Graham Clarke – How do we read a photograph?

Today in the reading group we went through Graham Clarkes first chapter of ‘The Photograph’ with Jim. This chapter is mainly Clarke reading a selection of images. The first thing that struck me about this chapter was the fact he named it ‘How do WE read a photograph?” as if he is involving me already and telling me how i read images along with how everyone reads them. I feel that people are all too different to be able to read images in the same way. Clarke begins to talk about how looking at a photograph is quite similar to looking at a text, this then leads him on to reading in a semiotic way, the language of signs. This isn’t a straight forward process at all. Graham looks into every single part of a photograph to create his interpritation, again this is HIS way of reading, the majourity of people who don’t have knowledge on photography wouldn’t care about the meaning of a photograph let alone use this method to achive it.

In terms of the Diane Arbus Identical Twins (above) photograph Clarke mentions that even though straight away the image looks perfectly composed which is enhanced by the twins, it’s actually very different. Graham decoded it section by section, which was the photographers aim. Diane wanted to play with the viewer, she placed the twins a few feet away from the wall, disrupted the composition to create this sense of unbalance which as photographer I read but from an average persons point of view it just seems like a perfect picutre of a set of twins. From just this image we read that a meaning is never fixed. Of course in most photographs there is a dominent or prefered reading but the photographer only has a certain amount of control over how the photograph will be interprited. This then leads me on to think about how people interpiriate images differently and why. The representation changes from person to person, without even realising we are reading an image and basing it upon our personal experieiences or the context it is in. The photographer has full control over what is captured and which image is selected, then theres cropping, editing and even the use of captions change the way we think about a photograph. For example Walker Evans Bethlehem graveyard (below) was took to show a community, how people live, work and die in the same town using the whole foreground and background to tell this story, as a photographer I can see how this message is being delivered but unfortuntatly some people don’t agree with it, it feels as if this town has been forgotten which goes to show the meaning of the photograph is always on the outside rather than within the image.

When Graham Clarke began to decode A Family on Their Lawn One Sunday in Westchester (below) captured by Diane Arbus i started to disagree with his method of reading photographs. He seemed to literally take everything into account. This is hard to completely disagree or agree with, of course when an image is being looked at there is no stopping someone from reading it in their own way it’s just the fact that Clarke is writing his interpretation as if it was Dianes aim, the ‘true’ represetation which i think can’t be true. These people for all we know could just be having a relaxing day in the sun and at that moment look miserable. How ever much we may read all these small signs, what objects are in the frame, where they are placed, the colours, the compsotion, the body language, no one knows if this was just a second in time or if it was the photographers intention. In conclusion i belive there is a language within photography but it is loose. Rules can be bent, representations can be challenged but overall there is a vague grammer for the viewers to read. I disagree with Clarkes way of reading photographs as i feel the majourity of photographers don’t plan every single aspect within their image and try and create a meaning from it. Using semiotics is an interesting method but it isn’t relevent for a lot of photographs. People will use this to read some images, other photographers will be more open minded and viewers who have no knowledge within photography will unconciously base their interpritation on their personal expereiences and the context its in.


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