Terry Barrett: A Theoretical Construct for Interpreting Photographs

Following is a short review of Terry Barrett’s article published in 1986.  It’s a  little long in the tooth now, but I thought it worth a look in preparation for receiving my copy of the 1999 edition of Criticizing photographs: an introduction to understanding images.

The beginning of the article looks at previous ways of categorising and describing photos based on labels such as “pictorialist” or subject matter such as “nature”, “landscape”, “the nude”, “war” etc. Then we move onto the core of the article which introduces a way of looking at photographs “based on an analogy of visual images and verbal statements”. Barrett introduces six categories which are “logically discreet and conceptually distinct”, but he also points out that “photographs will often overlap them”.


This category is the surface of the image – what is denoted. Barrett states that “all photographs may be said to describe the surface of objects in greater or lesser detail and clarity, within the constraints of various cameras, lenses, films, and other technical variables, and within the constraints chosen by the photographer”. He goes onto to say that certain photographs don’t attempt to go beyond – this is the whole purpose of the image.  Examples include identification photos, medical images etc. He states that “these photographs are analogous to statements of fact in verbal language, are visual recordings of empirical qualities and quantities, and are meant to be interpretively and evaluatively (sic) neutral”. Barrett points out that there is a important question here: whether a photo can be interpretively and evaluatively neutral; however the point is that some photos are meant to be descriptive only.


Barrett states that “though many descriptive photographs are made to be used as the basis of future explanations, some photographs are expressly made to explain, or are made to function as visual explanations. Often they are descriptive answers to questions which seek explanations”. He quotes Edweard Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion series as a good example of this category – certainly they describe, but they go beyond in that they seek to explain something that wasn’t known before. Other examples include photos of bullets in flight, the impact of a drop into liquid – things are are not possible to see normally. He says that “most press photographs would also fall into this category, as would the work of some photographer artists who do ‘street work’ and ‘documentary’ photographs”.

The point of photos in this category is that they attempt to be objective in order to explain how things are. He goes on to say that photographs in this category “are falsifiable in that potentially they could be empirically demonstrated to be true or false, accurate or inaccurate”. The sense of the word “falsifiable” was briefly confusing to me, but in this case the meaning is taken to be “prove to be false”:  that is it would be (potentially) possible using empirical means to verify the photo or to prove it to be inaccurate or misleading in some way. Because we could potentially use empirical means, they are different from the next category: interpretative photos.


This category is more complex than the previous two. Barrett explains it as follows: “interpretive photographs are non-falsifiable explanations which are analogous to metaphysical claims in language in that their makers use them to make assertions about the world independently of empirically verifiable evidence”. He cites many of the photos of Jerry Uelsmann as being good examples of this category. Within this category is a great deal of “art” photography and Barrett claims that most are historically grounded in Pictorialism. Because this images are subjective in nature “they are non-falsifiable since in cases of dispute they cannot be confirmed or denied empirically”.

Ethical Evaluations

In this category are photos who aim to deliver a certain ethical message. Barrett states that “photographs which function as ethical evaluations always describe, often attempt to explain, but also and most importantly imply moral judgments, generally depicting how things ought or ought not to be”. He gives the example of advertising images which aim to show us “the good” life, or what we should desire or aspire to be like. He cites the book by W. Eugene Smith, Minamata as “a paradigm example of work in this category”. He also includes the social criticism of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine as other examples.

Aesthetic Evaluations

Barrett claims that all photographs can be appreciated for their aesthetic qualities, even those which are primarily made to be explanatory or to be a social commentary. But there are certain images which are made primarily for aesthetic appreciation. He states that they act as a “visual notification” that the photographer deems certain subjects to be aesthetically pleasing or even that a photographic representation of those same subjects is pleasing. I’m reminded strongly of the well-known Gary Winogrand quote: “I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed”.

Theoretical Photographs

The final category includes photographs which “are not about people, places, objects, or events in the world but are about art or photography”. Barrett goes on to explain: “they generally are made to address issues about photography, or issues about photographs, functioning as visual commentary or as visual art criticism. More simply, they are art about art or photographs about photography”.

