Thursday, 19 June 2014

Photography theory: a beginner"s guide

“The decisive moment”, an idea that has defined street photography

and photojournalism as we know it, was first outlined in the preface to a

book of photographs by Henri

. The essay starts with Cartier-Bresson charting his

life so far as a photographer – from messing around with a Box Brownie as a

child to co-founding Magnum Photos – before talking through his approach to


According to Cartier-Bresson, there is an almost magical split-second in which

events in the world – interactions between people, movement, light and form

– combine in perfect visual harmony. Once it passes, it is gone forever. To

capture such moments as a photographer you must be inconspicuous, nimble and

attentive; working on instinct; responding to reality and never trying to

manipulate it.

Composition cannot be planned, nor can it be added in afterwards. Cropping

will invariably make a good shot worse and is unlikely to make a bad shot

better. Camera settings shouldn’t be something the photographer even thinks

about – taking a photograph should be like changing gears in a car.

In his own words:

“We photographers deal in things that are constantly vanishing, and when they

have vanished, there is no contrivance on earth which can bring them back


“Composition must be one of our constant preoccupations, but at the moment of

shooting it can stem only from our intuition, for we are out to capture the

fugitive moment, and all the interrelationships involved are on the move.”

“To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition in a fraction of a second,

of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organisation of

forms which give that event its proper expression.”

How to sound as if you’ve read it:

Be ready and reactive. Don’t get hung up on kit and, most importantly, keep it


On Photography by Susan Sontag (1977), digested by Rachel

Segal Hamilton

What’s it about?

According to Sontag, photographs turn the world into a set of collectible

objects that we can own. This makes us feel knowledgeable, and powerful. But

although we still treat photos as evidence, photographers never simply

record the world, they interpret it. They might take multiple shots, for

example, selecting the ones that meet their preconceptions.

This is true for us non-professsionals, too: we use family albums to connect

with the past and take holiday snaps to show our friends what we’re up to.

Bit by bit, though, photography has started to limit our experience. Instead

of photographing what we’re doing, we do things so that we can photograph


There is a moral dimension to Sontag’s critique. By photographing a situation,

you can’t intervene in it – war photography is horrific, she says, partly

because of the way it has become acceptable for a photographer to choose to

take a photo rather than to save a life. But images also numb us. The more

photographs of suffering we see, the less shocked we are. For Sontag, there

is a violence to photography. The camera is predatory because it lets the

photographer turn people into objects and to know them in a way they cannot

know themselves.

We try to use photography to make sense of reality but the knowledge it gives

us will always be sentimental, superficial, never political. To make matters

worse, we’re hooked. We don’t feel we have really experienced something

unless we’ve photographed it. And so we photograph everything.

In her own words:

“To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see

themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; it turns people

into objects that can be symbolically posessed.”

“In these last decades ‘concerned’ photography has done at least as much to

deaden our conscience as to arouse it.”

“Today everything exists to end in a photograph.”

How to sound as if you’ve read it:

People these days feel the need to photograph everything – it’s totally

ruining our experience of life.

Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag (2003), digested by Diane


This was Sontag’s update to On Photography (see above). The intervening

years hadn’t softened her stance and Sontag pulls no punches in her critique

of images of suffering, “those professional, specialised tourists known as

journalists” who make them, and our culpability in looking at them.

She starts by tracing the history of images of suffering, arguing that

Christian depictions of martyrdom historically gave way to something more

secular that saw pain as something to be deplored. Photographs were quickly

pressed into service; justified by the idea they could advocate for change.

Photographs were, and still are, she argues, unequal to the task, because they

turn disaster into universal, ineffectual denunciations of human cruelty or

suffering. Each image is framed by the person who makes it, and “to frame is

to exclude”.

Feeling powerless to change what they see, viewers quickly become immune to

images of suffering or – worse – take a prurient interest in them. And

because we are bombarded with such images, we no longer recognise them as

records of real events.

It’s gloomy reading for committed photojournalists and Sontag has little to

offer by way of comfort, other than to suggest that narrative texts, longer

portfolios of images, and artworks are more likely to mobilise a viewer (or

reader) to action against suffering, or any kind of understanding of it.

In her own words:

“Being a spectator of calamities taking place in another country is a

quintessential modern experience, the cumulative offering by more than a

century and a half’s worth of those professional, specialised tourists known

as journalists. Wars are now also living room sights and sounds. Information

about what is happening elsewhere, called ‘news’, features conflict and

violence…to which the response is compassion, or indignation, or

titillation, or approval, as each misery heaves into view.”

“The photographer’s intentions do not determine the meaning of the

photograph, which will have its own career, blown by the whims and loyalties

of the diverse communities that have use for it.”

“Making suffering loom larger, by globalising it, may spur people to feel

they ought to ‘care’ more. It also invites them to feel that the sufferings

and misfortunes are too vast, too irrevocable, too epic to be much changed

by any local political intervention.”

How to sound as if you’ve read it:

Photographs of suffering don’t rouse viewers to action because they

universalise pain rather than explaining what could be changed. There’s no

hope, so stop being a voyeur and take action instead.

