Critical Analysis and Writing about Art and Photography


 I had a brief look, again, at Semiotics and also read two very helpful books. I’ll start with the more intellectually difficult.


In order to understand how something has been created you have to take it apart before you can put it back together. Remembering though that that will be based on my own understandings and assumptions that I will need to unpick at the same time.

Jacques Derrida

The inventor of “deconstruction” – an ill-defined habit of dismantling texts by revealing their assumptions and contradictions – was indeed and unfortunately, one of the most cited modern scholars in the humanities.
                                        (Obituary in The Economist 21st October 2004)

Surely this was a tongue-in-cheek! There was resistance to Derrida’s way of thinking but perhaps it was the way that he explained it that was too entangled in words to find a way through it all.

….one of the gestures of deconstruction is to not naturalize what isn’t natural, to not assume that what is conditioned by history, institutions, or society is natural

That was the message I got from that short video and I almost felt that I didn’t want to research deconstruction any more for the time being because I didn’t want to get lost in a sea of words.

Another (long) obituary from The Guardian included

He argued that understanding something requires a grasp of the ways in which it relates to other things and a capacity to recognise it on other occasions and in different contexts – which can never be exhaustively predicted. He coined the term “difference” to characterise these aspects of understanding …

Intertextuality .

We all come to read a text or photograph from a very different place. I thought more about the photographers intention, the fact that the photographer is both ‘viewer’ of what s/he sees and also constructs the image. Example recently of another experiment. Six photographers were asked to photograph the same person but were told different stories about their backgrounds. How far were they influenced by this but, then, how much is a photograph a result of the photographer’s style anyway. See here 

The way something is presented visually can re-inforce or subvert cultural and personal assumptions and also manipulate our way of thinking . A recent Photoworks article by Helen Cammock gives the example of Clarissa Sligh and the books Reading Dick and Jane with Me (1989) where she juxtaposed cyanotype processes with crude ink sketching and text ‘to interrupt the depiction of a white middle class suburban family as normal for most Americans’ in the old school textbooks the Dick and Jane Readers”. I was interested as well in the work of the twin sisters Amrit and Rabindra Singh  they are contemporary artists, born in London, who have developed a genre that combines traditional Indian miniature painting with European aesthetics.

Semiotics and Roland Barthes

Regarding Barthes and the ‘death of the author’ , ‘author’ does not denote the creator of a book or photograph etc but the ‘Author’ the critical institution which maintains its control of the meaning of literary texts by making the author’s life and times the key to the only possible reading. This then closed down the possibility of new interpretations ‘based on attention to the signifiers themselves – textual characteristics, including the story, the images, the genre, allusions to other texts, or surprising breaks with expectation’ (C. Belsey 2002:20).

I have found Daniel Chandler’s online book Semiotics for Beginners invaluable in beginning to get to grips with semiotic theory and Barthes. Barthes applied Ferdinand de Saussure’s ‘dyadic’ model of the ‘sign’ (composed of a ‘signifier’ – the form the sign takes – and the ‘signified’ – the concept it represents) to images. Before going there – the relationship between the signifier and its signified is described by two terms – denotation and connotation. These terms cover literal obvious, everyday meaning of a sign (denotation) and cultural, personal associations (connotation). Barthes paid more attention to connotation and his model covered:

Sign : the overall effect of a photograph
Signifier : the actual picture, its formal and conceptual elements
Signified : what we think of when we see the picture – straightforward, metaphorical or conceptual. This can often be ‘guided’ by the photographer but, in the final analysis, is a product of the viewer’s perception.
Studum : the photographer’s cultural, political or social meaning
Punctum : an element within the picture that disrupts the narrative – punctures the meaning and takes off at a different tangent. It may even provide a contradiction or at least an alternative reading. May also be the point in the photograph that gives the viewer a personal connection with it above other elements.

Barthes illustrated this through analysis of advertisements and I think it does most suit them, rather than photographs. Perhaps this is because advertisements are more obvious in their persuasions. One aspect I have become increasingly aware of is how, now, advertisements also tell a story about a person (usually some kind of celebrity). A story that makes them more ‘like me’ and someone I could possibly emulate if I wished. I subscribe to Source magazine  and so regularly read articles by Judith Williamson, and also follow the blog Sociological Images that examines the way in which we are influenced by imagery.