This is plainly a more difficult category to clearly identify (or perhaps it’s just by elimination – if a photo doesn’t fit the other five categories, it must be this one). Here, a postmodern approach is probably more common – for example, including text which delivers the real message.

In this category, Barrett includes Sherrie Levine’s copying and re-purposing photographs made by Walker Evans and the paintings of Mondrian. He also includes Vikky Alexander and Richard Prince in this category but also points out that “some work which would be placed in this category has been labeled ‘conceptual'”.

Using the Categories

Barrett says that the purpose of the categories is not to encourage a pigeon-holing exercise, but to stimulate discussion of images. In particular, “placing any photograph in a category or combination of categories, even those paradigm examples cited here, requires decisions which need to be backed with evidence drawn from the picture or from external contextual information”. He adds that “in considering a photograph for placement, it is necessary to sort out its content and expression, its denotations and connotations, its rhetoric about its subject”. 


It seems to me that the point of the categories and in particular the thought processes around placing an image in a category is to better understand the photo. This reminds me of Barthes’s Rhetoric of the Image, in the sense that thinking about potential categories causes us to dig into “its rhetoric about its subject” and not necessarily take things at face value.

As a potential approach for assignment four, this is useful thinking material, and gives a hint at a framework via the checklist: “content and expression, its denotations and connotations”.


Barrett, T. (1986) A Theoretical Construct for Interpreting Photographs. Studies in Art Education 27, no.2 (Winter 1986), pp.52-60.

Barrett, T.M. (1999) Criticizing photographs: an introduction to understanding images. 4th edn. New York: McGraw-Hill.


Looking for Lenin

At Rencontres d’Arles 2017, I saw an interesting exhibition of images by Niels Ackermann and Sébastien Gobert titled Looking for Lenin. The associated book is available on Amazon (see here).

The work consists of looking at the legacy of Lenin in a very practical way: examining what has happened to the many monuments of him especially in the Ukraine (the books quotes 5500 statues). The book actually provides a map of the locations, so if you’re inspired and happen to be spending time in the Ukraine you can construct your own pilgrimage, or perhaps the word should be “anti-pilgramage”.

The introduction states:

“The Ukraine is engaged in a vast process of decommunisation: within this scope, the country is cleaning up all its monuments of Lenin. The photographer Niels Ackermann and the journalist Sébastien Gobert have travelled the country in search of these discarded idols.”

Ackermann & Gobert: Kremenchuk, 30 march 2016.

In the 2017 BBC video of the same name, Gobert comments that “every Lenin has a different story to tell and every Lenin has a different fate”. He goes on to say that through these statues, it’s possible to understand a great deal about the modern Ukraine and that while plainly many (not all) people reject the past, “one of the things that this decommunisation process has not solved is what Ukraine wants to do next with its history”.

The book contains many toppled, disfigured and discarded sculptures of Lenin connoting the changed circumstances which allow the expressions of feelings which were probably always there. The book provides a great deal of background information which gives the feeling that there is a lot of conflict between those who look forward and those who look back on what was at least familiar. In many cases the statues are in pieces and put in storerooms, under stairs, in backyards with lots of other junk, indicating that the statues and the memories of Lenin and very much part in the background – almost forgotten.

Ackermann & Gobert: Odessa, 21 Nov 2015

There is a strong element of amusement in the collection: very often the statues have been re-located into a completely different context. Some statues have been re-purposed in an amusing way such as this one which was made by the Ukrainian artist Oleksandr Milov, titled Dark Vador in the suburbs of Odessa.

In these cases, it’s almost as if ordinary people are re-claiming Lenin’s legacy and re-writing it to suit the changed world.

