Suggested Research – Martin Parr

Martin Parr, where do you begin with a Magnum photographer like Martin Parr? He has had around 40 solo photobooks published, and has featured in around 80 exhibitions worldwide – including the international touring exhibition ParrWorld, and a retrospective at the Barbican Arts Centre, London, in 2002. He has also curated work the exhibition Strange and Familiar at the Barbican in 2016.

It isn’t simple enough to call him a documentary photographer he is more ‘a chronicler of our age.’ So much so that he has just been commissioned by the BBC to make their new idents.

Renowned for finding the extraordinary in the ordinary, I hope that the series of images Parr captures across the year will document everyday Britain in all its glory and serve as a fascinating and lasting record of 2017.

He is said to transcend ‘the traditional separation of the different types of photography’ using a strategy which presents and publishes the same photos in the ‘context of art photography, in exhibitions and in art books, as well as in the related fields of advertising and journalism.’

At first glance, his photographs seem exaggerated or even grotesque in fact he could be a modern day, colour Diane Arbus; strange motifs, garish colours and unusual perspectives. Revealing in a ‘penetrating way how we live, how we present ourselves to others, and what we value.’

But that isn’t what all of his work is about. Much of it is but some isn’t. In particular I love his recent work on The Rhubarb Triangle which focuses on one small industry and tells its story from beginning to end. I also liked his earlier work The Non Conformists which focused on one small community. What I am not so keen on is the garish images that to me are not a gentle mocking of the English at play but a more critical and condescending social commentary, for example ‘The Last Resort’. 1983-85, but that’s just my take on some of his stuff. The rest I find quite stunning. And even the images that make me inwardly cringe I have to admire because they are or were summing up our society. His images are not only interesting as in visually appealing but they are also meaningful, as in they inform us about society and ourselves.

His observation on the British way of life is uncanny and his work ethic second to none. A friend of mine is in awe of his contacts and how he manages to get into places and situations to obtain his images.

I was lucky enough to attend a talk and on going to the joint exhibition with Tony Ray Jones Only in England, I remember the advice he gave to a fellow student about taking more interesting images he said ‘get out of London!’ As time has moved on I think his style has mellowed slightly and I prefer a lot more of his work now than I did previously.

He is another photographer who thinks you should take a lot of images but be ruthless when you edit. Due to his diversity he is again a photographer that you can keep returning to for inspiration with black and white, embedding yourself in a community as with assignment one, single shots that stand alone yet sum up an emotion or atmosphere, looking towards assignment two, and those which work as a narrative looking further on into the coursework.


Narrative – Research Point – Semiotics – Robert Frank, The Americans

Read Chapters 4 (Narrative) and 5 (signs and Symbols) in Short, M. (2011) Creative Photography: Context and Narrative. Lausanne:AVA Publishing.

Lots of reading and research… sat here with a pile of books and dived into:
Susan Sontag: On Photography
John Berger & Jean Mohr: Another Way of Telling
Maria Short: Context and Narrative
Liz Wells: Photography – A Critical Introduction

I’ll begin with Maria Short but will slip in references to the others as I go along.

The aim was to read chapters 4&5, but as with the last directive I found it just as important to have read the previous chapter as well, not just cover what we ‘have’ to look at…Basic pointers… There is no point in having signs and symbols without having an audience. There is no point in having an audience if they cannot ‘read’ the images you are producing. There must be an intention ‘behind photographic communication’ and equally as important, you must appreciate the audience and ‘the context in which it will be viewed.’

Short continues by mentioning the process of picture making and how the photographer’s connection to the subject can influence the audience responses and reactions. Once again emphasising how important it can be to have intimate knowledge about your chosen subject, or at least a passion about it. She references Don McCullin, Berenice Abbott and Elizabeth McCausland.

