Graham Clarke: How do we read a photograph? From ‘The Photograph’ 1997
Clarke wrote that when we view a photograph 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’ and that the ‘photograph achieves meaning through what has been called a ‘photographic discourse [which] involves its own conventions and histories.’
He also reminds us that ‘in any image, however, the primary frame of reference remains the subject of the photograph’ even if this can cause problems. Clarke then discusses Roland Barthes’ distinctions between ‘the relative meaning of different elements within the photographic frame, distinguishing between what has been termed the denotative and the connotative.’
The meaning of these semiotic terms are:
denotative -the literal meaning and significance of any element in the image i.e. a gesture, expression, or an object. What we look at: a smile, a table, a street, a person – what an image SHOWS us.
connotative – the aspects of the elements of the scene -‘the imposition of second meaning on the photographic message proper’ … ‘its signs are gestures, attitudes, expressions, colours, and effects endowed with certain meanings by virtue of the practice of a certain society’. Or to put it another way visual clues or ‘codes’ that underline and reflect ‘signification within the culture.’- what an image TELLS us.
When reflecting on the work of Lewis Hine Clarke states that his images ‘suggest a whole series of complicating levels and meanings’ and not only do we see things that are actually there but we infer meaning from these ‘structures and terms of reference.’ So documentary photographs both show and tell us something.
To look at and analyse a photograph by Martin Shields, make a list of the denotations and connotations. Then compare my findings with those of other students.
Denotations – what I can see
- The image was taken so that the tenement buildings stretch into the distance.
- Knowing people from Glasgow and having visited them, this looks typical Glaswegian council housing stock that has fallen into disrepair.
- There is only one lamp-post.
- The pavements and open spaces/possibly once grassy areas also look as if they have seen better days.
- Two young boys, in the foreground, walk away from the camera arms around each others shoulders. They are in the centre of the frame.
- They are facing towards each other conversing.
- The boys are wearing clean, rival football kits, (no coats) possibly Celtic and Rangers, who have a fierce rivalry. They both carry a ball each.
- One boy has a number 10 on his shirt.
- Hard to tell due to the quality of the image, but the skies look typical, grey and overcast as there are no deep contrasts or shadows.
Connotations – what I can infer
- This is a poorer working class area and the two boys are from working class backgrounds.
- Despite the obvious rivalry of the teams they support they are good friends, suggesting a close-knit community or stronger bond beyond friendship.
- The cleanliness of the kit implies they are just setting out to play.
- The separate footballs could imply they are going to play in different games and that there is some form of divide between them.
- The number 10 could be his age.
- No coats suggest a warm summer’s day.
- The lack of lighting could suggest danger at night.
- The fact they are in the centre of the frame suggests that they are important – children signify hope for the future?
- The cloudy sky could suggest problems lie ahead – maybe the houses are to be torn down and the boys will lose their friendship if re-housed?
What other students thought…
Denotation – the photo shows us:
Two young friends from rival football teams
Walking through a rundown area
Possibly on their way back from playing a match
They are in the very front of the image’s depth, with the path ahead stretching out in front of them
Connotation – the photo tells us:
That there are prospects for peace in a place divided by sectarian tension [my guess was Glasgow from the striped kit]
That the journey to peace starts with this generation
That the path ahead might be long and difficult
* Two young boys, about 11 years old
* Friends, comrades, both on their way to play football (they are still very clean)
* Walking through a poor, dilapidated area, I assume that they live here themselves, but the image doesn’t make that clear
* The flats are empty and deserted, in decay.The boys are walking on the grass, next to a road.
* It’s a cloudy summer day.
* Even though you live in poverty, sports bring people together and build friendships
* Together you are much stronger than alone
* Together you can face decay and be able to put your mind on other things
* Every child has the right and need to play, this is universal and makes the viewer connect with the boys, even if they are from a different socio-economical background
Two boys with footballs.
Smiling with friendship, this can be seen in their raised cheek bones.
Rough waste ground.
Boarded up derelict houses in the background.
The boys have a football each, and support different teams, one stripes one a solid colour, this cannot be identified fully due to the black and white.
The image looks like it is set in a run down area of Glasgow.
The boys would appear to be a Celtic and a Rangers fans, this is muted and not as obvious as it would be in colour.
The boys may have gone out alone as they are both carrying footballs but are going away as friends.
Strong sectarian divide between the two football teams, Catholic and Protestant united by the younger generation.
The road running along the edge of the frame in their direction of travel could denote that they have a long way to go yet, the road is long and never-ending.
The rough ground they are on cold tell us that it is a long and bumpy path they have to travel.
Their friendship and happiness, their willingness to unite could be their way out of the area they live.