The photographs are in colour, typically in landscape format and taken in a classic documentary style with the statue front-and-center. There is no attempt to “pretty up” the situation. The photos show the statue (or sometimes part of it) in context and it is the context which has greatly changed. In many cases, literally Lenin has fallen off his plinth with the obvious connection of falling from grace. The new circumstances of the statues, sometimes obviously cared-for, sometimes not, tell us a great deal about the conflicting emotions of the people. There is a strong message that Lenin isn’t around in the same way, but he’s still there in a sense, and it will take the decommunisation process some decades yet before a proper historical context will be found.


Ackermann, N. and Gobert, S. (2017) Looking for Lenin. Lausanne: Les Éditions Noir sur Blanc

Looking for Lenin (2017) [television programme online] BBC iplayer. At: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p057v7sy/player (Accessed 04 Mar 2018)



Reading Photographs

From: Amazon.com

Following is a short review of a book by Richard Salkeld titled Reading Photographs: An Introduction to the Theory and Meaning of Images. I stumbled over this book in one of the Amazon recommendations.

According to Amazon, this book promises a “refreshingly clear introduction to the key theories of representation and visual analysis and demonstrates how they can be applied to photography”. I found this description very attractive, given the many photographic theory books out there approaching neutron star levels of density.

The first chapter (What is a Photograph?) traces the history of the development of photography “from daguerreotype to digital” and mentions some of the key people involved from the earliest days. Although interesting, much of this content can be found elsewhere and really only forms background to the rest of the book.

Reading the Signs

The second chapter is where it starts to get interesting from a Context & Narrative perspective. Salkeld starts the chapter with “Imagine you woke up as a dog”.  He states that you wouldn’t understand anything about your new doggy world. You wouldn’t understand the barking of other dogs or their habits. In short, you’d have to learn to speak dog. Or should that be “doggish”? In either case, Salkeld nicely illustrates just how much of what we experience and interpret is learned and not inherent. Semiotics, therefore, is everywhere.

Starting to touch on the topic of the title of the book, Salkeld goes on to talk about the language of photography:

“The photographer has the opportunity to make a series of decisions, which may enhance or encourage a particular reading: the choice of black and white or colour; how to compose the image within the frame – what to include and, equally important, what to exclude; what is the angle of view; what is in focus; and so on. To some extent, every photograph is the product of choices and decisions.”

Already, just from this paragraph, we get an interesting list of things to look for when structuring how we approach an image, each of which potentially has meaning, or at least, to which we can infer meaning based on our culture and experience.

The chapter moves on to review some key semiotic elements (most of which I have included in my blog article titled Semiotics – see here). Salkeld explains that “photographs function as indexical signifiers in that they are produced by the effects of light on a light-sensitive material”. This idea of indexicality – of a photograph being a trace (no matter how slight) of the original subject has fascinated many authors from Barthes to Sontag and onwards. Of course, photographs are also iconic – they “resemble what they signify”. Finally, there may be also arbitrary or symbolic signifiers within the image if, for example, there was text included.

Moving onto denotation and connotation, Salkeld explains that denotation is the literal meaning of the signifier – it is what we actually see in the image. Connotation is what we make of it – in his words: “the associated ideas that are suggested by the image, but which are not explicitly denoted”. He expands on the nature of connotation by stating that “individual and subjective experience, knowledge, taste and emotion will all contribute to the particular associations”.

An example might be an image of a yellow triangular sign with black borders which contains an exclamation mark. So far, this is what is denoted. Our connotation of the image is generally “caution” – it indicates that there is danger. This is our interpretation of the contents of the image. In this case we have a symbolic signifier – one which does not resemble the signified and must be learned.

Truth and Lies

Henry Peach Robinson: Fading Away

The third chapter looks at ideas of reality and photography. Mention is made of the long history of manipulated and “directed” images from Henry Peach Robinson’s Fading Away (made from five separate negatives) to Gregory Crewdson’s “single frame movies”.

Salkeld goes on to point out that “the advent of digital photography has raised awareness of the manipulation of images; however, the practice of manipulation is as old as the medium itself”.

This point is picked up in the chapter titled Defining the Real in the Digital Age in Wells (2015). Wells asks the question “does all this not destroy the claim of photography to have a special ability to show things as they are and raise serious doubts about those genres with a particular investment in the ‘real’ – documentary and photojournalism?”  In an age where “fake news” threatens to drown out any ideas of objective truth, these points raise important concerns.


This chapter applies the ideas developed in the previous two chapters “to the matter of individual identity as represented in photographs”. The starting point is portraiture and idea that a photograph shows how someone really looks. As an example of our underlying belief that this is so, Salkeld quotes George Bernard Shaw as saying “I would willingly exchange every single painting of Christ for one snapshot”.

Salkeld goes onto to compare the essentialist notion of identity, that we all have inside us our “‘real’ and ‘true’ identity; an individual essence which marks us from the cradle to the grave”; with the constructivist notion which argues that identity is not fixed, but is relational i.e. it depends on context – “who we appear to be depends upon how we present ourselves and to whom”.

Given the complexities around identity, it’s doubtful whether a single image can “capture” a person at all and for this reason, Salkeld “at best, the portrait photographer must manage the process in order to construct a representation that connotes a particular idea of identity”.

Barbara Kruger: Untitled (your body is a battleground), 1989

The chapter moves on to consider the body and all the rules, cultural norms and associations with it – Salkeld states that “the body can be readily understood as a rich and complex semiotic text”. He goes on to state that:

“How the body is represented and for what purpose is a rich source of debate about identity, economics and politics; as Barbara Kruger’s 1989 photomontage declares: Your body is a battleground.”


Big Brother is Watching You

The chapter opens with a quote by Walker Evans:

“Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.”

From this starting point, Salkeld goes on to “explore photography as an instrument of control and surveillance, and of voyeuristic looking”. He examines the use of “mug shots” to identify criminals (or the accused) and points out that the “identity” involved is a very limited one which principally focuses on dimensions, colour, age, origin etc. The purpose is that the individual must match the the appearance in the image to be reasonably sure of the individual’s identity from a bureaucratic perspective.

The chapter continues to examine various applications of photography such as the work by Francis Galton who superimposed standardised photos to form composite images which he proposed would represent a typical criminal or other type of person.


In this final chapter, Salkeld looks into the core question of aesthetics: “is it art?”. He makes the point that “the relationship of photography to art has been, from the first, uneasy” due, at least in part to the mechanical nature and the (typically) lack of uniqueness of the image. The pictorialists were following the lead of painters and it wasn’t until the 20s and 30s, a hundred years after the invention of photography that the modernists started to push the medium into a new direction.

But the question of whether photography is art has lingered. Salkeld mentions the views of British philosopher Roger Scruton who has argued very forcefully that photography cannot be art. His view is that “the camera has no imagination – it can only show what is there and what exists”. Beyond that, Scruton’s view is that our only interest in a photograph lies in the thing photographed, not in the photograph as an object in its own right.

He goes on to state that:

“a photograph thus fails, in Scruton’s court, to fulfil the minimum requirements of a work of art – that it should express something about the world (not simply show it), and that it should be an object in its own terms”.

Salkeld notes that “the question of whether or not a photograph can be expressive, and whether expression is essential to a work of art is more complex”. He suggests that expression is one valid purpose of art, but not a necessary one and due to the signifying nature of a photograph, the true “meaning” of an image is actually made by the viewer. Finally, he concludes that what is art, and what isn’t is ultimately decided by “particular individuals and institutions and reflect particular cultures and fashions”. In essence, a photo becomes art when the art world says it’s art.


The title of this book is in two parts: “reading photographs” and “an Introduction to the Theory and Meaning of Images”. The second part is certainly delivered: Salkeld provides a strong introduction to the key ideas of semiotics as applied to photography, how an images relates to identity and so on. In the sense of providing tools, Salkeld also delivers on the first part of the title, but what he does not give us is a “how to”. He provides a lot of context, but not a structured way to read photographs. Nevertheless, in terms of positioning photography within the world of art, he has done an excellent job. As preparation for assignment 4, the book makes a good start.


