Tag Archives: Robert Frank

Journeys – 2

In the mid-20th Century the mindset appears to have changed. There are still many photographers who travel and take the sort of images described in Journeys – 1.  But there are a group who travel for different reasons. Some travel just to look (and take photographs along the way). Some travel to tell stories about the places, not just the famous places and the rich people but the ordinary places, the ordinary lives, the little things.

Many of the American photographers have been motivated by a road trip. It became easier with the advent of cars and lighter weight equipment available from the early to mid-20th century. The start of this was probably the travelling done with the FSA by Lange and Evans among others. Evans turned his work into the show at MoMA and then the accompanying book American Photographs. (Evans, 2012) He then accompanied Robert Frank on his American trip to make the photo-book The Americans. This was first published in 1959. Jim Casper said, ‘This is the photo book that redefined what a photo book could be – personal, poetic, real’ and quoted Kerouac (who wrote the introduction) as saying ‘Robert Frank… he sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film’ (Casper, s.d.). Unfortunately, this is a book I have not seen in its entirety. The images I have seen are stunning. I particularly enjoy looking at Funeral – St Helena, South Carolina, 1955 which shows a group of black Americans standing by the cars. Are they participants? Or chauffeurs?

© Estate of Robert Frank

All the photographers mentioned so far worked in black and white. Stephen Shore chose to move into colour for his book Uncommon Places (Shore, 2014). In many ways it is similar to the work of William Eggleston. Shore also shows small, inconsequential places, untidy crossroads, cars and diners which add up to an image of America in the 70’s. The images that I have seen are objective. The light is clear. A single image is interesting but unclear as to purpose. Looking at a string of them, they build up to tell the story of a particular place – America and a particular time – 1970’s.

3 shore
© Stephen Shore

More recently Alec Soth has travelled the Mississippi and shows the people and places in the early 21st Century. He also utilises the ordinary things of life. Many of his images are vividly coloured. I find the one Fort Jefferson Memorial Cross, Wickliffe, KY, 2002 particularly amusing. It shows four workmen standing around by a decrepit car. One carries a chainsaw. Are they tidying up the surroundings? Or planning to cut the cross down? In today’s climate the latter is entirely possible. Another Bonnie, Port Gibson, MS, 2000 shows a proud lady, seated, showing off her picture of sky and trees in an elaborate gold frame. The type of frame I associate with a museum piece, possibly a portrait in jewel colours.

© Alec Soth

It is not only the Americans who have chosen to use the metaphor of a journey to tell about a place. There are (at least) three books on the rivers in China.

Yan Wang Preston’s Mother River (Preston, 2018) tells the story of a journey along the Yangtze, from source to mouth about 6300 kilometres. She identified points every 100 kilometres along its length and went as nearly as possible to each of these points to photograph whatever she found. She made no attempt to take images at any famous way points unless they happened to fall on one of her predetermined markers. The series traces the social and geographic changes along the river. At one point she was bitten by a dog, at another refused access as (illegal) gold mining was taking place. As part of the project she did a series of performances though which she thought about the locality and the myth of a mother river. For example, she made a hand-drawn red circle, she carved stones and swam in the river. The images themselves vary from stunning landscapes, bleak and desolate, to snatches of dust laden roads. Where she could not reach the spot, she has included a blank page in the book. Sometimes she shows the people, playing pool, lounging in boats. She makes no attempt to prettify the scenes. It is what it is. You travel from the mountains, though plains and cities to the sea.

Y25-1 preston
Y25 – © Yan Wang Preston

The Yellow River has recently been photographed by Zhang Kechun, where he shows a series of images that contrast the massive countryside with (usually) tiny people. In his description of the series he says ‘Mountains and rivers are very significant for the Chinese people. In this country there is a cultural awareness that says mountains are “virtuous” and rivers are “moral” …..I decided to take a walk along the Yellow River in order to find the root of my soul (Kechun, s.d.).

zhang kechun
© Zhang Kechun

The Yangtze has also been photographed by Nadav Kandar who also chose to show humans as small against the vast surroundings. He is aware of the speed of change occurring in China, the beginning of a new era, the ‘smallness of the individual’ (Kandar, s.d.). He, like Kechun and Preston, has taken images of places that have been since changed beyond recognition by construction work.

© Navad Kandar

These three works on China are talking about travelling, about change, about finding yourself against the backdrop of a vast land. They are almost the opposite of the American series discussed above. The immense versus the small, the country versus the individual. The impersonal versus the personal. Preston comes nearest to linking them with her images of the people she finds on the way, the bedrooms and eating places.

There are as many ways of photographing journeys as there are photographers who are willing to undertake them. These are a small snapshot, and mainly of   the epic journeys. The ones that take years, and multiple visits. Small and private journeys can be equally revealing of the place, the people, and the photographer. In Echo Mask (Levitt, 2019) Jonathan Levitt shows images, mostly black and white with a few colour, interspersed with blocks of text that read as prose poems. They were taken in the Maritime Northeast of Maine and Newfoundland.  Many of the images are blurry. They evoke a mood. A memory.  They tell a different type of story, but it is also a journey, this time in the mind.

