Category Archives: Notes from books

Geoffrey Batchen – Forget Me Not

Geoffrey Batchen  in Forget Me Not: Photography and Remembrance (Batchen, 2006) discusses both why people might take portrait photography and some of its uses.  Here is a brief summary with some added thoughts.

  • Many early pictures were taken of people looking at other pictures or equally looking at photo albums again. Why was this? Was it so that you could acknowledge the memories of someone who is deceased? Or is it so that you can acknowledge ‘I am (alive)’?
    • This reminded me of the Masahisa Fukase work of portraits of his family where after the death of his father he included a photograph of him in the place he would normally sit.
  • Being pictured with a portrait of somebody who is dead or absent turns the portrait taking into an act of remembrance
  • Is a photograph actually a good way of remembering things? It is certainly nostalgic but not the same as real memory as you do not see the way they moved, the way they spoke, or the way they felt.
  • Barthes certainly did not think photographs were (as good as memory) because you lost the sensation related to memory
  • Kracauer thought that photography captured too much information (!) and was too coherent and too linear unlike malleable internal memory (see essay in the Mass Ornament) (Kracauer, 1995)
  • Early pictures could be complicated by being covered in layers of paint which again took away from the reality of the person and possibly surrounded by elaborate borders.
    • This is still done in the elaborate scrapbooks that are made today – many with images of children and pets.
  • Sometimes portraits were gathered together in patterns surrounded by elaborate borders made of paper or ribbons (or even made into a cushion) to make photographic keepsakes
  • This causes a form of collective identity – they could be family snapshots or cultural groupings
    • Think of the Adamson and Hill pictures that led to a painting of the Moderators of the Church of Scotland
  • Any photograph that has additional work done on it such as painting or embroidery also has a tactile element to it. This add to the actual feeling from a printed photograph.
  • The way photographs are made at least in the pre-digital world could be considered as a chemical fingerprint in itself.
  • Photographs were also made into wearable items such as lockets and broaches and even rings (although they would be very small in this case).
  • Many of these were family objects exchanged in marriage as well used as mourning items. Others were made into artifacts such as boxes that could contain important items – this turns what is effectively a flat object into three-dimensional object and increases the personalization of it.
  • Pictures could be further personalized by adding signatures or other writing. These pictures can be used as a remembrance object. They can also be added to albums and passed around members of the family in an album. In an album of photographs are sequenced and can in fact be moved around within the sequence.
  • The photograph might be made into a more three-dimensional object including things like fancy frames, carved items, and even bronze baby boots!
  • Hair was also used, both loose and plaited, to act as a memorial/reminder of a person. This was sometimes given us a love gift, sometimes used as a morning aid. The hair stands in for the body of the absent person (therefore the indexical nature of the image becomes doubled. It may become a fetish object or a talisman.
  • Were the complex and complicated memorial items such as photographs surrounded by wax wreath made to help you remember because you were afraid of forgetting? Making these items was often done by a member of family and would have been very painstaking – a labour of respect and possibly made to allow the grieving process to take its time. The objects can be very complex and the sheer materiality of them is important.

Back to the question of does photography enhance memory or rather replace it? The more that is added to the picture the more physical it becomes and the more the senses are involved.  A photographic image that can be multiplied with endless copies – but altering it make it become more unique. They are shown in the space between the public and the private.  They become a memory object in themselves. The photograph is a desire not to be forgotten, both the person in the picture and the owner/viewer – ourselves.


Batchen, G. (2006) Forget me not: photography & remembrance. New York; London: Princeton Architectural; Hi Marketing.

Kracauer, S. (1995) The mass ornament: Weimar essays. Translated by Levin, T.Y. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Context and Narrative – Maria Short

Context and Narrative by Maria Short looks at how  the planned purpose of an image can alter how you take it and how your visual language needs to vary depending on the circumstance.

The photograph:

  • How you show the ‘truth’ depends on the intended purpose of the image
  • A photo can go beyond a simple recording and take on a different personal meaning
  • Need to consider the context, social commentary, photojournalism, the personal experiences of the photographer
  • What is the ’truth’ in a constructed image? Can it be ‘deeper’?
  • You need to be both engaged with the subject and detached to allow for objectivity
  • Need to read the brief carefully and plan what you are doing if there is limited time
  • For a self-directed brief it may take of in unexpected directions
  • The context within which the photo will be seen is crucial, remember the culture may be different
  • Consider how the images relate to each other
  • There may be a need to make repeated visits to a place to learn the nuances before even starting to take pictures


  • Need to be passionate about something and committed
  • What do you want to show? Why does it need saying? Why a photo?
  • Need for as full as possible understanding of your subject – leads to insight
  • What camera format will work best? How do you avoid being over intrusive?
  • Need for both humanity and vision, shows the things that are inevitably absent (smell, noise, quietness)
  • Look to create empathy – see Stuart Griffiths – Homeless Ex-Service


  • The photographer should seek an audience which will accept his vision (Brodovitch) – How?
  • Think about what the image is intended to show, how you want the viewer to feel
  • Need for truthful communication – authenticity
  • Be aware of the attitude of potential viewers, and their understanding of the subject
  • Context and how do you tell it?
  • Shape, size and ordering of images inform a series
  • The photo is a subjective impression of what the photographer sees – not someone else’s vision


