Reading Photographs: Project 1 – The language of photography

Elliott Erwitt, New York, 1974

Elliott Erwitt, New York, 1974

“…look carefully at Erwitt’s image and write some notes about how the subject matter is placed within the frame. How has Erwitt structured this image? What do you think the image is ‘saying’? How does the structure contribute to this meaning?”

C&N Coursebook, p.98

As the next paragraph in the coursebook go on to say (and it is almost impossible not to read it before you flick a page back to look carefully at the picture again, despite the fact that you’re told not to read on..) the picture is organised rigidly into a grid of vertical and horizontal thirds. The shallow depth of field further highlights the central area of the picture, which is then emphasised for a third time (it would appear from looking at the print) by the two dogs and the woman’s legs (probably less exposed than the sky in the central background) being burnt in during printing so that they occupy the middle of the tonal range of the picture, while the lighter background becomes even less readable.  This all pulls together to emphasise the centre of the picture while rendering most of the rest of picture unimportant (this seems to me to fit well into the category of “the passive frame” in Shore’s The Nature of Photographs – pp.60-61 where the lack of “stops” implies a world outside the picture; a world that here includes the rest of the large dog and the woman-owner). The out of focus verticals on either side of the central group (a tree to the left and three sides of an oblong to the right) further draw your attention to what is there, out of the top of the frame.

Then, by positioning the small dog’s eyes level with camera, the effect of a direct mute address to the viewer is created. Hitchcock (I think, in  – also, I think – his interview by Truffaut – I don’t have a copy handy to check) stated that the only form of true identification was that produced by the direct gaze out at the viewer; usually this puncturing of the fourth wall is now used in a way that is intended as comic in its effect as the naturalistic world of the image collapses. That is the effect here, helped by the poor little dog’s humiliating getup and the fact that I find myself thinking of the deadpan face of Buster Keaton…

While I’m not a big fan of this sort of thing (sentimental, wry, cute, uncritical, anthropomorphic photographs that can be compiled into books you give your auntie who likes dogs at Christmas; I’m not a fan of instagrammable cats – the contemporary equivalent – either) it is undeniably well done, constructed in a way that creates a single static meaning in a picture that repays more than just a glance…

By way of an afterthought:

The version of the picture I found online and reproduced here, shows the slight black border taken from the unexposed part of the negative surrounding the frame, itself a potent signifier of “this is the picture as I took it” in the work of Cartier-Bresson and others. It is a simultaneous guarantee both of the unmediated nature of the print (“it’s just as I took it”) and also of the presence of someone taking the picture (“it looks like this because that’s what I intended”).

The picture as reproduced in the coursebook, has been cropped from this to slightly tighten up the image and so remove the tiny incursion of the tall dog’s hind leg on the far left of the frame. Space has been lost on the other three sides too, further emphasising the vertical and horizontal thirds.

The effect is to emphasise one truth (the truth of the image as envisaged by Erwitt) over the other truth (the truth of what was there in front of the camera and captured by Erwitt). I’m not quite sure what this means, but think it occupies an area between sign and meaning, if you have access to both crops. Certainly if you do, the constructed nature of “The Truth” is teased open a bit  for scrutiny and also the difficulty of precisely limiting the edges of your picture if you’re lying on the ground in a park squinting through the viewfinder of a rangefinder camera willing everyone to stay still long enough for you to trip the shutter…


Stephen Shore – The Nature of Photographs (Phaidon; 2nd Edition, 2007)

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