Don McCullin from an interview he gave for The Guardian in May 2010; he realised he changed from being a ‘gung-ho’ war photographer, into someone who cared more about what he was capturing than securing approval from his peers or employers and climbing the career ladder, when he was covering the Biafran War in 1969. She writes: it occurred to him that his purpose should be to highlight the unacceptable. (p70)

Of Berenice Abbott’s love of New York after a decade in Paris, McCausland wrote: Only from passion and fantastic passion does any sense of reality in art, or life, come. (p73)

Moving swiftly on to Chapter 4: Narrative: the aim of narrative techniques is to ‘provide meaning, coherence…a sense of rhythm [they are] a kind of visual punctuation,’ (p96-113)

There are many ways that a photographer can form a narrative:

  • Linear story telling –  example Susan Dirges: Full Circle
  • Aesthetic continuity – example Jill Cole: Birds
  • A sequential story – example Jose Navarro: Trashumantes
  • Visual Punctuation – Example Barbara Taylor: Beds

In Another Way of Telling Mohr includes a delightfully simple set of images of a blind girl laughing outside his window, revealing her relationship with him and the world through sound and the animal noises he was imitating.


Difficulty may arise in trying to tell a narrative from within a single image. In this instance the narrative ‘can be drawn from all the components of the picture’ and this is why it is even more important to make sure that you are aware of all the narrative devises and their ‘implications…the aim of the narrative is to provide or anchor meaning and coherence.’

‘Absolute absorption’ helps a photographer spot all the elements coming together, they will ‘notice the symbolic, allegorical or metaphorical … [to] convey something that they have seen or intend.’

The quote from Mike Weaver, ‘The Picture as Photograph’, The Art of Photography, leads us nicely into Chapter 5.

The relation between fact and symbol, expression and idea…is the result of an artist’s negotiation with the actual world according to certain principles.

Chapter 5 : Signs and symbols.We see them everywhere; some we recognise instantly, some we know have meaning but we have not yet learnt them: red=hot, blue=cold…Morse Code I’d have to learn beyond … – – – …

The study of these signs and symbols is called semiotics and many people have had a go at being academic about it…

Ferdinand de Saussure – a Swiss linguist –  and Charles Sanders Peirce (yes my head doesn’t like the way he spells that either) an American philosopher and Roland Barthes- a French literary theorist, philosopher, critic and semiotician, – came up with the following: (you know you are in trouble when you have to add words to the dictionary…)

  • Signifier – the form that the signs take
  • Signified – the concept it represents
  • Representamen – the form
  • Interpretant – the sense made of the sign
  • An object – to which the sign refers
  • Studium – the general enthusiasm/interest in the photograph
  • Punctum – the point of the image, that which arrests attention

Other terminologies are:

  • Symbol – used to represent something else – the signifier does not resemble the signified
  • Icon – resembling or imitating the signifier – e.g. a cartoon, scale mode, metaphor
  • Indexical signifier – linked to the signified – e.g. smoke means fire, footprints – a trace of a physical being

Signs and symbols within a photograph may be a mix of staged imagery, previous research into an area, or pure good luck and skill at editing images. Practical techniques such as shallow depth of field, motion blur and lighting can also provide subtle nuances.

Robert Frank’s The Americans is often referred to when exploring symbolic meaning.

In going through Photography – a Critical Introduction (Wells 1997) I found the section on the symbolism used in the United Colours of Benetton’s advertising campaign really interesting, but a more in-depth response shall have to wait.

Barthes states in The Death of the Author (1967),  that the understanding and interpretation of an image is personal/subjective, therefore any intentional ‘meaning’  by the creator is no more or less important than a ‘meaning’ read by the audience.


Research The Americans, by Robert Frank, find five images within this body of work where symbols are used. Explain what they are and how they function in the images. Then read the introduction to the book by Jack Kerouac. Find symbolic references that you can also identify in Robert Frank’s photographs, these do not have to be the same images used previously.

I ducked and dived and found these videos that show his book and reveal some insights surrounding this iconic body of work.


Audio clip

This interview with Frank in The Guardian gives more information with regards to his background and how the book came about. The Americans was unusual in that it was visualised as a book from the outset and is not just a compilation of several bodies of work.

To sum it up: Frank created a book that was raw, captured a feel, an emotion, an essence, an era. He ripped up the compositional rule book and used a ‘snapshot aesthetic’ to create informal, ambiguous images that were often described as visual poetry; they were more of an artistic, emotional expression than a single message.