  • A beginning, a middle and an end – sometimes
  • Can be linear – but does not have to be
  • Is it a typology? A photo essay? Or what
  • Is the sequence crucial – or could the images work as standalone frames?
  • Look for coherence – visual continuity with lighting and tonal range, consider the format
  • Is the story sequential – or several snippets that link together?
  • Do you have control of the order the images are seen in?
  • Do all the images need to be the same size? What about pairs, or triptychs?
  • Need to be clear about the intention for the project
  • A single image can also be a narrative – it might be taken as a ‘one-off’ or actually originally have been part of a series
  • The more the photographer is absorbed in the moment (and the more they understand the process) the more likely an image is to tell a story – the unconscious takes over
  • Kim Sweet – the average subject, need to experiment and explore the idea

Signs and Symbols:

  • Saussure – sign is a signifier (form) and the signified (concept it represents)
  • Pierce – representamen (form) + interpretant (sense made of it) + an object to which the sign reference
  • Barthes – studium + punctum
  • Signs can trigger memories, can explain an image
  • Symbol represents something, an icon resembles it
  • Indexicality – a photo is a trace (therefore notions of truth)
  • Signs and symbols included in images need to be considered – may or may not be planned
  • They will influence how a viewer reads the image
  • What you understand from your own image is crucial – if you don’t understand it how can others
  • Signs and symbols can control the pace of a narrative


  • Might be a simple informative caption, or might be an essay, or a book! Think what is needed
  • Think about context of viewing
  • Draw on literature as part of the research either using as quotes or getting ideas
  • Use as a multidimensional addition to work
  • Does the image need the text to make sense?
  • What about the use of text within the images, as part of the photo?
  • Use of handwriting (very different from print)
  • Use of a diary format


Short, M. (2018). Context and Narrative. London; New York: Bloomsbury Visual Arts.

Marianne Hirsch – Family Frames

I read the book Family Frames, photography, narrative and postmemory while inside during a period of ‘social isolation’. I admit that I might not otherwise have managed to finish it in one sitting (albite over several days) because of its complexity.  The book is a combination of an autobiography, a discussion of others work; written, photographic and cinematic and a description of how Hirsh sees both photography and writing as a way to describe memories of yourself, postmemories (of the past), and ways of making portraits (allo-portraits) by combining all of these together. It is interlaced with feminist and sociological theories and also other people’s thoughts on photography (specifically Barthes). Much of the book is based on ways of imagining the Holocaust and its description in photography and writing. It ended by raising more questions in my mind than it resolved – but maybe all books should do this.

While I was reading this, I walked around our local park and looked at the memorial benches in the formal garden. They all have a simple plaque, with a name, a date and sometimes a few additional words. I knew none of the people commemorated – but they still brought back memories of my own. These are family memories in themselves.

Some notes from this (very complex) book and added thoughts in italics.

Family frames:

  • Talks about Barthes and the picture of his mother that he refused to show. Gazes circulate. The mother becomes the child. The punctum is private. Text and image together tell a story. The photo is linked by an umbilical cord to the viewer. The referent (the thing that was photographed) is/was present and now absent. ‘Photographs, as the only material traces of an irrecoverable past, derive their power and their important cultural role from their embeddedness in the fundamental rites of family life’ (p.5). The photograph is evidence. It shows time.
  • Eastman production of Kodak was aimed at everyone – the means to tell a family story. It tells the family myth, a collaboration between photographer and the viewer. The photograph often shows what we wish – not was actually was.
  • Looking within a family is mutual – self and other, subject and object. How do we describe this? But what about the external gaze? Each culture has an ideal – and the images are read though that.
  • ‘Family photography can operate at this junction between personal memory and social history, between public myth and personal unconscious’ (Holland and Spence, 1991).

Mourning and post memory:

  • Pictures can become emblems, especially if disseminated widely (both for the family, and wider world)
  • Photographs represent both life and death; note Sontag quote ‘Photographs state the innocence, the vulnerability of lives heading towards their own destruction and this link between photography and death haunts all photos of people’ (Sontag, 1978) v. Barthes connection to life (umbilical cord)
  • Pictures can show horror (holocaust, but also any major trauma) – context helps. The horror is in the imagination of what happened and also the ‘might-have-been’. Family images do not always make for painless reading. I have a selection of images from my mother’s time in Germany in WWII having a great time with the army – her memories were of fun – but not linked to anything else occurring then.
  • Postmemory – the memory of a child of something that happened before they were born, mediated by stories from the past, especially traumatic ones. Memory itself is ‘a double-coded system of mental storage and retrieval’ quoted from W.T.J. Mitchell (p.22)
  • Photographs as leftovers, fragments, building blocks!
  • Does an image anesthetize horror – and therefore make it less (especially in the context of the amount of truly horrific ‘fantasy’ films and novels circulating at present). Are people desensitised by this as much as by repeated looking?
  • Photos can keep memory alive – but a shrine – any picture will be altered by other memories, altered by words (especially if modulated via someone else’s memory). The photo as a memento mori. The living may compete with the photo (and can never win). A photo can stand in for anyone (especially if indistinct).

Reframing the human family romance:

  • Family images act to consolidate the group – it may include ‘guests’ but they still remain ‘other’. There will be a familial gaze. Much photography has a function o support the family group. Photos are taken of the ’best bits’.
  • Photography came to show the idea of a global human family – the Family of Man, a ‘universal brotherhood’. A post-war attempt to show human universality.
  • The freezing of the image acts to perpetuate a myth of the family as stable and universal (very much a Western view) – a nuclear family. A romance. An ideal.
  • The family is constituted by ‘familial’ looks, the family album makes the relationship (or the shoe box of pictures) – the idea of a back and forward gaze – ‘the mirror sees you’. But how does that work in the context of an exhibition? Steichen’s idea of producing a sense that ‘everybody is the same’ depended on the photo’s being of individuals, seemingly private rather than public, a fantasy of love (although all white and heterosexual).
  • How does the fantasy of love fit against the images of war? How do the different races show similarity? Or does it actually point out the differences (and the American/European feeling of superiority)? ‘They can become like us, but we don’t have to become like them’ (p.58). Why are most of the photographers American or European even when the subject was not?
  • Paula Rabinowitz – “the story that seeks to ‘know’ though what it can ‘see’ of the other finds, not the other, but itself” (Rabinowitz, 1992) very relevant to identity and looking at images of other people
  • There is not a simple/single notion of a human family (true when she wrote this in the ‘90’s, even more so today in the 2020’s)
  • How are images different if they are taken by the person themselves rather than an outsider? What would they choose to show? (How much can you immerse yourself in another culture?). What does someone of another culture say about you?

