Week 8, MM1B03, McMaster University
From Terry Barrett, Criticizing Photographs: An
Introduction to Analysing Photographs.
Terry Barrett is an artist and professor of
Art Education at Ohio State University.
Joel-Peter Witkin’s photographs attract
interpretive questions because they are
dierent than our common experience but ...
All photographs – even simple ones, demand
interpretation in order to be fully understood
• Photos made in a stylistically realistic
manner especially need interpretation.
• They look so natural they seem to have been
made by themselves - a slice of reality.
• If we consider how these photos were made
we may accept them as it they were made by
an impartial recording machine.
Regarding National Geographic ...
“As a result of their naturalism and apparent
eortlessness, [National Geographic photos]
have the capacity to lull us into believing
that they are evidence of an impartial,
uninﬂected sort. Nothing could be further
from the truth.”
– Andy Grundberg
“Nothing could be further from the truth.”
• Photographs are partial and inﬂected
• Each photograph embodies a particular way
of seeing and showing the world.
• We need to interpret photographs so that
these inﬂections become explicit.
Is there such a thing as an
• The camera, the photograph, and the
“photographer’s eye” does not so much
mirror as “take and make.”
• Besides being taken and maken, then are
constructed by skillful artists and deserve to
be read, explained, analysed and
William van Engen’s series on Naypywidaw
Information to Meaning
• Interpretation occurs whenever attention and
discussion move beyond oering
information to matters of meaning.
• To interpret is to account for all the descibed
aspects of a photograph and to posit
meaningful relationships between aspects.
• Interpretations go beyond description to
• Photographs can be thought of as metaphors
in need of being deciphered.
• Visual metaphors have two levels of
meanings, what is shown and what is
• A photograph always shows us an aspect of
Arnold Newman’s photo of Igor Stravinsky
shows him as some particular kind of person.
Arnold Newman’s photo of Marilyn Monroe
shows her as some particular kind of person.
shows him as
• Roland Barthes (semiotician) investigated how
culture “signiﬁes,” or expresses meaning.
• He identiﬁed two signifying paractices:
denotations and connotations.
• Denotation is where a meaning is conveyed
• Connotation is when the meaning of a word is
suggested or implied.
• Barthes separated this ad
into linguistic message,
the denoted image, and
the connoted image.
• This schema can be
applied to all
photographs not just ads.
• See coursereader page
199 - 200.
Objects of Interpretation
• Sometimes critics interpret single
photographs but they often interpret whole
bodies of work by a photographer or even
photos in a period of history.
• Following are examples of these three tactics
Joseph Szarkowki interprets Josef Koudelka’s
photographs of gypsies as individual
photographs. See page 200.
Shelley Rice writes about the body of work of
photographer Mary Ellen Mark as being
“dizzyingly diverse.” See page 201.
Claims and Arguments
• These opinions by Szarkowski, Rice, and
Bryant provide personal interpretations.
• These statements should all be considered to
be interpretive “claims” to truth.
• Interpretative questions that critics ask are
“What do these photographs mean? What are
• The surface meaning is obvious and evident,
the deeper means are implied.
• Critics interpret photographs from a wide
range of perspectives.
• These examples show how critics can vary in
their intepretations and how their variations
on the same image can alter our perceptions
• A Comparitive
• An Archetypal
• A Feminist
Eleanor, Port Huron 1954. Photo: Harry Callahan
Psychoanalytic Interpretation (pg 206)
Pink and Green Bedroom. Photo: Laurie Simmons
Formalist Interpretation (pg 206)
Battleground Point 4. Photo: Robert Misrach
Semiotic Interpretation (pg 206)
Sports Illustrated, Notre Dame Football
Marxist Interpretation (pg 207)
The Exhibition. Photo: Richard Avedon
• How does this all relate to the artists’
personal statements about their work?
• For example, Edward Burtynsky at
More about Intentionalism
• Minor White, the photographer and teacher of
photography cautions against placing too
much emphasis on what photographers think
they have photographed.
• Is intentionalism, as White and Barrett
intimate, a faulty critical method by which
images (or literature) is interpreted?
• What really happening in art criticism relies
heavily on that ﬂash or insight based on gut
feelings, life experiences, and perceptual
information coming together just right.
• As well as being a clue toward understand
and a possible starting point for
interpretation, feeling is also an appropriate