The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction by Walter Benjamin

(1936), digested by Lewis


What’s it about?

Walter Benjamin was a German-Jewish critic and essayist. In his lifetime he

was relatively unappreciated but since his suicide in 1940 he has been

reappraised as one of the 20th century’s most important writers. Published

in 1936 and originally aimed at a small group of Marxist intellectuals this

essay has rather surprisingly become Benjamin’s best known, partly helped by

its prominence in John

Berger’s influential 1972 television series Ways of Seeing

Benjamin packs a remarkably wide ranging discussion into a relatively short

space, but a key concept is the idea that unique works of art such as

paintings possess an “aura” that copies and reproductions like

photographs do not. Even though works of art have always been reproducible,

whether by hand or through semi-mechanical processes such as stamping,

modern forms of reproduction such as photography represent something new,

allowing the artwork to be seen in very different contexts to the original,

potentially changing how the work of art is understood.

For photography this essay is significant in two main respects. Firstly

because it explores the belief that photographs are inferior to traditional

forms of art such as painting. Secondly because it’s a very specific example

of the way the context of a photograph alters the way a viewer understands

the thing that it shows.

In his own words:

“Objects made by humans could always be copied by humans….but the

technological reproduction of artworks is something new.”

“In even the most perfect reproduction, one thing is lacking: the here

and now of the work of art, its unique existence in a particular place. It

is this unique existence and nothing else that bears the mark of the history

to which the work has been subject.”

“What withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the

work of art.”

How to sound as if you’ve read it:

The infinitely reproducible photograph lacks the aura of the unique work of


‘Photographs of Agony’ by John Berger (1972), digested by Rachel

Segal Hamilton

What’s it about?

How much photojournalism can change things for the better is subject to

ongoing debate. One of the earlier writers to raise the issue was John

Berger in this essay, first published in New

Society magazine
. Referring to a Don

McCullin photograph of a wounded Vietnamese man and child
, Berger

considers why it has lately become acceptable to publish such graphic


He gives two reasons. First, that newspapers are responding to readers who

want to see the truth. Second, that readers have have become desensitised to

these images and newspapers are publishing ever more shocking pictures to

win their attention. Dismissing both explanations, Berger suggests a third:

that these photographs can be published precisely because they don’t make

viewers question who might be responsible for the violence. If they did then

papers – in thrall, he says, to the political establishment – wouldn’t

publish them.

So what effect do they have? McCullin’s images often capture moments in which

time suddenly seems to pause – the instant a person cries out in grief, say.

For viewers, time is similarly interrupted as we are, briefly, overcome with

the victim’s pain. But we mistakenly interpret this interruption as our own

moral failure because we can’t respond directly. We either think, “Well,

what can I do?” and do nothing, or try to assuage our guilt by donating

to charity. War photographs don’t lead us to query the political systems

under which wars take place – they just make war seem like some awful but

inevitable feature of human life.

In his own words:

“[Photographs of agony] bring us up short. The most literal adjective

that could be applied to them is arresting. We are seized by them.”

“The reader who has been arrested by the photograph may tend to feel this

discontinuity as his own moral inadequacy. And as soon as this happens even

his sense of shock is dispersed: his own moral inadequacy may now shock him

as much as the crimes being committed in the war.”

“What we are shown horrifies us. The next step should be for us to confront

our own lack of political freedom. In the political systems as they exist,

we have no opportunity of effectively influencing the conduct of wars waged

in our name.”

How to sound as if you’ve read it:

War photography – what is it good for? Making us feel bad about ourselves and

despairing of humanity.

The Ongoing Moment by Geoff Dyer (2005), digested by Rachel

Segal Hamilton

This is not a history book. True, it covers the work and lives of some of the

biggest figures (mainly American) in photography – including Alfred

Steiglitz, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Diane Arbus, William Eggleston and

Nan Goldin. But instead of progressing chronologically as one might expect,

the structure is playful, grouping together pictures shot by different

photographers of the same subjects: blind people, subways, signs, hands,

backs, hats, stairs, fences, snow, windows, roads, cinemas, clouds, petrol

stations, barber shops, doors.

Mixed in with the close readings of photographs are musings on life, quotes

from writers – such as Wordsworth, Italo Calvino, Jean Rhys – as well as

photographers, and colourful biographical anecdotes. We learn about the

resentment felt by André Kertész at having to take photographs for money

while his personal work went unappreciated, about the time Richard Avedon

photographed Jorge Luis Borges and about the intricacies of relationships

between Alfred Steiglitz and Georgia O’Keefe.

From the outset Dyer positions himself as a non-expert – he doesn’t even own a

camera, apparently – and rather than making big theoretical claims about

photography as a medium, he writes about how specific photographs have

affected him emotionally. Skipping backwards and forwards through time,

making connections between photographers and writers, images and ideas, The

Ongoing Moment celebrates a personal approach to looking at photographs that

reflects the hotchpotch way we understand the world.