The C&N Handbook asks us to look at an advertising image from a newspaper supplement and I used one from the Style Magazine of The Sunday Times of 27th September 2015.


I was so interested in how the ad paints the three rugby playing brothers as ordinary Yorkshire lads, whilst allying them with the more famous Russell Crowe with the back story that many readers probably know about how they love their mum (studum). I think women might be influenced to buy those products for their sons or grandsons. I also noted how obviously the products fitted the young men and also they reminded me of older images of Greek gods and Olympic athletes (signified). I was interested as well in how young people might be influenced by the ad and so asked my grandson and his girlfriend to look.

My grandson said the ad made him look because it was of rugby players (sign). If it was footballers he wouldn’t look twice, plus the timing was good for the World Rugby. He thought they had good physiques for a man and are doing a manly sport. The phrase ‘sexual tribe’ caught his attention – he could be a part of that (signified) and also the mention of the wet-gel look. His girlfriend said she was attracted by the good-looking men (sign) who look rugby fit and hunky (signified) (she prefers them to footballers). She likes to buy things for her boyfriend and liked the idea of the facial moisturizer and the fatigue eye gel so he would look less tired. (signified) She also pointed out how the visual simplicity of the ad might attract a young man – three sections of picture, text and product (signifier). I can see how Barthes’ theory fits here.

Chandler outlines criticisms of Semiotic Analysis and I was surprised to learn that it is ‘…now widely regarded primarily as one mode of analysis amongst others rather than as a ‘science’ of cultural forms’. On the other hand, Semiotic Analysis has its strengths as well

Semiotics can help us to make us aware of what we take for granted in representing the world, reminding us that we are always dealing with signs, not with an unmediated objective reality, and that sign systems are involved in the construction of meaning.


Barnet, S (2011) A Short Guide to Writing About Art Tenth Edition Pearson

This covers a variety of structures that can be used for writing about Art, e.g. comparisons, eflective Essays and Exhibition reviews. It looks at interpretation and asks the question, “Are All Interpretations Equally Valid?”. Barnet looks at style in writing, research and some critical approaches, e.g. Gender Studies and Psychoanalytic Studies, Iconography and Iconology.

Regarding the meaning of ‘Critical”

Critical comes from a Greek word, krinein, meaning “to separate” “to choose”; it implies conscious, deliberate inquiry, and especially it implies a sceptical state of mind but a sceptical state of mind is not a negative, self-satisfied, fault-finding state of mind. Quite the reverse: because critical thinkers wish to draw sound conclusions, they apply their scepticism to their own assumptions, to their own evidence, and indeed toward all aspects of their own thinking as well as toward that of others. (2011;14)

Barnet has much to say regarding art and culture, for instance, ‘white cube’ museum displays where objects are taken out of their original cultural context (and functional meaning) and presented as having a new value of artistic merit. “Some critics argue that to do this and regard it as an independent work of art by discussing it in aesthetic terms is itself a Eurocentric (Western) colonial assault on the other culture, a denial of that culture’s unique identity” (ibid p. 31). On the other hand, since the 1970s

… it is common for art historians to borrow ideas from a new breed of anthropologists, who tell us that we can never grasp the meaning of an object from another culture and that we can understand only what it means in our culture. That is we study it to learn what economic forces caused us to wrest the work from its place of origin and what psychological forces cause us to display it on our walls. (ibid p, 31)

 That’s two ways to look at art. The importance is to argue an interpretation rather than repressing a personal response. To support your interpretation with evidence, be coherent and use appropriate language.

Regarding photography, Barnet provides a list of questions to ask such as technical, physical and formal properties, and use of space and light. “What do you think the photographer was trying to say in this image? To ask myself what I think the photographer was trying to convey and what aspects are being accentuated. What seems to be the photographer’s attitude towards the subject and what is being conveyed to me now regarding a place, time, person, event or culture?