When published in 1958 people still had the ideal in their minds with regards to the ‘American Dream,’ but, as an outsider looking in, Frank showed them a different viewpoint, revealing how the country and its people were still trapped. Trapped by segregation, segregation of race, class and economy.

Publications were readily promoting glossy advertisements and holding up Hollywood icons as role models (not much has changed!) but Frank wanted to show what was beneath the mask, he portrayed everyday people and everyday situations. Initially his book was not well received. Not only because of the subject matter, but also in the way he chose to present his narrative; the informality of the shots, grain, the off-kilter framing and unusual subject matter meant that it did not receive rave reviews.

He had a knack for photographing what seemed to be the ordinary, the trivial, but the truths behind them, what lay beneath the mask and the profound perceptions you could make when reading the symbolism made for a wonderful historical, photographic legacy.

Below are the five images that I have chosen to look at in terms of their symbolism and my interpretation of their meaning.


Movie Premier

The signifiers –

1. A blurred starlet
2. The evening gown and jewellery
3. Her disinterested gaze
4.She is central to the frame but walking out of it
5. The crowd of fans behind some smiling – not all looking at the actress
6. The woman with her hand to her face behind
7. The everyday dress of the crowd – e.g. headscarves
8. The Squires sign behind

The signified –

1. The starlet represents our fascination, then and now, of celebrity . That she is blurred illustrates that this way of life is an illusion, a mask, as well as Frank’s experimentation in ways to present his narrative.
2. The evening gown and jewellery underscore the divide between the rich and poor
3. Her disinterested gaze could show the lack of communication and unwillingness of the American people to try to alter the balance of this way of life.
4. That she is walking out of the frame represents how easy it was to ignore the harsh realities of life.
5. The smiles reveal the rush people get when meeting their heroes, the fact that not all are looking at her could signify the 15 minutes of fame culture and they are preparing for the next thing to come along.
6. The woman tentatively chewing her nails represents anonymity, how for the majority of us this is life, there is nothing more than this.
7. The everyday dress further illustrates the social and economic divide of the nation
8. The advertising sign portrays the advancement of consumerism


Charleston, South Carolina

The signifiers –

1. A street scene
2. A blurred background
3. A white baby
4. A black woman holding the baby
5. She is leaning against the wall
6. Neither subject are looking at the camera nor at each other
7. The style of blouse could be a uniform

The signified –

1.This is an everyday event
2. That the relationship between these two people are what is of import to the image
3. & 4. The interracial relationship reveals the class divide/racism that persisted in The South, that more often than not, black women were ‘the hired help.’
5. Leaning against the wall could represent the weary resignation of this situation
6. Illustrates how they are accepting of being together but are not really part of each others world.
7. Uniforms show how people accept their position in life and blindly follow instructions/rules without question

I chose this image in particular as it struck a chord having looked at the United Colours of Benetton section as mentioned earlier. The symbolism of this image upset many people due to the connotations of black slavery rather than the hoped for interpretation of racial acceptance. Frank’s version has been described as an American apartheid “Madonna and Child.”




Elevator – Miami Beach 1955

The signifiers –

1.Blurred images
2. An elevator
3. Elevator operator in a uniform
4. Blank expression – far off gaze
5. Fur stole
6. Off-kilter framing

The signified –

1. Realities of life
2.Being trapped
4.Isolation even if surrounded by others – dreaming of better things
5. The social and economic divide of the nation
6.The unfairness and occasional awkwardness of reality

The young girl was found many years later after coming across the image in an exhibition:

Robert Frank took about four photos of me without a flash in the elevator. I didn’t know he was taking them. And then when the elevator emptied of its ‘blurred demons,’he asked me to turn around and smile at the camera. And I flashed a smile, put my hands on my hips. I hammed it up for about eight or ten frames.

However, it was the moment she revealed her inner self that Frank captured and printed.


