Category Archives: 4 Reading Photographs

Assignment 4 – Reading Photographs

The task for this assignment was to critique a photograph, either a well-known image, or a found/personal photograph, using facts as a means to draw conclusions about what the image means to you.


I decided to look for images which I wouldn’t normally search for or study in the normal way. Sports photography has for me been in that category because I classed it as a bit of a cliché; I had assumed that the essence of sports photography was limited to creating an accurate record of the result of a competition, imparting information about the winners and losers, depicting whether records were broken, etc. Essentially I saw it as something just to put on the back pages of a newspaper to accompany the written results. I was clearly wrong!

I now know that sports photography has so much more to offer! There is a lot of beauty in sports images: they often encapsulate humans at the very extreme of physical endeavours and in physical peaks of condition.  Good sports photography seems so much less about the sport, more about the human psyche. How far can we really push ourselves if we have the will?  I ended up choosing a historic sporting image which just totally captured my imagination. I wanted to find out more about it I wanted to understand why the photographer chose the perspective he did. The image I chose was Neil Leifer’s iconicCleveland Williams and Muhammad Ali’ image from 1966.

Neil Leifer – Cleveland Williams and Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali knocks out Cleveland Williams at the Astrodome, Houston, 1966

This photograph is of a boxing match, clearly denoted by the two male fighters wearing the characteristic padded gloves, shorts and boots. Both boxers are dark skinned, possibly of African descent.  One of the fighters is lying down on the mat, legs and arms splayed out at 45 and 90 degree angles respectively to his torso; the other has raised his arms in apparent victory and is walking towards the corner of the ring. Surrounding the white square-shaped boxing ring and ropes, there are at least three rows of seated journalists and photographers, denoted by the typewriters, notepads and some cameras that are perched on the edge of the ring. They sit at multiple rectangular white tables around the edge of the boxing ring. Many of the journalists are dressed in suits and ties; clearly this was an important championship event. The lack of advertising banners and slogans as well as the formal dress, connotes a boxing match from history rather than more modern times.


This image was indeed an important boxing match: Muhammed Ali was facing Cleveland Williams for his 7th defence of the heavyweight championship in Houston, Texas in November 1966. Muhammad Ali was said to have been at the peak of his powers. Howard Cosell, the sports commentator said:-

“That night he was the most devastating fighter who ever lives. He dominated from the opening bell, knocked Williams down four times and pummelled him until Williams was spitting blood. It was incredible that he could hand out a beating like that and not once get touched himself.”

The photographer was Neil Leifer and the image was shot remotely from 80 foot up in the roof of the Houston Astrodome using a Hasselblad. Leifer purposely did not use a wireless trigger because he had just 12 possible exposures and he was concerned that the police walkie-talkies would set the set the camera off. Also a fisheye lens was not needed as he was able to suspend the camera so high because of the height of the lighting rig he attached the camera to was used for concerts.  One assumes that this was the knock-out blow and the end of the fight, but coincidentally Williams got back to his feet and continued fighting again until the final knock-out.  Unsurprisingly, this is the photographer’s favourite image and the only one which he displays in his home, printed to the scale of 40 inches square and hung in a diamond format.

Snowflakes and what makes humans unique

For me this image is breath-taking: the composition puts me in mind of a perfectly formed snowflake; the tables as the strands of ice emanating from an ice cold hard boxing mat. The symmetry of all the subjects within the photograph are staged like a precise choreographed ballet, with the two wires ‘pointing’ down in diagonal corners to each of the boxers; both bodies are similarly symmetrical in their poses; Ali with his left and right arms suspended in a victory stance, Williams arms and legs splayed in defeat.

Something often said about snowflakes is that no two are exactly alike even if they ‘appear’ so under a microscope. Although this has never been proven (despite numerous research studies, photographs and comparisons), this quality of being unrepeatable, almost defines us as humans and we all want to be unique, some of us, including Ali and Williams in the photograph, strive even further than that, to be the best and to be crowned the champion.