Masking the Subject:

  • What do photos of relations taken many years ago tell you? How do they link with the people you know? What do they tell you about yourself and your relationship to them? Do they become autobiographical? How is it affected by history – both world history and family stories?
  • The familial look defines a boundary, an idea. The inclusion of people within your story is due to your interpretation, and only yours.
  • Family pictures can be self portraits, self portraits include the other
  • As we pose we assume masks, as we read the image we project masks (ideological frames) onto the image (are they the same?). Whose face are we photographing?
  • Lacoue-Labarthe’s idea of the ‘allo-portrait’, subject exists in time as “other”, as a mirror (Lacan’s theory), as a construction of the self, externally recognised, and as a previous self that was taken at a specific moment in time.
  • Do relationships construct the universal artist with ‘the power to express universal feelings’?
  • Different theoretical frameworks allow different understandings of images (all could be correct, or at least, equally valid)
  • What happens when you actually wear a mask? (Lucybelle Crater), becomes surreal, comic – but does the relationship stay? The images were taken in the lead up to death – and have become allo-portraits, self-images.
  • We all function as both subjects and objects in a ‘complex visual field not entirely determined by the gaze, but also the product of a series of more individual , local and contingent looks, which are mutually constitutive, reversible and reciprocal’ (p. 102).
  • Reading is affected by race, gender, class, historical moment, age, nationality etc
  • Lacan – looking and being looked at are identical processes
  • Images can be used to question, looked at alongside others, talked to, tell stories – they are not the truth always
  • Sherman’s images do not show a familial look – why not? And does it remain a human subject?

Unconscious optics:

  • Why do we put up family images? What do they mean? what do they tell us? Are we more likely to put us family pictures or other objects that are linked with earlier stages of our lives?
  • Optical processes that are invisible to the eye can be seen by the camera. It can expose hidden dimensions of actions, tension in photographs between flatness and illusion of depth, between what it des reveal and what it does not
  • Family pictures can be read differently by different family members and also over time (re novel Family Pictures)
  • Family memory is both shared and vulnerable, exposed in photos. ‘The mystery of the family’.
  • Jo Spence’s work on constructing and reconstructing images and phototherapy (need to read more of her work first hand) – her project is ‘begin to re-imag(in)e who we are’, talks about absence of photos that show much of her life. Using family photos in therapy – giving permission to make the stories work in our interest, also taking images that can allow memory to become conscious
  • Images of illness, images of sexuality – allowing them, making them real.
  • Carrie May Weems – reversing the traditional gaze of white people looking at black as poor etc, concentrates on the unseen, absence as well as presence
  • The camera can be a space for both reflection and self-reflection – you look at yourself
  • Can use a mixture of text and images to tell the story, one fills the gaps in the other, may have an incongruity – but that adds another layer

Maternal exposures:

  • Mann’s images of her children – controversial/beautiful/eerie/disturbing – loving images by a mother of her own children. How does the ‘position of power’ affect the maternal role?
  • What are the social pressures on mothers who want to be artists? And how does this affect the family dynamics and the type of photos taken?
  • Are the images of children ‘allo-portraits’ of the mother rather than representations of childhood?
  • How does it impact on the child to see themselves reflected in the lens of the camera rather than in the mother’s eyes? What are the implications for their relationship? Is the mother taking pictures to recreate her own childhood?
  • How much control does the child have? Every picture of a child is, too some extent, a picture of the mother. How vulnerable is the mother?
  • Where does the father fit into this (CarlVision), or the foetal image?
  • What happens when there are no family pictures? does it stop you understanding your history?

Resisting Images:

  • Family images/albums show the past – but does that make us happier?
  • Images and stories can be manipulated to reveal alternative stories, reinventions of the events and the social roles
  • Can you erase parts of the images, tell a part story, join them together again? A different start, a tabula rasa
  • Not all memories have photos, could have been taken but wasn’t! Can you (should you) construct an image to match them, words? Images? Collage?
  • Mutilating images may reveal an underlying anger, a rage (rage, rage against the dying of the light)
  • Cutting up images lets you out of the family frame (see Novak for examples)
  • A ‘maker and reader of images…. can make a space for see[ing] differently…. she can also reveal, through splits and contradictions, through incomplete suturing, the complicated and painful process of identity’ (p.215)

Pictures of a displaced girlhood:

  • Translation from child to adolescence can (usually is) be traumatic
  • Pictures can mediate the changes
  • Autobiographical reading can act as a pre-text, an ‘allo-portrait’, with shared resemblances
  • Do all people who have had a form of displacement end up ‘on the border’? In a shifting space.

Past lives:

  • How do past lives in the family, our experiences of their history affect our views of the world? Their stories (if they tell them) occupy a place in our childhood (and if they don’t, there is a gap) . Is there a sense of exile?
  • What about mourning, grief, rage, parental trauma, ‘absent memory’?
  • Are the actually too many stories? Leaving those who come after to wander, disenfranchised (from Nadine Fresco, p.245)
  • Memorial book as acts of witness, public mourning
  • If you alter an image does it still maintain its indexical nature? Or does the changes of reference take it away (thinking about Boltanski’s work on the holocaust and aftereffects)

References and suggested reading:

Barthes, R. (1988) Camera lucida : reflections on photography. New York: The Noonday Press.

Hirsch, M. (1997) Family Frames, photography, narrative and postmemory. London: Harvard College.

Holland, P. and Spence, J. (1991) Family snaps : the meanings of domestic photography. London: Virago.

Kelsey, R. et al. (2019) Vision & Justice: Around the Kitchen Table – Aperture Foundation. At:

Norval, E. (2018) Ralph Eugene Meatyard – Anything But Normal. At: (Accessed on 20 March 2020)

Novak, L. (2020) Lorie Novak. At: (Accessed on 20 March 2020)

Rabinowitz, P. (1992) ‘Voyeurism and Class Consciousness: James Agee and Walker Evans, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men”’ In: Cultural Critique (21) p.143.

Sontag, S. (1978) On Photography. London: Allen Lane.

Spence, J. (1988) Putting myself in the picture : a political, personal, and photographic autobiography. Seattle, Washington: Real Comet Press.

Spence, J. and Dennet, T. (2005) Jo Spence : beyond the perfect image. Photography, subjectivity, antagonism. Barcelona: Museu D’art Contemporani De Barcelona.


Annette Kuhn – Family secrets

Family secrets by Annette Kuhn is partly an autobiography and partly an extended essay on memory and how memory supports out understanding of both our own lives and the historical context that we live in.   Kuhn describes it as a book that has sprung from the genre of ‘revisionist autobiography’ (p.147) and points out that any autobiography is ‘inevitably the outcome of a considerable reworking of the raw materials of an identity and a life story’ (p.149).

I found this book in parts fascinating, in parts heart- breaking and partly terrifying. The later was because it managed to bring back so many memories of my own past. I was born only a few years later than Kuhn and brought up in an upper working-class family (my father owned a butcher’s shop). Unlike Kuhn’s, my mother was very pushy and was desperate for me to go to university. In retrospect I think this was because she had missed out the opportunity of doing so because of the war. My mother was German, living in the USA, and repatriated to Germany during the war and, I think, resented the missed opportunities. My father died when I was young, my mother worked hard to keep the family running, and eventually married my stepfather, who, by coincidence, was a professional photographer.

Mother and me at similar ages!

I took multiple notes, and these led on to other thoughts, and I will attempt to summarise them:

  • ‘Telling stories about the past, our past, is a key moment in the making of ourselves’ (p.2) – but how much do we tell, how much do we hide, and how much do we really remember? All families have secrets, and many are similar to those in other families – mine as much as Kuhn’s.
  • The past is gone forever’ (p.4) – what traces remain. Looking for them in your memory is like archeology, making a story from small fragments. Different readings of the fragments may lead to a different story.
  • The past is not single – the historical context informs your memory, as much as it informs what actually happened. WWII had a major impact on my past. Much of it was hidden as my mother was concerned about the stigma of being German. Much we only learnt from her in the very last months of her life.
  • Memory work can start from a single piece of information, a single photo found at the bottom of a box, or a hidden letter. This evokes emotions, uses the intellect and may become part of the truth – at least your truth. A photograph can be interpreted, it gives information about the person, the place, who took the image, who was missed out and why it was taken. The clothes talk about the social aspects. The event may be recalled – although, if many years ago, one may question the accuracy. If the image has been looked at and discussed many times, each time the story might have changed. There is no single, final story.
  • Family albums tell a more complex story, partly mediated by the order the images are shown in. My album is random – the pictures are not in any historical order – just the one I acquired them in. I also have boxes (multiple) of unsorted and unlabelled photos – the order I sort them into may change the story. Which ones get priority? And why? Looking at these images is like looking at a box of jigsaw pieces, without the picture!
  • This past-in-the-future, nostalgia-in-prospect’ (p.23) – makes you want to produce a ‘good’ story of the ‘ideal family’ – even if it isn’t quite right. Is the truth what you remember or what actually happened? Or what makes you feel good about the time?
  • How does culture effect what you take from images? What about the films you have watched as a child? How do you reconcile what you felt then with what you see when analysing them as an adult? What about the books you have read? Your reaction as a child may have been (probably was) mainly emotional – does this have validity in a critical response to a film or book as an adult concerned with theory? Will it make for a wider understanding – or does it cloud the issue?
  • Any given photo will hold multiple meanings, for different people, at different times and in different social contexts. It may be specific to a family – but also generic to the culture – the hyper-cute baby photo, smiling up at you, it’s your baby, it’s you as a child, it’s the picture that advertises the photographer’s studio, its something to embarrass your son with to his girlfriend. It’s a memory of a time that will never be repeated.
  • Are the main images in your library just of the child, just of the adults or groups? And why? What does this say about family relationships? I have very few of me with my parents but several of mum with her family. Why? Was I not there? Were photos saved for the ‘special occasions’ – family visiting from abroad. A very different situation from the multiple images taken nowadays – but will they still be around in 50 years from now?
  • Photos were often taken in best clothes, dressed-up, in uniform – to show pride? A credit to the mother ‘an end in itself’ (p.62). Or in a cute setting, an important place – “look where we have been”. Does the clothing and the dressing-up tell more about the dresser (usually the mother) then the person? What does it say about the family relationships?
  • Photos may be taken to mark a special occasion – the image then brings back memories of the occasion – not just the photo, both the local – we were in the pub, Aunty Mary’s house, the garden, – with Sam, Jane, that odd person from down the street – when the Queen was married, the Two Towers blown up or England won the World Cup. Moving from the specific and local to the actual event. Especially relevant when marking global celebrations.
  • The image tells about the relationship between the photographer, the person photographed and the person the image is for. Why does the child look uncomfortable? What was the parent expecting by dressing them like that? How subtle is the rebellion?
  • Popular memory of shared events – can be provoked by images of the time, celebrations, national and local. People’s memory of a major event is often surprising similar – but may focus on the specific – where they were at the time before the actual event is brought into focus.
  • Changing places, homes, schools, countries has an effect on not only where you are but who you are and how you interact with others. it’s a way of changing your social background – but you may never fit in totally. Not everyone can be a chameleon! Roots are important and abandoning them can/does lead to feelings of insecurity. You can ‘For survivals sake you can….learn to keep quiet about what really matters to you……but you risk forgetting the value of those ‘resources of generations gone before’ that might still be there inside you, your resilience , your courage’ (p.116).
  • School has an impact on what you do – not only then but much later on. Like Kuhn I was streamed into the ‘academic’ side, in my case science. I remember being told ‘It’s no point you doing art, you’re too clever, and anyway you can’t draw” – the latter comment was possibly true, but there was no consideration that other forms of art might exist, or that I might benefit from engaging with them. In spite of taking pictures all my life, it wasn’t until I was much older (in my 50’s) that I started ‘making art’.
  • Why do images from the past, that we are not directly involved with effect us so much? Kuhn gives the example of the St. Pauls’s picture in the London blitz. I can think of ones from the Africa corp in WWII. How does the collective memory that these invoke impact on personal memory? And vice versa?
  • Remembering, looking back, allows for changes. Memory can be sparked by other people’s pictures, paintings, music and writing. Anything can be used as a basis for memory work and allow you to make sense of what you see. Other pieces are very private and particular to you (Barthes’s picture of his mother as a child), an image I have just found of my grandmother who I never knew.
  • All this leads to the question – how much of memory is imagination?
  • Photographs can be used as groundwork – but they may still tell lies, partial truths – but rarely the whole truth. They lead to a ‘constant reworking of memory and identity (p.154). The act/activity (remember it is an ongoing process) is not neutral. There is always ‘secondary revision’. New stories can be told. Things can be healed. Lives can be changed.

This whole book is well worth reading (and re-reading). Maybe it spoke so much to me because I have a similar background – but the lessons learned are valid for everyone.


Kuhn, A. (2002). Family secrets: acts of memory and imagination. London; New York: Verso.

Max Kozloff – The Theatre of the Face

© Thomas Ruff

I have just finished reading (and taking extensive notes on) The Theatre of the Face by Max Kozloff. It is one of them suggested course books for IAP and talks extensively about photographic portraiture in the 20th Century (just overlapping into the 21st).  It is a heavy book, in both senses of the word, but I found it both interesting and enlightening. He introduced me  to a range of photographers that I had not come across previously, and I found his thought on much of the sub-genres provoking. The last chapter particularly talks about how there has been a change in the use of photography in portraiture. In some cases people make an effort to show the ‘why’ of a person and in others they seem to make the image so deadpan (although he does nor use this word)  that, while they are looking for objectivity, Kozloff clearly feels they fail to say anything about the person. He uses images from Ruff to illustrate this. He also talks about the genre of artists who make themselves up as someone else, either to play out a historical painting (Morimura) or to tell a story (Sherman and Nikki S. Lee).

Interestingly, while looking for images for this post, I came across this image by Morimura. What does it mean when one person makes an image that riffs of another’s image which is already a fantasy?

© Yasumasa Morimura – To My Little Sister / For Cindy Sherman, 1998

I am not going to try and summarise 317 pages of words and images here, as I have already made notes –Notes and thoughts from The Theatre of the Face. His final paragraph sums up his whole book,  ‘Still regardless of their social status, we understand most subjects to be individuals who have struck a pose – some ones or no bodies on a stage, be it literal or metaphorical. Portraiture illuminates the stage and fixes some little trace of our brief performance. Looking through portrait archives, we learn how much our joint good will, and therefore our wellbeing, is dependent on appearances. At the same time, appearances excite us by the mystery of individuals, who assume that they will be taken at face value. Here is a quandary that, happily or not, must keep us guessing. From one charnel era to the next, the quandary endures, insinuating its challenge, as much when the individual is known as nameless.’ (Kozloff, 2007, p.317).


Kozloff, M. (2007). The Theatre of the Face: Portrait Photography since 1900. London: Phaidon, p.317.

Notes and thoughts from The Theatre of the Face


  • The face is where we are – Jonathan Miller
  • Face is active even in repose
  • Portrait photography = frozen moments
  • Modern communication has changed the static viewpoint, fixed by class and race of the Victorian times, laced by expectations of propriety to impulsive/nosey vision
  • But still a question about what you can learn from a single instant, an isolated moment
  • In photography the power is divided between the sitter and the photographer, but exactly what will be caught is unknown
  • And how does candid imagery fit in?
  • Nowadays photographers bring their own thoughts into the images
  • Self-portraits allow for all possibilities, masquerades, theatre, gender changes
  • Portraits tell stories, even/especially in social reform pictures
  • Some show stereotypes, others get beneath them
  • Portraits show mortality and memory

Early 20th Century

  • Major changes
  • Wars and riots, civil unrest, mass movement of people
  • Changes in technology, international exhibitions, mass production
  • Marxism, suffrage, the middle class
  • Loss of euro centricity in the arts, Freud, the id and the ego
  • The camera became user friendly and available
  • Often middle class
  • Pictures to record customs eg Benjamin Stone, role-players, showing what is soon to be past
  • Pictures to record different cultures (although how real they were is questionable)
  • Tableau’s were staged, for political reasons or to show the world how good things were eg Francis Benjamin Johnston
  • The image of the exotic other
  • Curtis and the Native American peoples, recording a way of life, but? alienating it. Pictorialist images, soft focus, but how real were the images
  • Chambi taking pictures of own culture, often with odd captures, the female bullfighter, the smoker in the graveyard
  • Casasola takes news images, social documentary, pictures of dictators, new things!
  • Hine’s images of immigrants, child workers, faces of the children, a clear bond with the subjects, a liberal idealist, empathetic
  • Storyville images of prostitutes, unpolished, background showing, sad but appealing, surprisingly warm
  • Development of the culture of the celebrity, things previously private became public
  • Pictorialists made images more idealised and poetical, the sitters looked ethereal, other worldly, used soft focus to give symbolist ideas.
  • Stieglitz took mainly images of friends, used natural light, showed melancholy, lyrical nature, careful positioning, women especially beautiful, looked for their essence, studied their faces, looked for a timeless moment

Introversion of the Self

  • I worry about who I am, therefore, I guess, I am (William Ian Miller)
  • Development of the photobooth – what do people think about seeing a photo of themselves. immediately – pre selfie age, make faces. Pretend to be someone else, very different from commissioned portraits, fun? Silly? Tend to be stereotypical, not self-reflective
  • Artists try to explore their inner self, often wary, haunted eg Egon Schiele 9 self portraits
  • Use of caricature, human face blending with animal,
  • Futurists – aimed at shattering perceptions of time and space, multi-layering of images, and use of multiple reflections, disruption of time
  • Multiple images taken involving mirrors, reflections and the camera in the image eg Ilse Bing, how important is the sitter, or does the camera and mirror hold more importance?
  • Self portraits can be voyeuristic – who are they meant for – the artist or the viewer? You can pretend to be anyone, anything, any gender. Infinite possibilities of exploration
  • What is then true? everybody has a range of personalities depending on situation Many artists choose to change their name. Does that mean the person also changes?
  • Claude Cahun, multiple guises, deadpan faces, tell little about her life or the real person
  • What is self-portraiture then? anxiety, fear, narcissism? an escape from ‘real’ life? A courageous act?

Shades of Valour: development of irony, and where it might be successfully used

  • Propaganda- use of images to say what you want others to hear – an icy instrument whose influence is pathological, truth becomes hostage to the powers (Ellul)
  • Images of humans came to be personified by an ideology – if the cause was social justice – a deprived individual must look worthy of it. – led to the common man v. The confident leader
  • Led to archetypes of race and class eg migrant mother and Churchill
  • Development of magazines – picture post, Life etc with often paparazzi images, taken ta least semi covertly
  • Portraits were often taken to represent the environment eg underworld, agrarian poverty, demonstrations by the people (Capa)
  • Confident stance, taken from lower down – chin juts
  • Early documentation of the people in conflicts – eg Spanish civil war (again Capa)
  • Street image s- Cartier-Bresson, also Doisneau- both very different CB – upper class and travelling randomly, Doiseau – working class and identified with his subjects- shared values
  • Also other views of Paris – Brassai – vagrants and underworld, people interacted with him, not the candid images they sometimes appear to be
  • Brandt does similar thing in Britain – images are almost tactile, studies contemporary English mores (1930’s) , he had an interesting what he found in the slums – although was upper class himself.
  • Vishniac – images of the Jews in their communities just before the Nazi pogroms, empathetic to his own people – despair
  • Same time as image taken by the FSA – but different ideals – deprived yes, but still part of America, no money a different type of despair (Walker Evans, Ben Shahn) took images of people but also objects and places – looking at societal needs
  • Miyatake – took pictures in Japanese interment camps, children and teenagers carrying out same rituals as the Americans outside
  • Walker Evans took hi subway images – circumspect images, from a man who was anti-corporate
  • Weegee was not circumspect took pictures wherever he saw them exposed human nature, underworld and glamour of crime – sensationalism .
  • A time of worry! Painted on the faces across USA and Europe- harsh reality or a film set, or both
  • Development of fans clubs around the idols of the time, a polished illusion, a fantasy,
  • Fashion images also increasing, excelled with graphic design, appealed to the middle classes while in reality only affordable by the upper class, a charade as the models themselves were not important only their ability to show off the clothes (Beaton an exception as showed the person as well) – ‘camp’

The Sander Effect

  • The relationship between the portraitist and the sitter is not intimate (usually). The sitter is human material. The sitter is shapes and patterns as well as a person. Formal portraiture acts to animate the sitter and there is a risk involved.
  • Viewers look for stories and become bored if there is nothing
  • Early small-town portrait studios – the photographer was a craftsman and understood the social background of his subjects, they are respectful, and people dress their best for them
  • Many photos taken simply as records- or to send to men overseas, factual, minimal posing, but how were the photographers involved – some distant some part of the society and this would later the tone of the images
  • Sander! Interested in the condition of the sitter, rather than their emotional life. The type of the person, representations rather than individuals. All classes and sexes were treated the same. The classes are shown by their clothes and accoutrements, beautifully detailed. He takes them as they are, without encouraging any change.
  • Penn – Indians in Cusco – much more sensuous, looked for decorative people. Mixed fashion, minimalism and still -life together. Not really looking at the individuals, or even the realities of their society. Different when he was taking famous figures – allowed them their individuality.
  • Avedon– increasingly theatrical (good taste didn’t matter). Fame was important. Larger than life. Not kind! Many of his portraits imply mental illness – or seem to. In old age portraits he shows every wrinkle. People of the American west – shows judgement and squalor.
  • Arbus – ‘all families are creepy in a way’ , her proposal for her Guggenheim Fellowship talked about ‘A Study of American Rites, Manners and Customs’ and described all the things that would be of interest in a small town – but that was certainly not how she took them! An introspective reporter – if open can be both. The families all slightly off kilter, the loners who are all rather odd. Her images of the disabled are usually surprisingly kind, unlike those of the ‘normals’– where she would strip away their pretences. Leading to her ‘uncomfortable sense of wonder’. Consider R.D. Laing – normal=alienation, unconsciousness.
  • Sander’s work informed that of Arbus and Avedon – but was dissimilar in that they took on board psychological readings of the people not just their work.

Insiders and their Cultures:

  • Portraits always local – of their time and space with cultural markers
  • Cold War allowed the possibility of crossing boundaries and showing that stereotypes should be questioned
  • Reportage/news showed disaster areas, but other photographers looked at more confined/personal images looking at faith, ethnicity, class etc
  • Images of suburbia (Bill Owens) and less well-off areas (Martin Parr/Daniel Meadows)
  • Are you a participant in the ‘rite’s or an observer? Insider or not? Neal Slavin – American – looking at British (actually English) social groups – but all looked at ‘normal’ activities
  • Where does carnival fit in – Cristina Garcia Rodero with images of occult/quasi- religious practices in Spain.
  • Mexican images that cross between religion and ethnicity. Graciela Iturbide flouting taboos (Magnolia). Two different classes (for want of a better word) spread across the generations
  • Disaster images – compassion fatigue – Salgado and his work on refugees and economic migrants, the tribulation of communities – beautification of tragedy – but why assume poor photographs are any better?
  • Joseph Koudelka and gypsies – he was at home with them but does not glamourise them, personal images not a study of ethnographics, becomes an insider
  • Brenner on the Jewish diaspora, same religion but looked at them from the outside
  • Shelby Lee Adams – Appalachian Portraits – dark, ? Virulent – how well does he know them – Similar to Arbus images – but very different as more prepared and less instinctive.
  • How do you show madness – Erdinger with fear, Fellini out of? love
  • Privilege and the rich – again – how to show it? Refined, gay abandon, riches everywhere?
  • Family albums, stories told from Nan Goldin on. Verene with his extended visual diary of his family and friends

Celebrities to nonentities

  • In 80’s change of portraiture to look not just at who and where, but also why and to use a degree of imagination to show this
  • Construction of contradictions such as Groves reworking of the migrant mother image
  • Role of photoshop and unnatural smoothing of skin, equivalent to use of plastic surgery
  • Reworking of previous images and paintings – often including the artist themselves. Why? Looking at issues of race etc or need for notoriety? Morimura
  • Warhol’s images, tragedy or show biz? Detached or degraded? Objectification of people and images. Flesh that does not create desire.
  • Mapplethorpe different – he does show desire, craftsmanship, also consider Hujar and Candy Darling
  • Showing changes in body, whether real or imagined, using themselves as the canvas, looking at alter egos (Duane Michals). Images of approaching death, or even post-mortem. What is the role of religion especially Catholic in these images? Or more in the thoughts of the photographers?
  • What is the involvement of the ego? Samaras? A voyeur? Acting and mimicry -? Cindy Sherman whose photos do not allude to her own persona – an actress
  • What about when the portrait is of someone unknown- Boltanski – what does that make us feel? Photo is an agent of memory – but that is only true when we know what we are memorising.?
  • What about mixed faces – Nancy Burson – doesn’t give as much as a single image, that face is diluted, vaguely familiar
  • Late 20th c – constructed faces and people – don’t feel real
  • Blank – forward facing images, Ruff, Dijkstra, – look for total objectivity, but what. If anything, does that say about the person? No personal relationship.
  • DiCorcia – more involved, Baroque

The mystery of individuals


Kozloff, M. (2007). The Theatre of the Face : Portrait Photography since 1900. London: Phaidon.

The Nature of Photographs

Stephen Shore’s book The Nature of Photographs is also called ‘a Primer’, and that it exactly what it is. The initial edition was published in 1998, the edition I have (2nd) was updated in 2007. Shore describes it as ‘drawing from’ Szarkowski’s Photographer’s Eye. Both books use images to explain the concepts rather than relying on words as many theory books do. Shore’s book looks at the way photographs function, how they work as images and what the photographer is doing when he takes a picture. He aims to describe the ‘physical and formal attributes of the print. While the book is mainly discussing print on paper images many of the concepts also apply to digital photography, especially as so many images are now looked at on a hand held device, a phone or a tablet, and passed around in the same way a print image would have been in the past.

The Physical Level:

The picture is flat and has edges, which form the boundaries of the image. It is static, was taken at a particular moment, and may be colour – which is the way the eyes naturally see, or monochrome – which we may interpret differently.  It can be saved, bought, copied, shown in a book or a museum. These factors (the context) alter the viewers interpretation.

The Depictive Level:

Unlike a painting, where the artist starts from a blank canvas, the photographer starts with the world and imposes their order on it. S/he selects what theory want to show. S/he has a style and the way the image is taken gives it structure. Shore describes four ways that define the way an image is formed:

  1. A picture is 2D, not 3D (unless it is a stereograph, as was very popular in early Victorian photography). The image is taken from a specific vantage point which needs to be chosen, and although it may give an illusion of depth, it is an illusion. He compares two images by Struth – one of his forest images (Paradise 9) which appears flat and dense, with one of the Pantheon in Rome which gives an illusion of distance, drawing you in to the picture. A minimal shift in the position the image is taken from can alter the meaning of the picture.
  2. The edge matters. What is included and what is left out. What is implied by just showing part of something? Lines leading out of the images (streets, paths) imply something else might be happening elsewhere.
  3. The exact moment the image is taken. What is shown in one particular instant will be different from an image taken a second later. Time freezes things – but this can be a very short time with a clear, crisp image (a decisive moment), or a longer time frame with blur implying movement or a very long time frame when the movement is lost completely (a example is the pictures taken in the Museum of Modern Art by Michael Wesley ).
  4. The camera lens depicts a plane of focus (the depth of field). This may be shallow or deep and, except for a few cameras, is parallel to the plane of the camera. Focus can be used to draw the eye to the main point of the image.