Drugstore, Detroit, 1955-56

The signifiers –

1. Covered, blurred cake in the foreground
2. Lots of advertising for Orange Whip
3. Prints or adverts on the walls
4. Behind the counter there is mess on the floor
5. Long marble lunch counter
6. Male only customers appear to be of one race
7. Men sat at the counter appear not to be conversing
8. The servers appear to be of African-American heritage
9. Wearing uniforms
10. Food consumption

The signified –

1.Unobtainable luxury
2. & 3. Consumerism and consumption
4. Real life isn’t always tidy
5. The divide in society
6. Inequality of women/racial divide
7. Isolation
8. Sense of communities within community
9. Corporate identity, conformity, emphasises community within community
10. Rituals of food link us together


Drive-in movie, Detroit 1955

The signifiers –

1.Large screen/drive-in
2. Two men on the screen
3. Cars

The signified –

1. Fascination with Hollywood, celebrity, escape from reality – the American Dream.
2. Inequality of women, women not portrayed, men’s status elevated.
3. Consumerism, mass production, isolation – drive in’s replacing the intimacy of the cinema and the closeness of couples sitting next to each other. The reliance on motor vehicles.

Introduction by Jack Kerouac

Kerouac reels off a list of symbolism to be found within the remaining images which also summarise the American psyche:the jukebox, coffins, funerals, cemeteries, crosses, windows, the American flag, canes, old people, cowboys and cowboy hats, open roads, cars, gas stations, cafes, musicians/music, ethnicity, urinals, telephone poles and television. These are signs of advancement, life and death, communications and status. Kerouac reads the images like poetry as intended by the originator.

It could be that the signs and symbols were just ‘there’ and it was skillful editing that managed to pull the images together. As America moved out of the Depression era and away from WWII consumerism and mass production took over, it would have been difficult to avoid what now, in some respects, have become cliches. Yet Frank managed to capture images to convey a certain atmosphere. The Detroit Drugstore image reminded me of this Danny Lyon shot, and whilst very similar in subject and composition the signifiers are slightly different and illustrate a totally different mood.

SNCC Staff Sit-In, Atlanta Georgia, 1963 Danny Lyon

The counter does not seem to be used as a divide rather it is used as a meeting place suggesting community, the eye contact is not hostile, women are seen to be equal despite being in the minority in this shot, there is social interaction, there is less signage creating a less claustrophobic atmosphere. The marble counter and accoutrements are similar demonstrating that wherever you went in American you could expect the same. Sadly, many places are losing their identity to commercialism, walk down any High Street in the UK  and you will see the same chain stores offering the same goods. Even when you visit local attractions they all seem to buy their merchandise from the same manufacturer so that mementos are also generic!

Intentional or unintentional, signifiers will be captured within our images, or in scenes we might wish to capture. It is important to be aware of these visual clues and consider how they may alter or enhance the meaning of the narrative we are wishing to tell.



127, amer (2011) Robert Frank’s America (1982) | #ASX. Available at: (Accessed: 24 December 2016).

Berger, J. and Mohr, J. (1989) Another way of telling. Cambridge: Penguin Books / Granta.

Here, S. (2013) Start here. Available at: (Accessed: 24 December 2016).

O’Hagan, S. (2014) Robert Frank at 90: The photographer who revealed America won’t look back. Available at: (Accessed: 24 December 2016).

Robert Frank’s elevator girl sees herself years later (2009) Available at: (Accessed: 24 December 2016).

Short, M. (2011) Basics creative photography 02: Context and narrative. Lausanne, Switzerland: AVA Publishing SA.

Sontag, S. (2008) On photography. London: Penguin Classics.

Wells, L. (ed.) (1996) Photography: A critical introduction. London: Routledge.

Woodward, R.B. (2008) Robert Frank’s curious perspective. Available at: (Accessed: 24 December 2016).

Own Research 3 – Edward Burtynsky @ Flowers Gallery 2016

Back in 2012 I went to see Burtynsky’s Oil Exhibition and wrote a review about his work on my blog, note the opening line said :

I was introduced to Burtynsky’s photographs (note photographs not the man)

I can now say that I have met the man :oD  as there was an opportunity to go to a private showing and book signing at Flowers Gallery  on 15 September 2016. The work on display was from his latest body of work Salt Pans, and a cross section of earlier work.

Edward Burtynsky - Salt Pans | Essential Elements

Edward Burtynsky - Salt Pans | Essential Elements

Images from the Flowers Gallery website: Installation views.