Critical Approaches – Headings to remind me

  • Social History : from a Marxist standpoint
  • Deconstructions : denies that the individual artist establishes the meaning of a work

The above – sometimes called the New Art History, cultural materialism or cultural criticism – often call a work ‘a text’ and studies it in terms of the conditions of its production and reception. “The interest is less in aesthetic judgment than in moral or political judgment, especially in matters of race, gender and class (2011:244).

  • Gender Studies: Feminist Criticism and Gay and Lesbian Studies
  • Biographical writing : the life and times of
  • Psychoanalytic Studies
  • Iconology : why images mean what they mean


Barrett, T (2006) Criticizing Photographs : An Introduction to Understanding Images, Fourth Edition, NY, McGraw-Hill

Reinforces the fact that Criticism is ‘informed’ and looks at kinds of criticism. I hadn’t thought about this before but really got the difference now between ‘subject’ and ‘subject matter’ (p.21) e.g. Tunick’s photo of 4,500 nude people in a park. The nude people are the subject matter, ‘ its subject is interpreted as a call for personal freedom’.

What do I see:

  • Formal elements : how the photograph is composed, arranged and visually constructed.
  • Medium : king of film and technical information
  • Style : can be more interpretive than descriptive.
  • Comparing and contrasting : other works, works by other artists. What’s in common and what differs. Compare to other professions, writers, artists etc.

Regarding Interpreting Photographs. Barrett provides some excellent examples of critical writing by different critics and a long list of Principles for describing photographs (p. 36). He also points out that feelings provide important clues to learning about the content of an image – how we need to relate those feelings back to the image, ‘…..if interpretation is snot references to visual properties [in the image] discourse leaves the realm of criticism and becomes conjecture, therapy, reminiscence or some other manner of purely subjective functioning’ (p. 58) .

Having provided an overview of Interpretive Perspectives and Strategies (pp 47-51) which are pretty similar to those Barnet uses, Barrett moves on to Categories of Photographs that have been proposed by different critics/curators, e.g. Szarkowski’s ‘window’ and ‘mirrors’ but then goes on to proposing new Categories (p. 63)

  • Descriptive
  • Explanatory : such as ones dealing with subject matter specific to a particular time and place and that can be dated by visual evidence in the photographs
  • Interpretive : personal and subjective, more like poetry. E.g. Duane Michals
  • Ethically Evaluative : how things ought or ought not to be, as Jacob Riis, Dorothea Lange, FSA etc.
  • Aesthetically Evaluative : worth of aesthetic observation and contemplation
  • Theoretical : Photographs about photography

Of course, a photograph can fall into more than one of these categories.

Contextual information

Internal (descriptively evident); original (psychologically present to the photographer at the time; external (situation in which the photograph is presented, or re-presented. The external context affects how the photograph is understood, especially if text is added. Barrett (p. 116) provides a comprehensive interpretation of a Barbara Kruger photograph  based on contextual information to show how context can be used to understand photographs and goes on to consider the photograph against his six categories.

Judging Photographs

Judgments (statements about worth or value) are ‘appraisals that are based on reasons that are founded in criteria’ (p.128). There are different criteria (examples given p.133) that lead to different judgments of the same work. This took me back to the various authors I had read who commented on Francesca Woodman’s work. E.g. feminism; does her work show a disordered mind; her work is exploration of and an attempt to explore the two-dimensionality of a photograph and convert it into three dimensions.

Photography Theory

Edward Weston and Paul Strand implemented their theories in their photographs. In the 1920s Weston Weston accused pictorialist photographers of not making “photographs” but of ‘making pseudo-paintings’. Thinking of this – there is now criticism of ‘beautiful’ landscape photography that, in itself, has been subverted by some photographers e.g. Simon Norfolk. Historians of photography are influences by their theories. Curators build new theory and influence accepted theory by their choices. This particularly interested me Example given of how MOMA didn’t give Exhibitions to some Photographers who had widespread support in other museums such as the Whitney.

