Art of Photography

Rob Townsend

The Photographer’s Eye and The Photograph


My first full week as a photography student and I’m away from home all week, without DSLR and coursework folder. So the practical exercises won’t be starting just yet. Ever one to make the best of the situation, I decided I could use the time at stations and airports and on trains and planes by at least getting some reading done!

I’m unlikely to blog this level of analysis on everything I read, but I’d like to get down my thoughts at this early stage, as a snapshot of my current level of understanding and appreciation. Then I can come back to this in x months/years and see if I’ve learned anything. Maybe my future self will be embarrassed by my ignorance, maybe I’ll decide I had it all nailed from the start…

I’ve been reading:

  • Freeman, M. (2011) The photographer’s eye. Digital edition. Lewes: Ilex Press
  • Clarke, G. (1997) The photograph. New York: Oxford University Press

The Freeman book I’m actually re-reading, as I first got it last year – before I knew he was the OCA TAoP course author. This is very much the more accessible of the two, as it looks at photography – as the title suggests – from the point of view of the practitioner. It deconstructs photographic composition into a series of linked facets (the frame, basics of design, graphic elements, light, colour, intent and process). These facets are all illustrated with clear examples (interactive examples in the case of the digital edition) that certainly clarify the point being made – although in many cases it’s not immediately clear yet how to put the concepts to use in one’s own photography… I guess if we knew that, we’d all be writing photography books. But it’s a very instructive and enlightening book, and it bears re-reading.

The Clarke book is another kettle of fish. It’s subject is the photograph itself, not so much from the photographer’s point of view but from the viewer’s – or, as he prefers it, the reader‘s. It’s concerned with the analysis, critique, interpretation and appreciation of the photograph, and places the photograph as art in a historical and cultural context. I’m finding this a little more heavy-going. A bit more, well, scholarly. I’ve only read the first two chapters so far (What is a photograph? and How to read a photograph) and I’m finding it mostly fascinating but occasionally a little pretentious. Maybe I’m still naive as a student of the arts.

I’ve gone back to review the snippets I underlined from the first chapter, on the basic definition of the photograph. Here’s a few that resonated with me:

  • “The photograph […] speaks very much to a sense of power in the way we seek to order and construct the world around us”
  • “… the photograph’s dual status as simultaneously both object and image”
  • “The photograph has a multiple existence which informs its multiple meanings”
  • There is a summary of six aspects of the structure of photographic discourse: size, format, editing/ordering, surface, authenticity and time
  • The photograph is “in the end, a sealed world to which we bring meaning; a complex play of presence and absence”

I found the chapter on ‘reading the photograph’ to be a little more troublesome. Not totally impenetrable by any means, but it did lose me once or twice, it has to be said. The words Clarke uses most often to describe photographic reading are “problematic”, “ambiguity” and “complexity”. Three pairs of example photographs are given from Diane Arbus, Matthew Brady and Lee Friedlander, and in each case I ‘got’ the analysis of one much more than the other. Either a coincidence or a deliberate tactic on the part of the author? Who knows.

I understood – and found highly interesting – the process by which one can read a photograph rather than simply view it; to identify points of entry that allow a deeper interpretation, and to continue analysing to get a better idea of the message the photographer was trying to get across. I think my issue is that you can only ever get an idea of the photographer’s intent. And some of the interpretations placed on the examples given seemed to stretch the imagination somewhat.

I get that Arbus’s Identical Twins (1967) is actually a study of identity and difference not surface similarity; but I struggle with the assertion that it is “a visual essay on the nature of photographic meaning”. On the other hand, maybe ‘intent’ doesn’t need to mean conscious intent, and the fact that (e.g.) the slanted path in some way represents Arbus’s askance world view is something that she herself wasn’t aware of when pressing the shutter. Again, who knows? The second Arbus example, A Family On Their Lawn One Sunday in Westchester, New York (1969) is in my opinion easier to read, as the themes and symbolism seem a more deliberate commentary on the society it depicts.

Albuquerque (1972), Lee Friedlander

I found the Friedlander example Albuquerque (1972) less satisfying in terms of its ‘reading’. While I do agree with the “lasting impression of emptiness” given by the absence of people (emphasised by the solo dog, obediently sitting), I have to say that I don’t yet see “a distinctive statement about contemporary America” or that it “gluts the eye with images of implied communication”. Maybe I’m still something of a philistine, but the explanation that “Friedlander’s photographs are deliberately difficult to read, indeed, they make difficulty basic to their meaning as part of a larger critical process” seems to me to be a little ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’. So, the significance is that it’s hard to make out the significance? (I will revisit my opinion on this later in the course, to see if my appreciation of his style has changed…).

Anyway, to reiterate, I am finding the Clarke book genuinely fascinating. It makes my brain hurt a bit, and I find myself re-reading some passages, but that’s good, right?


4 thoughts on “The Photographer’s Eye and The Photograph

  1. Hi Rob,

    This seems to be a fairly typical reaction when first reading “The Photograph”. I have just finished it and I certainly felt the same way as you do most of the way through the book. I have been assured however, that if you return to it in a year or two from now it will be much easier to understand. Nothing like jumping in at the deep end though!
    My problem with it was less to do with what he was saying about the photographs and more that I felt it was badly written, trying to use too many clever words that did nto benefit the understanding of the text. I found myself on several occasions reading a sentence several times, deciphering it and then saying to myself “Well why didn’t he just say that!”
    Good luck with the rest of it.


    • Thanks, not just me then! I’ve read a few chapters and put it to one side for a while as some new books arrived to distract me… currently reading Sontag’s On Photography and finding it easier going (despite it being a book on photography with no photographs!)

      Thanks for dropping by – I’ll keep an eye on your blog.

  2. Pingback: Books roundup | Art of Photography

  3. Pingback: Meaning and intent | Context & Narrative

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