Salkeld, Richard (2017) Reading Photographs: An Introduction to the Theory and Meaning of Images.  [Kindle Edition] From: Amazon.com (Accessed 31 Jan 2018)

Wells, Liz (ed.) (2015) Photography: A Critical Introduction [Kindle Edition] From: Amazon.com (Accessed 23 Sep 2015)


Liz Jobey: A Young Brooklyn Family

We are asked to read and reflect on the chapter on Diane Arbus in Singular Images: Essays on Remarkable Photographs by Sophie Howarth.

In the chapter, Liz Jobey presents a comprehensive analysis of the Diane Arbus photo A Young Brooklyn Family Going for a Sunday Outing, N.Y.C. 1966 along with a great deal of background material from interviews with Diane Arbus and from her writings.

The article is long and delves into quite a lot of detail about Arbus’s life as background for making hypotheses about why she did what she did. The tone is unforgiving and quite harsh with the overall implication somewhat along the lines of Sontag – that Arbus was after something sensationalistic. [Interestingly, the name “Arbus” appears 44 times in Sontag’s book On Photography, suggesting that Sontag had a special degree of dislike for Arbus.]

At the end of the article, I felt I had learned more about Jobey’s own world view than I did about the motivations of Diane Arbus and of the family who posed for her. As an example of deconstruction, it is probably exemplary, but after pulling everything apart, it seems to me that Jobey has trouble reassembling the pieces in a way that doesn’t seem like an extended complaint.




Exercise: deconstruction


Rip out an advertising image from a newspaper supplement and circle and write on as many parts of the image as you can. Comment on what it is, what it says about the product and why you think it’s there. You could use this as the basis for your assignment if you feel it’s taking you somewhere interesting. Or you could adopt this method for your assignment preparation.


Glenfiddich advertising from Cigar Aficionado magazine

The image I selected was from an eMagazine that I subscribe to. This particular magazine has a strong “lifestyle” orientation in its advertising, so this seemed to be a good approach.

In terms of overall context, the image is full-page, on the right-hand side of a standard double-page spread. The right-hand side is generally preferable for western audiences due to our left–to-right writing system, which generally means that we “pick up” more quickly on images on the right-hand side (see here). This kind of premium placement also suggests a premium product because advertising costs are considerably higher on this side.

The colours used are eye-catching with a strong emphasis on the bottle, and with complementary colours all around. The largest, dark-golden, text has a colour very similar to many India Pale Ales (more on this later).

There is a great deal of text on the page, mostly acting as anchor-text, describing various aspects of the preparation. The product is plainly a whisky, however the process used was a little unusual – apparently the company brewed their own “craft” beer to season the oak casks used to mature the whisky. The text supports the beer connection with images of hops and labels such as “zesty and hoppy”. On the bottle itself, there is also quite a lot of text, but the message is a little mixed. In the centre of the bottle, right where we’d expect to see a label describing the contents, we see not the brand name, nor even that it’s a whisky, but the text “Finished in India Pale Ale Casks”.  It’s not until we look towards the bottom of the bottle that we decide that it is in fact a whisky from the Glenfiddich company.

On the lower-left side, we see the text “Experiment #01” which is echoed further down in the text which reassures us that the this is the first release in the Glenfiddich Experimental Series, however the implication of “Experiment #01” is “we got it right first time” and now as consumers, it’s up to us to enjoy the result. It would be an entirely different interpretation if it was “Experiment #2403”.

On the lower-right side we see the text “Craft Brewer” along with an image of a bottle cap typically found on a beer bottle. The craft beer industry in the United States (the primary audience for this particular magazine) has exploded over recent decades and is now estimated as having a retail worth of approximately $23bn (see here). The growth of this market sector is potentially an interesting “hook” for new products by association. We have no idea of whether the Glenfiddich beer used to season the casks was actually very good, but just by association we (or at least American audiences) may assume that any product associated with the craft beer industry must also be good.