Maybe Leifer did have a snowflake in mind when he concocted his precise composition – he did display it in a diamond format after all?!  But maybe he wanted us to view Ali and Williams, like snowflakes, as two perfect specimens, virtually identical in stature, physique, weight etc. but one with an indefinable quality, the will to win, the ‘edge’. We all know that sports psychologists form a key constituent to Olympic athletes’ coaching team support these days, and in boxing, the psychological element has been widely understood for years, manifested in the pre-bout eyeball stand-offs between opponents.

Muhammad Ali’s confidence was widely understood and one of the strongest skills in his armoury, and it’s why today, a year after his death to Parkinson’s, his bold statements of his self-belief are just as keenly remembered as his boxing prowess:-

“When will they ever have another fighter who writes poems, predicts rounds, beats everybody, makes people laugh, makes people cry, and is as tall and extra pretty as me? In the history of the world and from the beginning of time, there’s never been another fighter like me. Eat your words! Eat your words! I am the greatest.”

Gladiators and boxers

Boxing to me, also echoes the gladiatorial contests of ancient Rome.  The threads of spectacle, human bloodshed, endeavour to the extreme levels of human endurance and bellowing roars of bloodthirsty on-looking public spectators, run through the ancient gladiatorial displays as well as modern day boxing bouts.   There is a beauty and simplicity in these physical ‘man versus man’, or ‘human versus beast’ contests and artists throughout the ages have been attracted to depict this. Leifer has captured this beauty as a by-product of the sporting contest in his photograph.

Aerial perspective

Further, the aerial viewpoint in Leifer’s photograph puts me in mind of God looking down on a sacrifice of mere mortals, the ‘defeated’ cold body laying horizontally (and therefore shown in full), surrounded by a sea of humans, the vertical perspective rendering them as multiple/faceless heads. It is the same aerial ‘outer-worldly’ perspective I have seen in war images of mourners carrying a swaddled martyred body through the streets of Gaza. Who is the viewer in these images? Is it us, the living, or is it indeed God, welcoming the slaughtered into his home in heaven?

Fine art?

Leifer’s photograph has moved far from being sports reportage, conveying information about the fight, or recording the event itself: It is clearly fine art and was intended to be so – an image to be appreciated purely at an aesthetic level for visual pleasure.  This seems incongruous with the idea of a typical sports photograph. The photographer has chosen to show nothing of the speed, dexterity, skill, power of the boxer, The most common boxing images might show motion blur of the speed of the jabs, or freeze the droplets of sweat bouncing off the fighters’ bodies, or capture a fighter’s head thrown back from the impact of a ‘connected’ punch.  Instead Leifer has chosen to depict what the viewer would consider the aftermath, the victorious and the defeated in opposite corners.


In summary, I don’t tend to appreciate many sports images; they often follow a set format and the emphasis is often on the winner or the loser, the first person to cross the line, the person who fell, but rarely on both the winner and loser as equal subjects within a precisely manicured composition. This is why I suspect Leifer’s photograph won the Observer Magazine best sports photograph of all time, but also why I have extended my photographic interest into other types of genres, now including sports photography – you never know what beauty you will find in the most unexpected of arenas!

Summary and Self-Assessment

Demonstration of technical and visual skills

Not required for this assessment.

Quality of Outcome

I think I researched the photograph quite widely as well as the photographer’s approach and I hope this will stand me in good stead for this assessment. I drew on my own personal feelings invoked by the image and connotations after including a description of what the image clearly denoted. 3 / 5

Demonstration of Creativity

Not required for this assessment.


