Category Archives: 2 Reading Pictures

Singular Images: Sophie Howarth

The task was to read and reflect on the chapter on Diane Arbus in ‘Singular Images: Essays on Remarkable Photographs‘ by Sophie Howarth (2005, London : Tate Publishing.

I felt the essay was quite condescending about the subjects in the image. It is smattered with comments like ‘When you look at this young Brooklyn family about to set out on a Sunday outing, you can’t help wondering what will become of them’, or ‘For all their apparent willingness to look at the camera, the family looked benighted’… In my estimation the family don’t look downtrodden or suffering, despite clearly having a child with disabilities. The father does look tentative and maybe doesn’t enjoy having his photograph taken and yes, the woman clearly is injecting some ‘attitude’ into the image, but I don’t agree that she is wearing the baby like a shield, as suggested in the essay.

I find it interesting how far you can go with personal assumptions when reading a photograph. It’s almost as if the author of the essay categorically believes her assumptions are unequivocally correct, without any shadow of doubt. The reputation that seems to stick to Arbus as her single overriding compulsion in that she enjoys photographing ‘freaks’ or those on the edge of society, has almost given ‘carte blanche’ to the author to exaggerate the intention of Arbus to make them out to be people who we need to feel sorry for but I don’t think this is necessarily the case:-

Arbus’ caption for the image ‘They were undeniably close, in a painful sort of way’ leads the author to immediately jump to the conclusion of a ‘marriage in trouble’ rather than a young couple struggling with the rigours of bringing up two young children, when they themselves are only just into adulthood. I think my response to the image might well be tempered by another image that Arbus took of the couple at their house. This clearly implies that the photographer had a real interest in the family and that some rapport had developed between them. Again the author focuses on the furniture held up by boxes rather than suggesting that this alternative image showed a warmer side to the couple’s relationship – sitting close together on their settee with their kids playing. I do think it seems somewhat unnatural that the children are interacting freely but the adults are not engaging with them, however we do not know what Arbus’ photographic direction was with her subjects. It could have been, ‘Look directly at me, don’t smile’…

A young brooklyn family at home

Clearly Arbus liked images which showed some ‘edge’ or ‘grit’ to them but I also think that she was interested in the human spirit also. She loved diversity of characters and I think she wanted to stage manage them as her own subjects (which is why so many of her other portraits are strangely stilted).

I think one of the most telling paragraphs in the essay is a quote from Arbus herself, who almost seems to rue the tactics she has to employ to get the best out of her subjects:-

‘We know from accounts given by her friends that Arbus was a very persuasive person, who spoke, as she wrote, quirkily and with great charm. She accused herself of being ‘kind of two-faced’, when photographing people. ‘I’m very ingratiating. It really kind of annoys me. I’m just a little too nice’. 

It was an interesting essay to read and provides a lot of ideas about all the different angles you can use when reading photographs.

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 – 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: