Category Archives: Book and Essay reviews

Behind the Image by Anna Fox and Natasha Caruana

The book is written by two University of Creative Arts staff members. Its audience is primarily students of photography. I believe it should be required reading for students starting out on a photography course rather than further into the course.

There are six chapters. It is written in a simple and straightforward language making it easy to understand. It is well illustrated with images both by the authors and other photographers where relevant. Much of the content is things one already knows. Tied neatly into chapters it reinforces this knowledge.

The opening chapter is about planning and researching proposals for projects. The second is about research methods and sources available to develop a project. There are brief descriptions of different photographic genre in the next chapter. Because of the breadth of the topics covered no one genre is dealt with in depth. This leaves the reader wanting to discover more. Blogging and information storage is dealt with in Chapter four. The fifth Chapter is about the final product. Emphasis is placed on archiving research so that it can be accessed later. Taking time to reflect and revisit images before final decisions are made. Where and how to exhibit material is also touched on. The final chapter deals with taking time to reflect on work in progress and eventually archiving it.

Each chapter ends with an activity. I did not do these activities but think they would be very useful for anyone preparing for a college degree in Photography. In brief, a great little handbook.

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“Ways of Seeing” by John Berger

I do not think, even with a million words, I could write a review of John Berger’s book “Ways of Seeing, which would be as informative or as amusing as Austin Kleon’s mind map of the book’s contents.

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I bought a hard copy of the book because I was travelling and thought I could read it en route. But when I returned I watched all four episodes of the original BBC presentations which I found even better than the book (2,3,4,5). I found the typeface annoying and the images in the book unclear so the YouTube of the programmes was a more pleasing way to illuminate the book’s contents.

In the TV presentations Berger looks straight into the camera as he discusses the earliest European oil painting. These works of art were exclusively commissioned for and by  rich. They exuded wealth both in their content, framing and where they hung. The content showed the rich and their possessions. The paintings were about the present. The possessors wanted to show, the world, their wealth.

When landscape became introduced into oil painting it often showed property owners in their landscape. It continued to be about the wealthy and their possessions. The poor could never aspire to ownership of any of these objects.

Berger points out that everything changed with the invention of the camera. The paintings could be reproduced and became more universally available. The camera could zoom in and out. it could isolate parts of the images which could then be used in different circumstances and loose their contact with and meaning within the original painting. We too can have a reproduction of any work of art on our pin board. Art became accessible to us all..

To protect the ‘art world’ art and to prolong the mystique around oil painting,  critics and experts emerged with a language of their own. But some of the originals became extremely valuable because they were the original and the rich were prepared to pay to possess them. They had a commercial value and became commodities to be traded. We became in awe of these paintings. A whole language developed around art and art criticism and we almost forgot to look at the paintings.

Berger maintains children see more clearly than many adults. He gathered a group of children to examine a painting. Their brutally honest ‘normal’ language managed to see what many adult observers had missed, the ambiguity of the sex of one of the persons represented in the painting. We, because of our education and learning, are programmed to experience art in a certain way. We loose the spontaneity of just looking and loving or hating.

Berger then discusses the position of women in painting and advertising which I felt was somewhat misplaced in the sequence of essays. I realise the essays can be read in any order but I still felt this essay did not fit in and would have been better as a separate book. It is oviously a subject very important to Berger.

The book concludes with a discussion on ubiquitous publicity. The message is that “you can have it all if you buy this or that”. Unlike the oil painting the promise is for the future. Utopia will be ours tomorrow. Very often reproductions of oil paintings or the compositions used  in them are re-used in publicity. We are receiving the ‘message’ consciously or subconsciously that we can now possess whatever we want. All we need is the means to purchase but therin lies the rub. In the programme Berger shows the women in a factory working n the Yardley’s production line where fragrances were being filled into bottles. These women were unlikely to be able to achieve the dreams offered in most advertisements in 1972, when the programme was made. Berger believed that this publicity bombardment blunts our awareness of the real state of things in the world.

I believe the situation has deteriorated even further since Berger wrote this book. The rich have got richer and the poor, poorer. Wars and unrest are ravaging our world. Meanwhile the flood of publicity continues to offer us Utopia tomorrow…..

 

 

  1. WAYS OF SEEING BY JOHN BERGER. 2016. WAYS OF SEEING BY JOHN BERGER. [ONLINE] Available at: http://austinkleon.com/2008/10/19/ways-of-seeing-by-john-berger/. [Accessed 15 March 2016]
  2. John Berger / Ways of Seeing , Episode 1 (1972) – YouTube. 2016. John Berger / Ways of Seeing , Episode 1 (1972) – YouTube. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0pDE4VX_9Kk. [Accessed 15 March 2016].
  3. John Berger / Ways of Seeing , Episode 2 (1972) – YouTube. 2016. John Berger / Ways of Seeing , Episode 2 (1972) – YouTube. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m1GI8mNU5Sg. [Accessed 15 March 2016].
  4. John Berger / Ways of Seeing , Episode 3 (1972) – YouTube. 2016. John Berger / Ways of Seeing , Episode 3 (1972) – YouTube. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z7wi8jd7aC4. [Accessed 15 March 2016].
  5. John Berger / Ways of Seeing , Episode 4 (1972) – YouTube. 2016. John Berger / Ways of Seeing , Episode 4 (1972) – YouTube. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5jTUebm73IY. [Accessed 15 March 2016].

 

 

Review of The Photographers Eye by John Szarkowski

This book is based on the 1964 exhibition of the same name. The first edition was printed in gravure in 1966 and was printed in 1980. The edition I received as a Christmas gift was a reprint from 2007 with relevant updates and some unavoidable cropping of plates.

There is an introduction by Szarkowski, which he opens with the phrase: This book is an investigation of what photographs look like and why they look that way.

He describes the process whereby the photographer tried to find his place in the existing art world. But because the process was cheap anyone with the means to purchase the material could practice photography. No training was involved. He quotes an English writer saying “photographers … run rampant over the globe, photographing objects of all sorts, shapes and sizes, under almost every condition, without every pausing to ask themselves, is this or that artistic?”

Photographers learned by doing and from looking at other photographs. The photographs in the book, 162 in all were made over a century. Szarkowski says the images have little in common except their success.

His set of images is divided more or less equally into five category heading: The Thing Itself, The Detail, The Frame, Time and Vantage Point

In the first category, The Thing itself, images by well known photographers, among them, Edward Weston, Julia Margaret Cameron, Elliot Erwitt and many unknown photographers are presented. What I found interesting was that there was very little difference in the quality of the images between the unknown and well known photographers. Many of these images were portraits. For me the most interesting were the portrait of Ezra Pound by Richard Avedon and Maurice Lartique by Jacques Henri Lartigue. Many of the others were routine representations of “the thing” or the person.

I found chapter on The Detail, more inspiring although I would take issue with the inclusion of some of the images. Outside the studio the photographer could only choose that part (of the scene) that seemed relevant. He sought and found the significant detail. Bernice Abbot’s did just that in choosing to photograph Jean Cocteau’s Hands 1927. Garry Winogrand’s untitled image from 1963, of nuts being fed into the trunk of an elephant, contains, for me, a narrative although Szarkowski maintained that outside the studio the photographer’s work was incapable of narrative.

The next section discusses The Frame,  what the photographer decides to include but equally what he decides to exclude. Joel Meyerowitz explains that he uses a Leica camera because the viewfinder is to one side and he can see what is outside the frame.  Szarkowski says the photographer’s edge defines content. Elliot Erwitt’s Yale’s Oldest Living Graduate 1956, includes only part of the Cadillac in which the old gentleman is traveling but the image is perfect. Arnold Newman’s Portrait of Arp 1949 shows only the hand and the eye but somehow we get a full picture of Arp from this snippet.

The book moves on to the category Time. The opening image is of Eadweard Muybridge’s Gull Flying 1883 – 1887. This is a perfect demonstration of time passing as the gull flies along. Other early images such as Otto Steinert’s A Pedestrian 1951 shows the person blurred due to a  long exposure. Blur, due to movement, was acceptable. Even earlier images eliminated people entirely who were moving, during the exposure.

The angle photographers chose is described as The Vantage Point (27) and this section includes some really fascinating images with which I was not familiar. Bill Brandt’s No. 43 from Perspective of Nudes is stunning as is his Child Resting 1950. To get these images the photographer had to move his camera and shoot his pictures from above or below or from too close or too far away or from the backside, inverting the order of things’ importance, or with the nominal subject of his picture half hidden.

In conclusion this is a book to treasure and to return to over and over again and I am very grateful to my daughter for having chosen it as my Christmas gift.

Review of Rhetoric of the Image by Roland Barthes

This essay. like Death of the Author, complicates a relatively simply concept, the analysis of the image.

Barthes uses an advertisement for Italian pasta and sauce to demonstrate how we can read images. Firstly the image is ‘anchored‘ with a caption or some form of written message. This message remote controls our interpretation of the image. It is what the image author or creator wants us to see. It does not necessarily contain all the truth or all the information. It is a very biased message.

In certain images, mostly cartoons and comic strips,  the anchor is replaced by a relay. This is a written message which is in synchronisation with the image. Both image and text are co-dependent.

An image then has coded messages which give a certain connotation to the resultant composition. In his example this is demonstrated in the name of the product, Panzini, which give a certain “Italianicity” to the product for non Italians. The presence of fresh products along with the dried and tinned ones gives the impression of freshness. The way the products spill out of the string bag, on to the kitchen table, is presented in a still life style. Altogether we could almost believe that Panzini is a ready made meal, that Panzini is offering us a service.

Then there is the non coded message, the denoted one. This is simply all the elements that go to make up the image which will be present however many coded message that will be superimposed on them. In the example it is the pasta, the tine, the tomato etc.

The whole ensemble, taken together goes to make up what Barthes calls the rhetoric of the image.