In his own words:

“Photographers sometimes take pictures of each other; occasionally they take

photographs – or versions – of each other’s work. Consciously or not they

are constantly in dialogue with their contemporaries and predecessors.”

“…there is, I am beginning to suspect, a strange rule in photography, namely

that we never see the last of anyone or anything. They disappear or die and

then, years later, they reappear, are reincarnated, in another lens.”

“My favourite photographs by Brassai are the ones done in daylight, especially

the ones that look like they were done by Lartigue. It’s quite possible that

some of my favourite Shores were taken by Eggleston, and vice versa. Perhaps

it’s not such a surprise, then, that my favourite Walker Evans (WE)

photograph was taken by Edward Weston (EW).”

How to sound as if you’ve read it:

You know, the development of photography has been much more like a

conversation than a story.

After Photography by Fred Ritchn (2009), digested by Diane


It takes a brave author to tackle digital media, a medium changing so fast

that any attempt to read it looks outdated before the ink is dry. And yet

that’s what Fred Ritchin did in After Photography, attempting to describe

what’s new about digital photography and how it’s changed us.

As the title suggests, Ritchin believes digital photography is a fundamental

shift rather than a simple change of tools, and he backs up his argument by

considering both its ubiquity and its malleability. Digital photography

started when National

Geographic modified a horizontal photograph of the pyramids

create a more aesthetically pleasing front cover, Ritchin argues, shaking

our belief in the image as proof.

The fact that we are all now armed with digital cameras, especially those

embedded in our smartphones, means that we are all looking at the world

second-hand via images, and also constantly presenting ourselves for

image-based consumption.

It’s a gloomy reading of a brave new world, but Ritchin also suggests new

strategies – a shift into “an interactive, networked multimedia”, in which

hotspots link into other images and more information. Ritchin’s references

to YouTube and MySpace already feel outdated, and his thoughts on

surveillance seem tentative now that Wikileaks has blown the lid off the NSA

program but it’s a game attempt to draw a line in the sand.

In his own words

“Photography in the digital environment involves the reconfiguration of

the image into a mosaic of millions of changeable pixels, not a continuous

tone imprint of a visible reality. Rather than a quote from appearances, it

serves as an initial recording, a preliminary script, which may precede a

quick and easy reshuffling.”

“The multitudes of photographers now intensely staring not at the

surrounding world, nor at their loved ones being wed or graduating, but at

their camera backs or cellphones searching for an image on the small

screens, or summoning the past as an archival image on these same screens,

is symptomatic of the image’s primacy over the existence it is supposed to


“Even before the ubiquity of a billon cell phone cameras, we were already

in rehearsal for the pose, the look and a diminished sense of privacy.”

How to sound as if you’ve read it

The web is all around us; the only solution is to go further into it.

Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography by Roland Barthes (1980),

digested by Tim Clark

Camera Lucida is a short, personal response to photography, so it’s strange

that it has achieved canonical status, but the magnetism it exerts extends

to artists and writers alike. This book is a reflection on longing and loss

written after Barthes’ mother died. It’s curious and affecting, exploring

the relationship between photography, history and death.

Barthes explains two key concepts that can be applied when looking at

photographs. The first he calls the studium – vague details which constitute

the photograph’s subject, meaning and context.

However it’s the second concept, the punctum, that has really resonated. By

this he means the aspect of an image that attracts the viewer, something

intensely private, unexpected and thus indelible. “A photograph’s punctum is

that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)” he

wrote. The discussion centres on a photograph from 1898, an image of his

mother when she was a child, never at any point shown in the book. “For you,

it would be nothing but an indifferent picture, one of the thousand

manifestations of the ‘ordinary’”.

So subjective, and at times sentimental, is his examination of photography

that initial responses to the book were scathing. Conversely, perhaps it is

this very act of personalisation and the sense of vulnerability that has

continued to capture imaginations in the 30 years since publication. Indeed,

the academic Geoffrey Batchen, in his book Photography

Degree Zero
ventures that Camera Lucida is perhaps the most

popular and influential contribution to photography to this day.

In his own words

“Photography: it reminds us of its mythic heritage only by that faint

uneasiness which seizes me when I look at ‘myself’ on a piece of paper.”

“Ultimately, Photography is subversive not when it frightens, repels or even

stigmatises, but when it is pensive, when it thinks.”

“Not only is the Photograph never, in essence, a memory, but it actually

blocks memory, quickly becomes a counter-memory.”

How to sound as if you’ve read it

All photography tells us death in the future.

Lewis Bush is a photographer and writer. He contributes to a range of sites

and publications. Follow him on Twitter @lewiskaybush

Diane Smyth is deputy editor of the British Journal of Photography and has

also written for Foam, Aperture, Creative Review, The Times, The Guardian,

Philosophy of Photography and Photomonitor

Rachel Segal Hamilton writes about photography for the British Journal of

Photography, Photomonitor and IdeasTap, where she works as Commissioning

Editor. Follow her on twitter @rachsh

Tim Clark is the Editor in Chief and Director of 1000 Words Photography

Magazine. Follow him on Twiter @1000wordsmag

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