My blog/url has recently been updated with all the exercises within part 4 of the coursework materials

Part 4 – Exercise 2 – Gucci Advert

For the purposes of this exercise, I bought a mixture of magazines (including men’s mags) and not really being someone who regularly scours or flicks through a lot of magazines (other than photography ones) outside of going to the hairdressers, it was an interesting exercise to compare the different style and quality of images used in the adverts.  The perfume and after shave adverts followed a very specific minimalistic code of format for example.. As soon as I spotted this Gucci ad it was an easy decision to choose this one given the bold colours alongside the and effortlessly upmarket ‘cool’ retro feel…. I thought the bold yellow was a note to the Kodak company colours of the 70s.  I have written some comments around the advert and scanned it in to upload to my blog:-

Advertising Image GUCCI

Part 4 – Exercise 1 – Elliot Erwitt


Elliot Erwitt - New York, 1974
Elliot Erwitt – New York, 1974


The brief for this exercise is to write notes about how the subject matter is placed in the frame, how it is structured, and explain what you think the image is saying..

I think the composition really works in this image. There are so many perpendicular vertical lines which form a distinct rhythmical pattern and which naturally you are reading from left to right (tree, dog legs, human legs, dog lead, mini dog legs) and then to finally rest your eyes on the main subject in the image.  The background and immediate foreground are pleasingly thrown out of focus and so don’t really feature at all in the photograph and therefore don’t detract. The photographer has got right down, almost to the ground, to be at eye-level with the smallest dog, rendering the other subjects just as a series of legs. I think the dog is saying ‘I know I’m small but I have 2 towering bodyguards and a heap of style in this hat, so you really don’t want to mess with me!’ .

The image reminds me very much of the 2 Ronnies’ sketch ‘I know my place’. In the famous sketch John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett are lined up left to right, each representing the different classes in British society which in turn is further emphasized by their differing heights:-

Barker; ‘I look up to him (looking at Cleese) because he is upper class, but I look down on him (looking at Corbett) because he is lower class.’
Corbett: ‘I know my place‘…….

The sketch then turns and Corbett goes on to say ‘I know my place.  I look up to them both, but while I am poor, I am honest, industrious and trustworthy. Had I the inclination, I could look down on them both. But I don’t’.

The image reminds us to not discount the diminutive little guy, he’s may well probably the boss, so don’t think he has any less power or authority, you will dismiss him at your peril!  Start with him first, the other guys are a waste of leg space and are probably getting vertigo way up there… It’s a lesson on ensuring we listen to everyone, not just the leaders but the little folk too.

It’s clearly an intentionally comical image, especially noting the fashion sense of the little dog and his pointed and unflinching gaze into the camera despite his stature and it’s a great example of the iconic and comedic black and white street images of the time.

Part 4 – Notes on ‘Beneath the Surface’ Article

Digesting the article written by Sharon Boothroyd called ‘Beneath the Surface’ on the OCA website gave me a really excellent grounding on how to build in photographic theory into critical reviews of photographs.  In particular I found it useful to make a note of some of the terminology used as well as the method of construction of her critique. She used the image Insomnia by Jeff Wall to demonstrate the skills needed. I’ve summarised my learning from it below:-

Decoding images involves reading the connotations they contain and advertising images etc. depend heavily on these connotations being communicated clearly.  You use photographic theory to deconstruct a picture and decipher some of the levels of understanding that can be applied to one single image.

There are 2 levels:-

  • The Formal Level (‘denotations’) i.e. the specific meaning commonly applied to a thing or word. It  strips things of their poetry and operates on facts and functionality.  E.g. the word ‘home’ denotes a building made of brick and stone.
  • The Informal Level (‘connotations’) i.e. information delivered to us via a series of signs and signifiers carefully selected and utilised by the photographer e.g. lighting techniques (harsh/soft) etc. E.g. the word ‘home’ connotes a place of warmth, familiarity and comfort.

Steps used to Analyse the Photograph

  1. Explain at a formal level i.e. describe the denotations
  2. Explain at an informal level i.e. describe the  connotations (signs and signifiers selected and utilised by the photographer)
  3. Include a personal reading of the image based on personal experience/memories
  4. Explain the work in the context of art, literature and film, and include the photographer’s references to other photographers in his/her images
  5. Explain the ‘context’ of the image e.g. the size it is printed, it’s position, it’s intended audience etc.


Boothroyd, S. (2014) Notes beneath the Surface. At: