Reading & Research: Reading Photographs, An Introduction to the Theory and Meaning of Images by Richard Salkeld

My tutor had recommended this book to me during our tutorial about the work I’d done for Assignment 4, mainly because of the discussion it contains on semiotics. It’s part of the ‘Basics – Creative Photography’ series of books, some of which I already have so I was happy to buy it as I’ve found the rest of the series helpful with clear text and well designed layouts.  The chapter headings are

1. What is a photograph? Mainly talks about the origins of photography.

2. Reading the signs. “..the key principles and vocabulary of semiotics together with its practical application to photographs.”

3. Truth and Lies. “..the relationship of a photographic representation to the world it represents and, in particular, consider to what degree a photograph might be said to ‘reflect’ or ‘produce’ reality.”

4. Identity. “individual identity as represented in photographs. What is identity and where is it to be found? What is the relationship of (our) appearance to who we really are?””

5. Big Brother is watching you. “The proprieties and limits, the dangers, threats and thrills of looking, watching and being watched”.

6. Aesthetics. “debates about photography as art.”

My tutor obviously knows his stuff as this felt like right book, right time for me. In some areas I’d have liked a little more depth – it really is just an introduction to these ideas, but I will follow up with researching some of the work identified in the bibliography. I’d rather have a clear grasp of the basics; coming from a science / maths background rather than an arts one I find that I’m sometimes missing concepts that are assumed in other photographic texts. (Jumping straight into Barthes was a nightmare).

I find in a lot of the books from this series that the first chapter feels in some way so simple that I am often tempted to skip it, but What is a photograph? was helpful in terms of giving me ideas for techniques I’d like to try – I’m enthusiastic about non-digital techniques and trying new approaches.

My notes on semiotics so far – well, I had seen the concept before in another book from the same series, ‘Context and Narrative’. So the core idea is familiar enough. I’d not broken it down into arbitrary, iconic and indexical signs and I hadn’t thought much about denotation and connotation so thinking about the idea the text presents of denoting a fragrance – that you can’t do that, so you use other visual elements from certain colours and words to faces and bodies that connote glamour etc which is then associated with the product – was a helpful discussion.  I was particularly interested in the discussion of words with text as I’ve seen ideas about photographs needing to speak entirely for themselves but have experienced looking at an image and not understanding it unless it is related to text – be that a title or an actual explanation. I was using text in assignment 4 and I had real difficulty working out how to use it – a problem I still haven’t really solved.



Published by Sarah Cassin Scott


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