culture”. As such the development of advertising and its use of photography is the subject matter.

In “On and Beyond the White Walls” the rise of photography as an art form is presented, both within the gallery and outside it.

The final chapter, “Photography in the Age of Electronic Imaging” contextualises the latest chapter in the development of photography, not just restricted to the digitalisation of the camera but cameraless methods as well.

This is an ambitious spread, one which the book attempts with aplomb. It is too broad to review in full here but a few general comments can be made.

There are flaws. The opening chapter is riddled with apparent and irrelevant feminism. There are ample references which implies impartiality but they are well chosen to support the arguments being presented rather than a balanced view. Its focus on history tends to detract from its stated intention “…to introduce … ways of thinking about photographs.”

As a history book on the development of photography within the areas discussed it is excellent (notwithstanding the occasional bias) and the references provide direction for further study but the thrice repeated inaccuracy over the date of the contribution of Fox Talbot and Daguerre (1939 versus 1839) gets tiresome.

The somewhat academic argument over who actually invented photography is evidence that the book is suitable for students of photography, rather than student photographers. I’m not sure at the moment how this will influence my photography but I will return to it later in my studies.

The Digital SLR Handbook

This book has a broad sweep. In it Michael Freeman attempts to cover the whole digital workflow from capture to delivery. In about 250 pages, this is no easy task.

He starts with a discussion on the changeover from film to digital, then heads into a technical description of the digital camera. This gets a thorough treatment as he discusses the points of lens design for digital, sensor technology, camera profiling, exposure measurement, noise, file formats and compression and their effect on image quality. There are pages devoted to more practical matters like batteries and chargers and using them overseas. Parts of the whole ‘picture taking’ system that are not unique to digital like tripods and flash also get a mention.

He then goes on to describe the image workflow after capture, and this section includes computers, monitors and storage. He describes colour management and monitor calibration and then goes on to describe the techniques involved in image optimisation, using processed and raw images. This section closes with some pages about printing. Between them, these first two section occupy about two-thirds of the book

The next section is on image editing. Editing can mean different things depending on context, but the author here is referring to more radical software manipulation; whereas the previous section can be thought of as bringing out the best of the image, editing here refers to making sunstantial content changes. He discusses Colour in more detail, making dust and noise repairs, extending the depth of focus and dynamic range amongst other topics.

The book closes with two fairly short sections on scanning and delivery.

In terms of breadth, it’s hard to imagine any topic that does not get a mention. In this respect the book is notable for its thorough approach. The presentation is also worthy of praise. Each topic gets its own page, some extend over a number of pages but they are then broken down into page length discrete chunks. This, together with the well-planned contents pages, make it a useful and accessible reference source.

However, the necessary brevity of description of each topic to cram so much into the book, renders it little more than an appetiser, a scratch of the surface of a very big subject. There was an attempt at detail. Many workflow processes are described but because of the need to save space this detail was not very well described. The descriptions of some of the processes relied on a knowledge of not only Photoshop, but a specific version of it. It would have been nice if there had been at least some acknowledgement that there are alternatives. Against this objection, there was much useful discussion of other software and plug-ins, not so well known as the Adobe powerhouse, but useful for specific purposes.

In summary, I thought the value of this book lay in it being a thorough introduction and a helpful reference but it is not really detailed enough to provide useful practical guidance.

The Photograph as Contemporary Art

Charlotte Cotton has an impeccable CV. She was the curator and head of the Wallis Annenberg Department of Photography at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), curator of photographs at the Victoria and Albert Museum (1992-2004), the head of programming at The Photographers Gallery (2004-2005) in London. More lately she was the founding creative director for Media Space, the National Media Museum upcoming London photographic gallery. (more…)