Photography by Stephen Bull, Routledge 2010

Edit – this unfinished book review ran away with itself. I’m posting it to show that I have read the book however as a review it’s unsatisfactory.

This book was recommended by my tutor as part of my A1 feedback. It is an introduction to critical theory for photography. It has found its way into my standard reference set but I would benefit from reading it again.

Once I got past the introduction/Chapter 1 I found it dense but readable, looking back through it I have gained a lot from reading it. There’s a lot of helpful definition and explanation, then into the later chapters I started getting ideas as to how I can apply this reading to my work. The following summarise my notes chapter by chapter.

Chapter 2 The Identity of Photography

  • The difference between nature and culture and how photography has interacted with them (beginning and end of the chapter)
  • John Szarkowski’s  five characteristics that form the essence of a photograph: thing, detail, frame, time, vantage point (p11)
  • Postmodernism – context over content. I found this helpful as I’m still trying to find my way with the characteristics of postmodern work.
  • Indexicality – the idea of a photograph as showing reality
  • Categories of signs Indexical (eg weathercock showing wind direction), Iconic (looks like but not caused by), Symbolic (does not look like and is not caused by).
  • Emblaming the instant (Bazin), “cloying melancholia”, a visual only device to either preserve life or remember a life that has passed.
  • Some images need spectators to exist, such as stereographs, daguerreotypes (need to be viewed from a particular angle). Also, you can’t see yourself in a camera obscura. Digital images are dematerialised – can’t be seen or even exist without appropriate technology
  • movement from fixed to transient images

Chapter 3 The meanings of photographs

  • Semiotics, signs, signifiers and signifieds – Saussure – signs make up meaning of language, it’s with signs that the communication of meaning happens.
  • Hjelmslev: denotation describes how signs communicate at the language level, connotation refers to the cultural specifics associated with that communication.
  • Photographs used in ads have to be very specific in meaning.
  • Anchor & relay text (anchor tells us the obvious, relay adds more detail that couldn’t be inferred from each component separately). Discourse is like a new, overarching context.
  • The gaze – gendered expectation of active male and passive female. Multiple looks supported in a single image.

Chapter 4 Photography for Sale

  • Much imagery is now to present an ambience rather than a product (contrast with early advertising which was all about the product). selling an idea without showing the product.
  • About 70% of everyday advertising uses stock images. Just a handful of companies eg Getty and Corbis own the rights to most stock images and many famous images.
  • Stock images show a harmonised, abstract (sanitised?) world view. Contrast to EBay which has much more traditional product photography. Personally I think this is because returns are harder on ebay so people are more explicit about showing their products caveat emptor.
  • image messages not always decoded as planned – may be dominant/preferred (understood as intended), negotiated (some meaning accepted, some questioned), oppositional (message rejected).
  • West – snapshots are the ultimate commodity “possessing the aura of the unique whilst also being infinitely reproducible”.


“no-one ever takes a photograph of something they want to forget” One Hour Photo

Instagram is starting to pick up some of the categories that Kenyon says are usually missed out. Instagram is starting to show funerals, including images from funeral directors (my comment not from the book).

People tend to take the same snapshots. and they tend to be limited to the positive.

Chalfen – the decisive 30 seconds (the time it would take to take 3000 snapshots at average shutter speed of 1/100sec.  Personally I think there would be more than 3000 images per person now.

It’s not a true representation, how can it be?

Kodak culture – the company shaped what, where and who we photograph. The Kodak girl was the early prototype of the mother recording the family (?my reading). The Kodak moment gave way to the Nokia moment. Instagram seems outside the scope of this book, I would venture that the Instagram moment supersedes both  – the shared image is completely agnostic of the device used to make it and the filter presets standardise all images further. Tags allow the sorting and retrieval of images on a global scale. If it’s not on Instagram it didn’t happen” is disconcertingly similar to the Kodak line “A vacation without a Kodak is a vacation wasted.”

The Victorians said “prunes” rather than “cheese” to get a smaller mouth (worth trying?)









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