Reading Photographs: Introduction – To Communicate? To Express?

from glyphs, runes and other signs – an incomplete series (simon chirgwin; 2007 – present)

“Before you read any further, can you think of any photographs that are not used as a means of expression or communication? Blog about them.” – C&N coursebook. p.92

So to begin at the beginning, I though I’d better find out what the dictionary definition of expression or communication might be:

  • communicate /kəˈmjuːnɪkeɪt/ verb: share or exchange information, news, or ideas
  • express /ɪkˈsprɛs,ɛk-/ verb: convey (a thought or feeling) in words or by gestures and conduct.

So, “communicate” suggests the passing on of the objective, while “express” suggests the passing on of the subjective. In this way, all photographs seem to break down into one of two categories: “Look at this!” (communication – with an expected response along the lines of “Wow!”) or “Look at me!” (expression – with an expected response along the lines of “Wow! You’re brilliant!”) This also of course happens to break neatly into Szarkowski’s two categoriesof  Windows and Mirrors.

Obviously, nothing is totally at one end of the spectrum or the other: the classic modernist nudes of a Weston or a Stieglitz where the curve of a woman’s hip laid out like a horizon can elicit responses both of “Wow! this looks just like a landscape” and “Wow! aren’t you the clever one both for spotting the likeness (and who also manages to persuade bare-naked women to let you take their picture, making you even more Wow!-worthy) and in your technical mastery of the camera?!”

Both actions imply an intention (cause) on the part of the person who communicates or expresses something (effect), although of course that effect is not necessarily going to be read as identical to what was intended: the person communicated with or expressed at may interpret the sign’s meaning in a different way from the intention of the person making the communication or trying to express something.

There doesn’t even need to be a human present to trip the shutter. There are photographs which only exist to record or to reveal something: automatic speed cameras triggered by the passage of a vehicle travelling faster than the legal speed limit and framed so that the key information delivered is the registration plate on the speeding car. The camera, while automated, has been placed as consciously as Muybridge placed his cameras and triggers in positions where they would settle his patrons bet about a horse’s hooves leaving the ground or Philip-Lorca diCorcia creates fields where passing people’s faces can be caught.

It could be argued that a speed camera communicates more blatantly and unambiguously than diCorcia’s does. It could even be argued that the signifiers of “photography taking place” – the calibrated markings on the road; the signs that tell drivers that speed-checks are taking place; the flash of the camera in your rear-view mirror – mean that the image does not need to be recorded in order to make motorists aware that they should drive with greater attention to their speed, but that is moving into a whole different area of investigation, that of what it means that photography is taking place, rather than what the photograph itself signifies to the spectator.

Suffice to say, someone has put a speed camera in place and calibrated when it will be triggered; the picture produced will communicate information – the car’s identifier, the car’s speed and the time the picture was made – to the authorities and also to the owner of the car, who will have a hell of a time in court overcoming the indexical trace of the driver at the time’s misdemeanor…

So, “communications” or “expressions” are Facts or Feelings encapsulated in some method of transmission (the photographic or digital image, in this case) and – I think this is key – passed on to someone who are then able to read or interpret them; someone else has to be able to see the pictures you’ve taken and to extract some meaning from them.

But this also appears to imply the need for two people to be involved in the transaction: the photographer and the viewer. Does this mean that – in order to communicate –  a photograph needs two people, one to make it and one to look at it later and extract a meaning from it?

Not really – the photographer is able to take photographs to act as a note or some other later use, effectively becoming the first viewer of each picture. With digital, this loopback to the person operating the camera can become much faster than it ever was with film (or even with “instant pictures” such as polaroids). Every  I press the shutter release on my x100-s, I get a brief flash of the resulting picture in the viewfinder, or on the screen on the back of the body. The result of my action is communicated to me almost immediately; I am able to move on or take another, aware of whether I have achieved whatever it was I hoped I would when I took the picture. I will have created a photograph that fits into the paradigm of “the sort of things that I take photographs of”; on the syntagmic level of checking whether it is “ok” (which is all the meaning the picture needs at this point) I will have read the picture and then will act upon that reading. But in the meantime, the picture will have reverted to its latent state (ie consist of nothing more than ones and nothings recorded in a file) where it will remain until some software is used to read the ones and nothings and translate them back into an image capable of being viewed on a screen or printed. Until this moment, they are merely digital silt, building up on a hard-disc with no meaning other than that they take up space. They have no more reality as pictures or signs capable of producing meaning than if they were one of the rolls of 35mm film lying – exposed but undeveloped in Gary Winogrand’s studio at the time of his death.

Like Winogrand’s legendary trove of exposed but undeveloped films, there are photographs I have taken with no real intention of ever turning them into viewable images. There are social occasions where the simple act of placing a camera to you eye, between you and the events that are taking place, can distance you from the need to communicate with other people present. For an introvert this can be a useful form of self-protection; for someone in a dangerous situation (Don McCullin in Vietnam; Larry Clarke among the speed freaks of Tulsa; Alberto García-Alix in a similar situation in Spain) the act of taking pictures can help convince you that you are somehow distanced from the danger around you. “Taking photographs” can become the purpose of what you’re doing rather than the pictures themselves,  But – unless you “take pictures” without film or a memory card in your camera – you are still creating the potential for those latent pictures to become communications about what you pointed the camera or expressions of who you were as took them. Every roll of Winogrand’s could be developed one day; someone may look at every picture on your phone. The photographic impulse may still bring forth meaning as long as the recording medium is not destroyed and as long as the technology exists to convert the latent image into something more concrete.

While the technology to transform them into pictures exist, they have the potential to communicate, but – like the box of prints that stays under your bed gathering dust or the tree in the forest that falls unwitnessed and therefore silent – don’t actually do so until someone conjures up the image in a form that can be read by a viewer. Some pictures are perpetually in the position to communicate or to express, sitting on someone’s flickr photostream, or in the pages of a book or on the wall of someones house or a gallery; some of pictures communicate once only – the quick digital shot you take to check that you’ve got the exposure right or that your lighting is correct –  or only occasionally – the pictures mentioned by Hurn (p. ?) to identify to the photographer where the roll was taken. Some are never looked at again (the majority of picture files on most people’s mobile phone).

Every time you take a picture or cause a picture to be taken, you create a potential communication or expression; whether that potential is ever realised or not depends on what you do with whatever form that picture takes.

The pictures at the top of this post would probably have formed another stratum of digital silt on one of my big hard drives and never been looked at again, after they had been downloaded from the card in my camera and added to my lightroom catalogue. I have of course added keywords recording the where and how of the pictures – “London”, “W1”, “fujifilm x100s” – but I had no real idea of how I wanted to use them or even – short of the fact that I often take pictures of yellow and black hazard tape because it seems to indicate something about the fabric of the city I live in  – why I was taking them in the first place.

At some point I may have worked out what I’m doing to the extent that I try to make sense of them and the other pictures like them, but at the moment they exist as latent communications of a thing (patterns made on the streets by yellow and black tape) and an expressions of the sort of things I notice as I wander through my life. But first I must learn to read just what it is that I’m doing when I take photographs like this. For it to be worth the effort to do this, they need to resolve into some sort of communication more than a simple sharp “Look at this!” “Look at this!” “Look” “LOOK!” “LOOK!!” and expressing little more than that that is what I have done, walking up Regent Street from the tube one morning…




Both dictionary definitions supplied by google:

John Szarkowski – Mirrors and Windows; American Photography since 1960 (Museum of Modern Art, New York; 1978)

David Hurn and Bill Jay –  On Being a Photographer: (Lenswork Publishing; 2008)

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