The Mental Level.

What you see in a picture is not only exactly what the image shows, but what your brain interprets it as. When you look at a picture that has an illusion of depth you feel as though you are refocusing at different points of it, but your eyes are not changing focus – your brain is doing that work. By choosing carefully exactly how to take an image the photographer can encourage the viewer’s mind to see what s/he wants them to. To follow their line of vision. What a photographer pays attention to will affect what is seen. Shore says ‘The quality and intensity of a photographer’s attention leave their imprint on the mental level of the photograph. This does not happen by magic’ (p. 110). The mental model is dependent on conscious thought. Each level, physical, depictive and mental builds on the earlier ones. What you see leads you to change how you look, to change in turn what you are thinking to further change what you see.

Shore’s book is simple to read, but I return to it to remind me of the basics of what I am doing and to remind me to think about what I am seeing and how I can make that visible to my viewer’s.

Reference list

Shore, S. (2007). The Nature of Photographs. London; New York: Phaidon.

Szarkowski, J. (2009). The Photographer’s Eye. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.




Notes on Ovenden -John Thomson (1837-1921) – Photographer

Notes  taken from the book John Thomson (1837-1921) – Photographer by Richard Ovenden

  • The quality which strikes the viewer most is his ability to get under the skin, so to speak, of whoever, or whatever, he was photographing (p.vii)
  • His photography on the streets of London seeking to examine the self of the great city, the soul of the British empire (p. Xii)
  • Wet collodion
  • Born in Edinburgh, working class family, initially apprenticed as an optician, attended the `school of Arts, studying natural philosophy, then maths and chemistry
  • Travelled initially to Singapore to work with brother acted as a photographer, travelling widely, went to Siam took pictures of the royal family, Cambodia (note typical European disregard for native cultures
  • 1866 back to Britain, started writing and showed pictures and lecturing
  • Returned to Far East in 1867, Vietnam then Hong Kong china. Pictures, landscapes, the poor, the monasteries
  • Back home 1872
  • The camera should be a power in this age of instruction for the instruction of age…. Photography is alike a science of light and a light of science… (p. 29)
  • Started producing books and magazine articles, initially all about his `eastern travels, also lots of lectures
  • 1876 started the project on the street life of London, produced as a monthly periodical
  • Next 40 years mainly spent photographing the society elite, including royal family, connections with the Royal Geographic Society allowed for more articles and also portraits of explorers
  • Travel and associate photography linked from very early days, often via the grand tours made by aristocratic sons Thompson however was a lone traveller, a freelancer
  • Romantic appeal of ruins, initially in Ankor Wat, often used a high viewpoint, impressed with technology of original builders,
  • Some images show a sense of loss and melancholy, picturesque
  • Interested in old places and architecture still being used e.g. bridges, monasteries
  • Photos of the street, physical aspects, social
  • Used types to categorise the lower orders! So, did he give realistic documentation? Started similar images in Asia, notable racial stereotyping and insensitivity but common to the era. Gradually more sophisticated and more aware of the economic conditions
  • Often took pictures of older women, and does talk about them as individuals, also boatmen showing a degree of sympathy to their difficulties
  • Took some ethnographic images, reverting again to types in Formosa
  • Peking multiple street images and interest in poor. Trying to show the reality of life on the street
  • Went on to take pictures of street scenes in London. Done in context of lots of Victorian writing about the problems there.
  • Smith well experienced in journalism and connected with the social reform movements (p.79). Lots of parliamentary talk, little effect.
  • Interested in street traders. Did put people outside of the rest of society.
  • Probably partly based on previous work by Mayhew London labour and the London poor illustrated by wood-engraving
  • Comments by S and T “ nor, as our national wealth increases, can we be too frequently reminded of the poverty that never less still exists in our midst” (p. 81) from preface to street Life
  • Other photographers also documented the working class e.g. Newhaven project, many people concentrated on the buildings, ~Annan’s Glasgow.
  • Reproduced by Woodburytype process giving rich tones and sharpness
  • Images inevitably staged, partly because of restrictions of equipment, use of fast lenses with short depth of field. Also crowd control and multiple distractions
  • Very much used types (continued right up to Sander) but the accompanying essays do talk about the specific people in great detail, does not sentimentalise them
  • Westminster review ‘it is to be remarked as worthy of all praise that these pictures of London life are free from the patronising characteristic spirit so repulsively pervading even popular and useful writers’ (p88)
  • Long history of formal portraiture from king of Siam onward, helped with access. He was aware of the customs of the country ie straight on with no shadows in China
  • Also took formal photos of street people
  • London portraits helped by royal connection!!!!
  • Landscape images probably influenced by other photographers as well as by contemporary painters – notion of the picturesque. He felt the photographer had to act as an artist not just a recorder. Collected Chinese scroll paintings and probably influenced by this style. Interested in pattern and texture.


Ovenden, R., Puttnam, D. and Gray, M. (1997). John Thomson (1837-1921) photographer. Edinburgh: National Library Of Scotland, The Stationery Office.