Realising the importance of taking into consideration how and where work is displayed I made sure I took note of the gallery setting and how it was curated: large white room, tall ceilings, directed lighting, uniform frames-black, uniform size prints, large space between each print.There are no explanations of any kind beside the photographs, allowing them audience to focus on the subject and wonder- that is if they aren’t aware of his work already. Main exhibition down stairs, earlier work  – Essential Elements-in the upper gallery photographs from: China, Manufactured Landscapes, Quarries, Oil and Water:

 Mapping the human transformation of the landscape, and documenting the residual destruction stemming from industrial processes and manufacturing, Burtynsky’s photographs present a contradiction of aesthetic seduction and ecological concerns, functioning, as he sees it, as “reflecting pools of our times”.

Edward Burtynsky - Salt Pans | Essential Elements

139 Shipyard 11 Qili Port Zhejiang Province China 20051

These images remind me slightly of the work by Bernd and Hilla Becher who also photographed the architecture of industrialisation against grey skies, concentrating on shape and form, structures placed centrally within the frame. He admits to having been influenced by  Abstract Expressionists.

To quote the website again, in Salt Pans:

Burtynsky conveys both the sublime aesthetic qualities of the industrialised landscape and the unsettling reality of depleting resources on the planet, through a series of geometric compositions photographed from the air above the Little Rann of Kutch in Gujarat, India.

Every year for eight months over 100,000 salt workers live and work at the Little Rann of Kutch, extracting around one million tonnes of salt a year from the floodwaters of the nearby Arabian Sea. Burtynsky has documented this traditional way of life before it vanishes forever; under threat due to receding groundwater levels and declining market values, this is a way of life that has existed for four hundred years.

Surprisingly, Burtynsky came across the salt pans whilst looking through Google Earth!

A few months later I was in a Cessna flying over them, trying to capture this incredible terrain before it disappears.

Salt Pans #13

Artist: Edward Burtynsky

I particularly liked this image as the detail fills the frame, the vibrant green squares reminiscent of a tiled wall, and I found the vast scale of the project breath taking. Unlike some of his other aerial work I found it difficult to find details within the images that gave an indication of this.However, if you take the time and look close enough you can just about make out tiny figures, here and there, which “communicate the sense of enormous scale.” Burtynsky takes great pleasure in doing this, hiding the clues:

You should have to dig in with your eyes to work out what’s going on.

Salt Pans 18 Little Rann of Kutch Gujarat India 2016 c Edward Burtynsky Courtesy of Flowers Gallery London Nicholas Metivier Gallery Toronto

Artist: Edward Burtynsky

Others, like the one above, are slightly more subtle in tone – like a water colour painting, the pans themselves resembling watercolour palettes. The other leading lines, the ghostly outlines, have been produced by pans which have been allowed to go fallow or by the dust trails left by the trucks going endlessly to and fro.

During the evening I managed to meet the man himself, shake his hand, crack a joke or two and got him to sign my book, another ;oD – I treated myself to Essential Elements which also contains some previously unpublished images-  he was really approachable and friendly but as it wasn’t a “talk” it was difficult to commandeer his attention for a long period of time. Some people managed to ask some photography based questions and I tried to eavesdrop, but a lot of it was very technical and about how he avoided camera shake when hanging out of a circling plane… We did discover what he is currently working on though – a five year project on the anthropocene (I had to look it up – the pending name for the present geological age in which humans have had a discernible impact on the environment) A friend of mine, who also came along, took several photos of the evening – I will have to see if I can purloin a few.

Having only a quick flick through the book I find myself in agreement with Oliver Wainwright, who wrote the Guardian review, that it is “like touring the landscapes of late capitalism, tracing the supply chains of our consumer culture back to both ends – where the stuff came from and where it ends up”  with “…shiny motorbikes [is] paired with a heap of tyres, an iron-ore mine with a ship-breaking yard.”

Four years have passed since I last saw his prints up close and whilst Salt Pans doesn’t seem to have the immediate visual impact of some of his bodies of work, with the subtle colour palette and subject matter, after several viewings and more in-depth knowledge I find it is growing on me more and more. These days art critics seem to be less focused on his ability to turn such dystopian subjects into  things of beauty and acknowledge more and more his potential to raise public awareness to the dreadful impact we are having on the planet, although he would rather be seen as a mediator than an environmentalist campaigner.