Writers who theorize about photography are not inquiring about a particular photograph, although they use particular photographs for examples. They are exploring photography in general, attempting to answer how it is like and how it is different from other forms of picturing.  (p. 178)


 What do I take from all this? Basically to describe how I view the photograph; look at i’s formal qualities and how the photographer is shaping my view. Look at the overall context – internal, original and external. Then to interpret the photograph what it connotes for me, the meaning I take from it and to provide evidence for this from within the image. Barnet and Barrett have provided a rich source of different ways in which I can approach the interpretation and the most important aspect of this is to be clear about the approaches I use and coherent in outlining my arguments.



Barnet, S (2011) A Short Guide to Writing About Art Tenth Edition, Pearson.
Barrett, T (2006) Criticizing Photographs : An Introduction to Understanding Images 4th Edition, NY McGraw-Hill,

(Accessed 24.11.2015)








Part 4 : Culture, Perception and the Language of Photography


Culture and Perception

 The arts, customs, and institutions of a nation, people, or group
(Pocket Oxford English Dictionary [2001:213] 9th edition)

 Culture consists of the meanings its subjects produce and reproduce.
                                   (C. Belsey 2001:26)

Human beings are social animals that form groups for security and protection, children are nurtured (more or less) and hierarchies of power maintained. Human psychology and perception works through differentiation – what’s me, what’s not me, what’s safe/difference. Social groupings rely on difference – me, not me, them, us. Laws are created to impose rules of behaviour so that chaos and anarchy can be avoided. This mass of expectations, responsibilities (and, subsequently, rights) is enforced by cultural norms which work through language (oral and written) visual arts ,related history and myths and beliefs as to how the world should be. The different languages we speak reinforce similarity and difference, them/us. “Why is it that we kill a cow or a pig (English) to yield beef or pork? (French) “ asks a recent Aeon article  It’s because English speaking labourers slaughtered the animals for the moneyed French speakers at the table ‘The different ways of referring to meat depended on one’s place in the scheme of things, and those class distinctions have carried down to us in discreet form today.’ Class distinctions and categorization as ‘other’ continue more overtly through regional variations in pronunciation.

John Berger (1972) reminds us also that, ‘The way we see things is affected by what we know or believe’. ‘Reception theory holds that ‘Art is not a body of works but is, rather, an activity of perceivers making sense of images’. The British Psychological Society  recently reported on research done to discover why different people saw different colours in a striped frock which appeared on the internet. It was actually blue/black but some people saw the dress as white/gold. 28 people with normal vision had their brains scanned whilst looking at the photograph. Scientists discovered that the 14 who saw white/gold showed extra activation ‘in a raft of brain areas but there were no group differences when the participants simply looked at large coloured squares that matched two of the colours that feature in the dress, but without any contextual information also visible’. This fitted with the idea that ‘the white/gold perceivers were engaged in more interpretative mental processing when looking at the dress’ . I watched a television programme on colour last night and in one segment they followed-up on this experiment. Some people just couldn’t believe that what they were seeing was not a white/gold dress.

Thinking of not being able to believe what you see. How many times do people not read non-verbal visual clues or alternatively respond to hidden stimuli in an image (something that has been attempted in adverts I understand)? Added to that, we know that, although a camera might faithfully record a scene, the point of view has often been carefully composed by the photographer to shape the viewer’s perception. The photograph by Elliott Erwitt on p. 97 of the Handbook is a light-hearted example of this. We see all the information at once, initially ‘see’ the legs of two people with a dog and then realise that’s not the case. The photograph is cropped in such a way to achieve this ‘illusion’ and also framed so that one’s eye goes to the tiny dog with it’s cute hat – looking askance at us – head tilted slightly on one side to emphasize the long ears and large eyes and contrast with the straightness of the other legs. Is there a meaning in that photograph? I can make one for myself regarding getting pleasure from the small things in life or, having personal experience of a Chihuahua , large personalities can exist in small creatures! Did Erwitt intend a meaning or was his interest in surreal aspects of life; pointing out incongruities and juxtapositions?