They are walking away from us as though to say we have a bond and a friendship
They are both of about the same age: -/+ 10 yrs old.
They are wearing different clean outfits – may be from opposing teams?
They are on their way to a football match – they are too clean for coming from a match.
They both carry a football but they are different.
They are walking on rough ground.
There are no trees or live plants visible.
There is 1 street lamp.
They are walking behind what may be blocks of social housing.
The low wall they are walking next to is not new & is crumbling away.
Some of the windows in the blocks of flats look boarded up.
The photo was taken early this century.
The photo is in B&W.
If the photo is posed:
The children are not from the council houses.
They look happy & there is no threat of violence.
They are well-fed and well looked after & probably come from a loving environment.
They are probably chatting about who will score more goals & what they will eat afterwards.
There is a terrific bond between them.
There is a dissonance between the surroundings & the boys’ outfits & demeanour.
There will be a happy ending.
The B&W nature of the photo suggests that the message it illustrates is to be taken seriously – as it appears in a newspaper but this is at odds with the boys’ friendship which is central to the photo.
The football removes the boys from any but the working class/lower middle class environment – or a staged environment.
If the photo is not posed:
The photographer treats the boys with respect.
These boys are survivors – they will stick together & make the most of life.
Their future is rosy although the overcast skies tell me otherwise.
The very straight, concrete lines of the walls & the layout of the blocks of flats connote that their lives have been set & they will not cross them, they will remain in their working class environment. This is at odds with the second connotation in this set.
The B&W & grainy nature of the image removes any creativity/joy & puts the content in the serious/difficult category of social reporting.
Wider social & cultural questions are implied in the football & denote a link with the social housing aspect of the council flats.
The boys are surrounded by social/economic/material deprivation.
The rough area they are walking on is likely to trip them up figuratively.
The contradictions in the image tell me that the photo was either staged for the newspaper article or that the children have been photoshopped in. It could also mean that my cultural compass is faulty!
On reviewing the comments made by other students there were some similarities and some differences. On the whole the similarities picked out the main points: the children being the central point of focus, the probable age of the children, the deprivation of the area, different football kits, friendship, possible divide/ problems ahead. Some considered that the image could have been staged; that did not cross my mind. In some instances there were some differences: I had not considered the analogy of sport bringing people together nor the child’s right to play. Nor did I consider that they were well fed and that their kits were in good condition. Despite a few variations this suggested we all have a very similar cultural upbringing and therefore arrived at similar interpretations.
I then needed to read the original newspaper article and consider if the text related to my initial deconstruction and if it changed my perception of the image.
The main article was concerning the fact Glasgow tenants had voted to sell off council housing, or rather allow a housing association to take control, refurbish ‘crumbling’ homes and build many new homes. From the tone of the story it would imply that tenants would not be being forced to move as it states that ‘existing tenants’ would not face a rent increase and could look forward to the ‘good-construction industry.’ Some people were for this move, believing in investment and speeding up regeneration, whilst the others against thought it would lead to higher rents and the end of social housing.
Has the text changed my deconstruction? Yes and no. I picked up on the poor housing in the background, and the area probably being in Glasgow – well-known for its deprived slum areas – but I thought the children were going to be the main subject. I read into the opposing shirts as a rivalry between children/their parents and that they represented a brighter future. This was a more literal reading of the photograph/story being about them. However, the article gives the image a more abstract interpretation; regenerating the area for the benefit of all, including the younger generation with the opposing views being adults from the political divide.
The caption under the image emphasises the human element that currently the boys have to play in a rundown area and deserve better.
Clarke wrote that using the subject as the primary frame of reference could be problematic and Barthes stated ‘the structure of a photograph is not an isolated structure; it is in communication with at least one other structure, namely the text – title, caption or article – accompanying every press photograph… These two structures are cooperative but, since their units are heterogeneous, necessarily remain separate from one another.’
Which goes to prove that sometimes the symbolism is more conceptual that we imagine and that more often than not we needs words to help us truly read an image.
Barthes photo message (no date) Available at: http://macaulay.cuny.edu/eportfolios/lklichfall13/files/2013/09/Barthes-Photo-Message.pdf (Accessed: 23 December 2016).
Clarke, G. (1997) The photograph: A visual and cultural history. New York: Oxford University Press. (Clarke, 1997, pp. 27–31)
Graham Clarke (no date) Available at: http://www.photopedagogy.com/graham-clarke.html (Accessed: 23 December 2016).
(No Date) Available at: https://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/oca-content/key-resources/res-files/footballboys.pdf (Accessed: 23 December 2016).
Shields, M. (no date) Two Young Footballers [Photograph]. Available at: https://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/oca-content/course-pdfs/ph2_documentary_260313.pdf (Accessed: 23 December 2016).