In conclusion, although it becomes clear that we’re talking about a whisky, the message is confused about the linkage between the two products (beer and whisky). Many whisky producers age their premium products in barrels from other regions – sherry being a common example, and even bourbon on occasion. However, the association with beer is much less common and perhaps even innovative. The strap-line at the bottom of the page says that the product is “designed to push boundaries and create the unexpected”. This may be true, but I suggest that the overall effect is one of confusion.




Exercise: Elliot Erwitt’s New York, 1974

In this exercise, we are asked to 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?

Elliot Erwitt: New York, 1974

Due to the careful positioning of the small dog and the eye-catching hat, the eyes are first drawn to this part of the image. The fact that the far left set of (fore)legs plainly belong to a much bigger dog is only noticed after a time. The small dog’s head is positioned quite precisely to draw our attention: at the mid-point of the frame vertically and approximately a 1/3 of the way across the frame from the right-hand side. The boots of the assumed owner (quite possibly a woman) are positioned centrally and the legs of the larger dog are positioned in the left-hand third with careful cropping to exclude the rear legs which would have made the joke much less effective. The overall effect is of across the horizontal axis, helped by the line of the lead to the smaller dog adding some “weight” on that side of the image. The camera viewpoint is very low – at dog’s eye-level we could say. We can imagine Erwitt holding his beloved Leica almost on the ground to achieve the shot.

The cropping of this image is critical to the joke and to the impact. Taken further back, at full height, we could imagine a woman with two dogs and the power would be completely lost. By getting closer, the joke is complete.





Assignment 3: self-portrait


Drawing upon the examples in Part Three and your own research, you can approach your self-portraits however you see fit. You may choose to explore your identity or masquerade as someone else, or use empty locations or objects to speak of your experiences. However you choose to approach it, use yourself – directly or indirectly – as subject matter.


In addition to looking into the photographers mentioned in the course notes plus others listed in my diary, I also consulted Susan Bright’s 2010 book Auto Focus.

Concept Development & Process

My diary for this assignment can be found here. After some time, I came up with the idea of a “non portrait”. This was partly in response to me not liking very much photos of myself and partly out of frustration about the lack of progress in this assignment. I had in mind a distorted image, showing motion. I made approximately 60 shots (see Contact Sheets) with a plain black background showing differing degrees of movement, head angle and expressions. My “picks” (shortlist) are indicated on the contact sheets. After reviewing several times the  picks, I came down to one image – #44 – which illustrated my desire not to have a portrait. I cropped to square format because I wanted to focus on the subject (recognising the irony here) and converted to monochrome because I wanted a stripped-to-the-essence look and felt that colour didn’t add anything and if anything, confused the message. While taking the photos, a working title popped to mind: “Not a Portrait”. I decided to hand-write this at the bottom of the image because I was interested in experimenting with text as mentioned in my diary.  I feel this works as relay text because plainly it’s in contrast to the image content and the two bounce off each other. I like the kind of tension and mystery it creates.

Final Section

Contact Sheets

Following are my contact sheets with an indication of my “picks”.

Assessment Criteria

1. Demonstration of technical and visual skills

In terms of techniques used, the process was fairly simple and no great challenge. I believe that I have achieved a simple, but effective design which focuses on the subject and conveys my intention.

2. Quality of outcome

In this assignment, I have managed to produce a powerful self-portrait which synthesises much of what I learned during this section of the course. I was particularly pleased to be able to try out the use of text in almost a “protest” mode. I believe my desire not to have a straight portrait comes through strongly.

3. Demonstration of creativity

I have tried to use a creative approach to the brief, revealing, but at the some time not revealing and also introducing tension via text.

4. Context

My research into the self-portrait shows that there are many, many ways to approach the genre with some being particularly challenging (see Bright, 2010). After looking at a great deal of the work of other photographers, including other students, I believe my end result meets the brief, but appreciate that with creativity comes risk.


Bright, Susan (2010) Auto Focus: The Self-Portrait in Contemporary Photography. London: Thames & Hudson

Wells, Liz (ed.) (2015) Photography: A Critical Introduction [Kindle Edition] From: Amazon.com (Accessed 23 Sep 2015)