Reading Photographs


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: (Accessed 31 Jan 2018)

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


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