Review: How To Read a Photograph, Ian Jeffrey

How to read a photograph:
Understanding, Interpreting and Enjoying the Great Photographers

Ian Jeffrey, Thames & Hudson 2008

All italicized text is quoted from the book directly.

I had high hopes for this book because it semed it would address a significant aspect of the photography coursework but even at the start something seemed odd – the first piece of authored text reads:

Technical note: The question of dimensions
Certain of the pictures in this anthology, specifically those from the World Wars, come with measurements added. This is in part because they are previously unpublished and do not yet belong to any historical consensus.  As few have seen the pictures, measurements act as a guarantee that they really exist.

I wonder why Jeffrey feels I would need such a guarantee and how supplying dimensions might allay my concerns.  Does he think that I suspect he has concocted the images artificially, that they are manufactured by him and where not in fact made during either World War?  And if I am so untrusting of his methods, how does supplying dimensions help, since I am not in a position to verify them?  If he has published fake images then surely the dimensions are equally suspect.  But I’m happy to accept that the images have impeccable provenance and that his assurances simply indicate academic rigour.
The book may be more appropriately titled ‘How I (Might) Read a Photograph’ or ‘How I Speculate About a Photograph’ because there is no ‘How To…’ element in the book.  It comprises an anthology of photographers from the early protagonists to the more recent practitioners with a very short biographical note on each, the detail of which is terse and clinical with precious little, if any, attempt made to relate the photographer’s life experience to the nature of his or her work. The text accompanying examples of the photographer’s work concentrates mainly on describing what is plain to see; where readings are made they are often fanciful, nebulous and poorly supported.  There’s nothing wrong with interpreting an image in any way one chooses, but this is meant to be a textbook and I expected more in the way of ‘worked examples’ in order to help me to understand the process.

Some examples taken from the book:

imageDoris Ulmann “James Duff, Fiddler & John Jacob Niles in Hazard, Kentucky 1933”

“James Duff leans against a wall.  JJ Niles nortes details of their conversation
in a notebook. Duff, a middle aged to elderly man, may have dressed for the event
with a jacket, necktie and a pair of decent trousers. The picture is a record of an event;
an encounter during which Duff played snatches of tunes and Niles relighted his pipe.”

Jeffrey observes that Duff is leaning against a wall, approximates his age and identifies several items of his clothing.  The image discloses these facts without the need for reading or interpretation. He expands his view by proposing that Duff played snatches of tunes and Niles relighted his pipe, that Duff had given some thought to his appearance and chosen decent trousers.  All of this is possible but it is mainly conjecture. It would be equally plausible, possibly more so given the condition of Duff’s pants, that his wife had his best pair in the wash and on expressing his dismay she responded ‘Well you’re only chinwagging with that JJ, what does it matter, it’s not church’.  JJ may well have attended to his pipe after the exposure but it seems to have gone out in the photograph… perhaps he was so intent on his note taking he didn’t notice.  It is conceivable that Jeffrey had access to documentary evidence of the precise nature of this encounter and that his observations are factual but if this were so there would be little point in including the image in a book which concerns itself with how to read a photograph.

Jeffrey maintains that “Ulmann’s gift was to get people to act themselves, to be aspiring young people or esteemed elders”  I have looked at numerous examples of Ulmanns work and though I found much of it captivating and pleasing I wasn’t struck by an overall feeling of aspiration from any of the young people depicted. As for getting people to act themselves, that’s pretty much what people did anyway in the those early days of photography.  The idea of acting as someone else or putting on affectation for the camera was a comfortable fifty years away.

I consider her skill as a photographic chronicler lay in her fascination with portraits and particularly those of older people:

” …the face of an older person, perhaps not beautiful in the strictest sense, is usually more appealing than the face of a younger person who has scarcely been touched by life”

(“Doris Ulmann: Photographer-in-waiting,” Bookman, 72, 129-144.)

And she was a prolific photographer, making around 2000 glass plate negatives during her expedition in the Appalachians for Allen Eaton’s book, Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands between 1932-4 during which her health began to fail, leading to her death in 1934 aged fifty-two.

I will consider a couple of further images which Jeffreys has selected for inclusion in the book and look at his commentary, first this by Henri Cartier-Bresson entitled Mexico, 1934


I would agree that his relaxed posture could be a result of tiredness or intoxication but to infer prudence as a character trait on the basis of his belt’n’braces I feel is absurd.  A prudent individual is unlikely to succumb to intoxication, nor select the open street as a suitable place for a nap. In the image we see another person’s legs from the knees down, from which Jeffreys confidently predicts the attitude of the rest of the body, particularly the eyes. It is tricky enough to read the actual content of the image without speculating on what might be occurring outside the frame.  We may use our knowledge of other factors – the place, date, photographer’s predispositions, the prevailing socio-political climate – to inform our reading of the image, but to assign a very specific interaction to an essentially invisible individual is specious.

Lewis Baltz, “Sand Dunes, 1972”


Jeffreys says:

“The SAND DUNES in question were probably close by and the name had been taken quite naturally – for whatever kind of establishment this was.  In the conceptual era name transfers like this were often remarked on. Somewhere in the mental distance an idea of the coast might survive – but greatly weakened. The scene itself looks like an inventory of what might happen to any cemented wall daubed, smeared, streaked and cracked – and the pavement spotted.”

In attempting to understand this commentary I’ve searched ‘conceptual era’ and come up with nothing relevant – I can only assume that it is one of the author’s pieces of shorthand which he doesn’t expand upon.  What might he mean by a ‘name transfer’ and who would be making the frequent remarks?  In the larger panel under the image he speaks of ‘Ratios and proportional systems’ claiming that:

“If you can deploy the correct mathematics and use your intuition, you will be able to identify the golden section.  But all rectangles within rectangles look promising in this respect even if they are no more than doors and windows on the facades of industrial buildings”

Here’s an ideal opportunity for Jeffreys to enlighten us on how a combination of mathematical precision and a lack of conscious reasoning may assist us in recognising inherent harmony in the image but sadly he remains silent on the matter.

This is not reading a photograph – it is attaching a manufactured narrative which too often appears based on the flimsiest of notions.

My reading of this image settles on its inherent irony… we know that sand dunes are generally soft, curved, sweeping forms which are natural products, the result of wind and wave action.  The surfaces we see here are hard, angular, unnatural and grubby – quite the opposite.

In summary, I have been disappointed with the content of this book because I feel that it fails to deliver what it so clearly promises.  It has some value as a simple anthology and some of Jeffrey’s flights of fancy are amusing but it has not demonstrated ‘how’ to read anything. There’s something a little odd about the grammar and sentence construction too, almost as if it has been composed in English, translated by Google into French then translated back again.





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