Book Summary: The Photograph by Graham Clarke (1997)


The book starts with a chapter named “What is a photograph?” which is a debate about the history of photography and how photos are seen. There is a quote from Barthes that all photos are history as they are something that no longer exists. There is also some debate about images that exist on paper such as photograms, where do they fit? The size an image is displayed can also affect how we see it,
The second chapter is about how we read photos, and talks about how the meaning of photos can be complex- there may be a literal meaning but there may also be a connotative meaning. There are so many levels – is it a real insight into the world?
My own photography developed as I lived in New Zealand, so far from my family. I wanted to show them New Zealand, but what was I leaving out? What was the story behind the images I chose?Telling the story in an image. There was debate about photos making statements (Friedlander, p38/39).
The next chapter deals with photography in the 19th century. It describes how photography tried to emulate painting in some ways, like combination prints by Gustave Rejlander (p43). There is an element of selectivity – for example London may be shown as individual buildings or as sprawling chaos. p50 describes the start of travel photography, where people were able to record new cultures, but also impose their own cultural view on scenes. On p53 there is a quote, ‘To photograph ‘is to give evidence to facts.”’ This goes along with many other views we have seen on the course so far, that documentary is the pure form of this, showing the real world. It is a pure form.
The next Chapter (4) deals with a sense of scale (p60), where people wanted to show just how vast the landscape actually is, with some kind of reference. Overseas photos appeared idyllic to some – certainly something I have wanted to see on more than one occasion, leading sometimes to disappointment. p65 described imaging an ideal land, untouched by humans. Brits like Martin Parr and Chris Killip rather documented the social side of landscapes, unemployment and poverty for example. A Westerner’s perspective of overseas can be seen.
Chapter 5 is about the city in photography. Robert Barker took 360 degree views. In the 1790’s there were panoramic exhibits of the world’s main cities. They depicted cultural icons, and showed a view from above. They showed urban poverty. Weegge, mentioned on p85, took photos of the ‘dark side’ showing murders and other such events. On p87, they mentioned Walker Evans who in 1938 used a concealed camera to photograph people on the subway etc, appearing alone. Night photographers showed the other side of the cities.
Chapter 6 was about Portraits. These express our inner being. p101 talks about social identity. There are lots of staged events, construction. p106 mentioned carts de visit which were fashionable in 19th century Paris as a mark of identity and social significance.
Portraits were often taken with someone’s social environment. There were self-portraits, of photographers, such as Edward Steichen in 1908 – he took a photo of himself holding a paintbrush.
Some photographers explored identity, such as Mapplethorpe who explored homosexuality. He took his own self-portraits, some of which were very provocative. Sherman’s series, Untitled Film Stills offers an alternative to reality. In some cases, the size images are displayed can have an impact. I saw an exhibition of hers in London, where there were only about 5 or 6 images, printed larger than life size.
The next chapter, 7, talks about the body. This includes depiction of the nudity and sexual acts. It was mentioned how women can be posed to appear passive/submissive, but this can also be the reverse. p129 Muybridge studied human motion in the 1870’s, with a series of photos of people moving. An image by Sherman mentioned on p130 (Untitled, 1992) talks about male power, a constructed image.
Jo Spence is famous for her documentation of the effects of breast cancer on her body.
Chapter 8 discusses documentary photography, which dominated the photographic history of the 20th century. On p145, the say that document means evidence – truth. Events may be approached in different ways by different photographers. p147 mentions a project by Jacob Riis in 1890 called How the other half lives. This is visual and written accounts of living conditions in New York’s lower east side. It showed appalling conditions and deprivation. There is some discussion about exploiting subjects on p148. On p149, Margaret Bourke-White’s Sharecroppers 1937 project is discussed, telling a story through framing – poverty, injustice of the political system. p153 discusses the famous image of the migrant mother taken by Dorothea Lange in 1936, and later Robert Frank’s The American’s is discussed as showing traditional American icons. Having seen the exhibition of this at Pingyao in China in 2007, and found it quite an insight into America and fulfilled some cultural stereotypes. p158 discusses images by George Rodger in 1945 of Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp. There was one image of a boy walking past dead bodies, and looking away. Lots of war images.
Chapter 9 is titled ‘The Photograph as Fine Art. This is an ongoing debate, about whether landscapes can be seen as art. P169 talks about a photo by Stieglitz of people, describing them as shapes rather than items. An image by Ansel Adams, Picket Fence, taken in 1936, has a sense of uniformity and form. Transforming ordinary objects into something unique. Some people put an emphasis on form. There is a notion that art photographers work in studios. An image taken by Eliot Porter in 1953 (p178) called Pool in a brook looks like a painting.
Chapter 10 – The photograph manipulated. This talks about the period from 1900 onward, abstraction etc. Constructivism, p189, is mentioned. Some images are a mix of photography and painting, and there is also a mention of photograms and montages.
Chapter 11, the cabinet of infinite curiosities mentions the decisive moment, and documentary, the meaning of images. Art in images is discussed, along with the pattern found which may be a form of symbolism. Images can be put together in a certain way.

Graham Clarke: The Photograph (1997) New York: Oxford University Press.


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