The Language of Photography 

IMG_1628 the Language of Photography

Whenever we look at a photographic image we engage in a series of complex readings   which relate as much to the expectations and assumptions that we bring to the image as to the photographic subject itself. Indeed, rather than the notion of looking, which suggests a passive act of recognition, we need to insist that we read a photograph, not as an image but as a text.
                                               (Clarke, G [1997:270] )

Is there a language of photography and does the use of the word ‘text’ confuse the issue? I find this question difficult because I’m beginning to think that I rarely see a photograph that has no words attached to it in some form or another. These words usually guide me as to how I’m being invited to ‘look’. Even more – being a student I actively seek words about the photograph and the photographer. The photograph itself then becomes an illustration as opposed to holding a narrative within itself. Tim Carpenter reminded me of this in a recent essay published online in June this year

Thousands upon thousands of words now encumber a quantity of photographs. …. The latest example of the current cultural mania to transform one thing into another, and eventually into words. To reside in one thing or another appears to be impossible. On the evidence, the thing itself – the person, the object, the painting, the book, the music, the sunset, the operation – exists primarily as a point of departure, a launching pad from which we take off into an orbit of our own.

If I think about the image containing meaning within itself then I have to seek to understand what it’s showing me to interpret what I am seeing; to enter in a dialogue with it. When I interpret I bring along my own knowledge, experience, cultural assumptions etc and place them as a template on top of the image. To enter into a dialogue I need to put this template aside.

The C&N Handbook (p.93) states that ‘there’s no such thing as a universal photographic language which can be directly understood in the same way as spoken or written language can …..’.  I agree. Language has grammar, rules are followed, although, of course, these rules can and have been broken. You need to know the rules to consciously break them. That apart, what about translation from one language to another? I’ve referred in other posts to Elif Shafak the author who talks about English being her intellectual language and Turkish the emotional one. Different languages have different tones and nuances and these subtleties can be lost in translation. There are frequent misunderstanding and miscommunications between people who speak/write the same language even. Think of how you read your tutor’s feedback for example.

If language, with its rules is difficult then how easy or difficult is it to ‘read’ a photograph? Some might seem easy to read – a beautiful landscape for instance, image of mother with new baby etc. However they may have a different underlying meaning from the one on the surface. In a recent Disphotic post  Lewis Bush referred to Marvin Heiferman’s view ‘that photography might be multiple languages, with the particular language of different photographic fields understood by corresponding groups of people’.  Bush mentions Ruth Berlau’s comparison of photography with hieroglyphics and then went on to Thomas Struth’s ‘comparison between photographs and riddles’. Struth, ‘..described the photograph as a constructed series of clues, which if correctly interpreted might lead the viewer to understanding the photographer’s message’.

There’s continual discussion as to whether a photographer intended a particular meaning or not and how re-contextualisation can change meaning. John McPherson, of Duckrabbit blog had something to say about this recently regarding a photograph of his. He was referring to a comment by an art critic on vernacular images and how Erik Kessel’s re-contextualisation of ‘found’ photographs gave them a significance beyond their creator’s intention. McPherson writes about a photograph he took of a lego fire engine made by his son that Bush then took and his son showed to the firemen who had saved his mother’s life. His wife recently met one of those firemen and they spoke together about what had happened

[…..] and then they parted. Connected by a shared experience that few people will ever know or fully comprehend. An experience encapsulated, in part, in a simple image of some red Lego blocks held by the hands of a child.
All you ‘post photographic’ curators out there, yes by all means “re-contextualize” these banal cast-off images in any way you wish. And do so with my blessing. But don’t ever presume to invest any more valuable meaning in them than was invested by their creators.

So – there are dangers inherent in interpretations of meaning in photography and the photographer’s intention. What tools to use, remembering as well that photographs are referents – they may look like the real thing but they are not and what we’re interpreting is the photograph as a document in the sense that it has been framed in a particular way. It also gives all the information at the same time, therefore, it needs more than one look, preferably with some time in between – at least for me. I’ve frequently found that if a photograph doesn’t appeal to me it’s important to investigate why because I learn a lot about my assumptions, beliefs, likes and dislikes.



Belsey, C (2002) Poststructuralism : A Very Short Introduction OUP, Oxford
Berger, J (1972) Ways of Seeing Penguin Classics, Reprint edition 2008
Clarke, G (1997) The Photograph Oxford OUP

(Accessed 24.11.2015)