As Burtynsky admits, his images would be equally at home on a Greenpeace poster or the cover of an oil company’s annual report. “The work asks more questions than it answers,” he says. “Which is what artists are there to do.”

So what have I learnt from this exhibition of new and old work and finally meeting him?

That I liked the person he presented to the public, he didn’t hide behind a table but wandered the room freely giving his time and attention to whomever approached him. He was more than willing to sign books, DVD’s postcards etc etc. He didn’t look 61!

On a more photographic note I learnt: you can still capture images within the same topic yet alter your creativity and sustain your photographic practice. Burtynsky has embraced new technologies such as Google Earth, selfie sticks and drones to assist with taking images.

Don’t let yourself be limited in your research, look at other disciplines for inspiration for example painters and writers.

Images are more successful if the message isn’t totally obvious and the viewer has to work slightly.

Captions and explanations aren’t always necessary but a little background information is helpful.

Use a team if you have one! I have found bouncing ideas off my colleagues within the art department really helpful this week. They are also nagging me to make sure I am still doing… note… art dept have just acquired a drone…hmmmmm

More will probably come to me after I hit ‘publish’ but then I shall just add it to the list.


Gallery, F. (2016) Edward Burtynsky – salt pans | essential elements – exhibitions. Available at: (Accessed: 21 October 2016).

INFO (no date) EDWARD BURTYNSKY. Available at: (Accessed: 21 October 2016).

Wainwright, O. (2016) Edward Burtynsky on his ravaged earth shots: ’We‘ve reached peak everything’. Available at: (Accessed: 21 October 2016).

written and Harding, C. (2016) The negative sublime of Edward Burtynsky’s corrupted landscapes. Available at: (Accessed: 21 October 2016).

Defining Documentary – Richard Billingham

And so it begins, first few blog posts done and reading the initial few pages there is some new terminology and new names to research. A few familiar faces to make me feel both relieved and dread as I remember picking up Camera Lucida and sitting with a thesaurus in the other hand….still onwards and upwards…

Despite not starting the coursework as promptly as I should I have kept in touch with exhibitions, publications and talks and will get around to writing them up and adding them to the research category. Newer name for me to look at is Robbie Cooper; I was introduced to the photo-book Rays a Laugh by Richard Billingham a few years back and found it really interesting on many levels; they were intimate personal photographs of his closest family members, there was no censorship, there was no posing, the images portray what was there, he had a no holds barred approach. What I later found out was that these were never taken with intent to publish as photographs. Billingham had always wanted to be a painter and the random snaps were intended to be reference only for his paintings. Who knows how he would have translated these on canvas? Would he have softened the impact of the flying cat and dishevelled parents, used artistic licence to add a more “palacial” backdrop or would his paintings have been as brutally honest?

I did find this super YouTube video showing the book  in all its glory.

What I like about this book is that it shows the strength of the images, you need no captions to feel the undercurrent of emotions and their circumstances, that the sequence of images reveal occasional tension, but obvious affection between people and animals. The interspersed shots of birds indicate to me that there was more to life than the claustrophobic flat.

At first I did wonder, like many, if Billingham was exploiting his family, taking advantage of being the insider to achieve such intimate shots, but then I stopped and considered the photographs I have taken over the years and realise that the drunken friends, naked children, harmless stumbles are all taken with affection and with no malicious intent and, if not taken with express permission at the time, are regarded as “fair game” within ordinary life. Permission was obviously given after for them to be used in this fashion and I found it quite refreshing that once done:

He no longer takes their pictures. To continue now that they have become objects of curiosity would, he said, indeed be exploitation.


Angus Crombie (2012) Richard Billingham ray’s a laugh. Available at: (Accessed: 11 October 2016).
In-line Citation:
(Angus Crombie, 2012)

Chesshyre, R. (2001) Meet the parents. Available at: (Accessed: 11 October 2016).
In-line Citation:
(Chesshyre, 2001)