On Looking at Photographs; Bill Jay & David Hurn, Lenswork Publishing 2000

This isn’t a book review.  It’s a collection of thoughts, observations and reflections which I noted whilst reading it.  As such, it wanders around a bit and sometimes lurches from one point to another; in this way it reflects process as much as learning.

I read this book straight after How To Read A Photograph (Ian Jeffrey, Thames & Hudson 2008).  It was just a coincidence that it adopts a diametrically opposed view to that of Jeffrey and so is rather more in line with my own at this stage of learning.  I say at this stage because I acknowledge that it’s quite possible, even likely, that my view will change over the duration of this course.  In the meantime here are my observations on the Jay/Hurn volume.

The book takes the form of a conversation between the authors, which reflects the nature of their photographic discussions during their long association.  It’s an effective literary device in this context and permits differences of opinion to be expressed. For a book about photographs it has the unusual distinction of being completely without images of any kind, save for the author photographs at the end of the book!

It is divided into six sections:

Four Fundamental Principles of Photography;
Meaning And Why It Is So Slippery;
Merit, And Why It Is So Rare;
Art, And Why It Is So Different;
Morality, And Why It Is So Important
Looking At Photographs

The authors define the four fundamentals as the stages of actually making a photographic exposure, to the point of rendering a latent image or digital file. First the selection stage is characterised by the relationship between the photographer and the subject – the authors maintain that a ‘head or heart’ reaction is invoked, a neccessary precursor to the exposure. The second step involves securing the maximum clarity of the image in terms of definition and detail.  The third involves the optimal arrangement of shapes within the viewfinder; and the last is a matter of timing.  Once these requirements are adequately satisfied, the result, the authors maintain ‘…is a good photograph’.  Seems pretty straightforward, then… only this is a book about looking at photographs so that by no means wraps it up.  The notion of what makes a good photograph is discussed at length in the later chapters.

imageAt the Cafe, Chez Fraysse, Rue de Seine, Paris, 1958 Robert Doisneau

In the meantime the authors turn their attention to Meaning.  Citing an image by Robert Doisneau (above) they quote a paragraph from John Szarkowski thus:

It has already been pointed out that photographs often appear to mean something quite different from what the event itself would have meant had we been there. It is conceivable that the gentleman in the picture below [above] is simply telling the girl that he no longer needs her at the shop, due to business being slow. Regardless of historic fact, however, a picture is about what it appears to be about, and this picture is about a potential seduction.

One is tempted to believe that even the painters of the eighteenth century never did the subject so well.

The girl’s secret opinion of the proceedings so far is hidden in her splendid self-containment; for the moment she enjoys the security of absolute power. One arm shields her body, her hand touches her glass as tentatively as if it were the first apple. The man for the moment is defenseless and vulnerable; impaled on the hook of his own desire, he has committed all his resources, and no satisfactory line of retreat remains. Worse yet, he is older than he should be, and knows that one way or another the adventure is certain to end badly. To keep this presentiment at bay, he is drinking his wine more rapidly than he should.

The picture however precludes questions of the future. This pair, if less romantically conceived than the lovers on John Keats’s urn, are equally safe, here in the picture, from the consequences of real life.

from John Szarkowski, Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art The Museum of Modern Art, New York; 1 Jan. 1984

It appears that Szarkowski was right when he mentioned painters applying themselves to similar subjects;  this, by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec (although from the nineteenth century) seems to contain a number of similar elements to Doisneau’s photograph.  So much so that Szarkowski’s reading might apply to the painting as well as the photograph.


Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec – At the Café La Mie c 1891

Hurn and Jay do not name Szarkowski, referring to him simply as ‘the critic’, which seems a little odd, but then they are quite dismissive in their assessment of his reading:

“This might be a fine example of creative writing but it has little to do with
the actual photograph. As I understand the circumstances, Robert Doisneau
arranged and set up the scene with model friends. But the image, of these
particular people at this particular location, at this particular time, is about
whatever the viewer believes. This is what the fancy term semiotics is all

These authors may be closer to agreement than it first appears, with Szarkowski claiming  “a picture is about what it appears to be about” and Hurn/Jay saying that “the image….. is about what ever the viewer believes”.  Both viewpoints acknowledge the inseparable relationship between the viewer’s interpretive proclivities and the image, but Szarkowski seems to insist that a correct reading can be formed.   

Knowing that the photograph was ‘set-up’ and noting similarities in the content I wonder whether Doisneau had the Lautrec painting in mind all along.

The authors then proceed to dismantle another commonly held belief about the functioning of a photograph, that of its narrative capabilities.  Using the example of war photography, they suggest that the reader inspect such an anthology at random and attempt to discover a narrative; this, they maintain, cannot be done and declare:

“…photographs do not tell stories and they are not narrative in function.”


“For exactly the same reason that photographs are not ideally suited to communicating a narrative, they are not suited to communicating ideas. A great deal of pseudo-intellectual jargon has been written about photographs in an effort to prove that they impart moral messages, philosophical lessons or otherwise carry heavy intellectual weight. The usual result is to make both the text and the photographs unintelligible. Herbert Read has noted that the visual arts operate through the eyes, “expressing and conveying a sense of feeling.”He continues that “if we have ideas to express, the proper medium is language.” This fact, says Read,“cannot be too strongly emphasized.”

[They are referring to ‘The Meaning of Art’ by Herbert Read  (Faber and Faber; New Ed edition, 8 April 1974).  I’ve secured a copy of this and will study it in due course.]

It seems to me that all photographs have an inherent level of ambivalence which varies from image to image.  I tried to conjure one which had the absolute minimum ambivalence and could only come up with this:


It is a true photograph, made with a digital camera and without any manipulation. It doesn’t communicate anything of itself other than simply ‘egg’.  It would be meaningful to a friend of mine who is allergic to egg products and who may well have an emotional reaction to it.  A farmer close to retirement who, having invested heavily in egg production, finds his future undermined by an outbreak of salmonella may have a powerful response.  But these reactions are viewer-generated and the image acts only as a catalyst.


Paul Martin, Lambeth 1892

A good deal further along the ambiguity scale is this photograph by Paul Martin, which I believe is the one referred to here by Hurn/Jay:

“Assumptions concerning the story of the picture would be even more tentative.
It is likely that the children are waiting for (not actually watching) an event,
because the attention of the faces is scattered. The boys in the background
seem to be trying to reach a higher vantage point which probably confirms
this assumption. The policeman is, perhaps, controlling the crowd. But
why does the crowd comprise only children? No assumptions can be made.
Is the event a happy or tragic one? No assumptions can be made — some
children appear unhappy, others are smiling.”

The photograph presents some information which many people (Western, English, with some historical awareness) would consider reliable. They would acknowledge the historical period, the approximate ages of the people, the policeman doing his assigned duty and the varied facial expressions.  It may be reasonable to infer information from the children and young peoples’ clothing since it appears to be somewhat disheveled; perhaps they are all from poor families, spending much of their time in the streets.   But this would be moving further along the ‘ambiguity scale’, perhaps too far for confidence. Indeed, Jay/Hurn consider that no assumptions can be made.  In fact the event for which they had all assembled was to see the funeral cortege of a much despised local policeman, a bully and persecutor of children, who had met his end by swallowing his false teeth whilst in pursuit of a felon.  Once in possession of this information we can place the image and its content in context.

To be continued…

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