563_img_3439 jonathan
© Jonathan Levitt

The work of Paul Gaffney in We Make the Path By Walking is also a slow meditation on time and space. He talks about the experience of moving slowly though the countryside, being in a ‘continuous dialogue’ with it.  His latest work Perigee was made at night, under moonlight having previously documented his travels by Polaroid. In an interview for ASX Gaffney talks about the difference between the western approach to landscape as a linear perspective rather than the Eastern approach of trying to get across the essence of the place (Shinkle, 2016).  His images are superficially simple. But the longer you look the more you see. This is something I would want to be able to do.

Paul Gaffney -Perigee – Polaroids – © Paul Gaffney


Casper, J. (s.d.) The Americans – Photographs by Robert Frank. At: https://www.lensculture.com/articles/robert-frank-the-americans (Accessed 22/07/2020).

Evans, W. (2012) American photographs. (75th-anniversary ed ed.) New York, NY: Museum of Modern Art.

Kandar, N. (s.d.) Yangtze: The Long River. At: https://www.lensculture.com/articles/nadav-kander-yangtze-the-long-river (Accessed 24/07/2020).

Kechun, Z. K. | (s.d.) The Yellow River. At: https://www.lensculture.com/articles/zhang-kechun-the-yellow-river (Accessed 24/07/2020).

Levitt, J. (2019) Echo mask. Turkey: Charcoal Press.

Preston, Y. W. (2018) Mother River. Ostfildern: Hatje/Cantz.

Shinkle, E. (2016) An Interview with Paul Gaffney. At: https://americansuburbx.com/2016/04/an-interview-with-paul-gaffney.html (Accessed  25/07/2020).

Shore, S. (2014) Uncommon places: the complete works. (2nd revised edition) (s.l.): Thames and Hudson.






Part 4 – Research Point 1

The research point is to look at the Barthes essay Rhetoric of the Image and reflect on looking at his definitions of anchorage and relay, thinking about examples of these and considering how you could use them in your own work.

I will start by admitting that I find Barthes a complex read. This may be partly because he wrote in French and I am reading translations. It may be because his background is in philosophy and semiotics. I find I always have to have a dictionary to hand. I looked at the essay as a whole as the parts on anchorage and relay can only be understood in context.

All quotes are from the Rhetoric of the image – initially published in 1964, republished in Image Music Text in 1977 and obtained here from The Photography Reader (2019).

In the Rhetoric of the Image Barthes starts by saying that many people, especially linguists feel that images are weak communicators in comparison with language but other think that it is ‘ineffably rich’.

Barthes then looks at levels of messages in photographs. The first linguistic – and actual words such as a caption or labels within the image. These can have both denotational and connotational meanings. He then describes a clearly coded iconic message- the details of the image and what it shows (in this case the makings of soup) – the perceptual message or the denoted image.  The third level he describes as a ‘message without a code’, a literal message that we understand because of our previous knowledge – the cultural message or the connoted, symbolic image.

He notes that linking of text and image is common. Does the image duplicate information in the words or does the text add ‘fresh information’ to a picture? He sees us (in 1964) as a civilisation of writing and speech rather than of images and notes that there is a linguistic message (length variable and irrelevant) with every image – title, caption, dialogue, accompanying article.

All images are polysemous (have multiple meanings). The reader chooses. The linguistic message is one way of fixing the message, resolving the (terror of) uncertainty. The text helps to identity the scene – what is it?

Anchorage – tells you what of all the possible denotive meanings is the one that you are supposed to understand – to focus not simply my gaze but also my understanding.  It limits what you see.  It directs you to the meaning that is desired (especially in advertising). Anchorage is a control, a selective explanation (elucidation). It acts to repress (cut down) the meaning of the image to that wished by the creator or society.

 Relay (less common than anchorage) is often seen in cartoons/comics. ‘The text and image stand in a complimentary relationship’. The unity of the message becomes important rather than the individual items. He describes the information gained by the text as more ‘costly’ as it need more formal learning to acquire and the information from the image as ‘lazier’ and ‘quick’ allowing a hurried reader to avoid the necessity of verbal descriptions. He also notes that either text or image will usually be dominant.

Barthes then goes on to talk about the denoted image. He says that although a photograph, ‘by virtue of its absolutely analogue nature’ – is a message without a code – but also that everybody automatically understands more then the liberal image because of our cultural knowledge. However, a photograph is different from a drawing as any drawing chooses what to show, as opposed to a photograph which (once the frame has been decided) shows everything. The photograph records, evoking not only being-there but also having-been-there. There is always the evidence of this is how it was. It is different from any other form of image making (a mutation of a way of passing on information).

The connoted (symbolic image) is complex because there are as many possible interpretations as there are readers. The interpretation depends on prior knowledge, a ‘body of attitudes’. The language of the image consisted both utterances emitted by the creator and the utterances received from the viewer. Therefore, they may/will include surprises. The whole set of connotations from the image Barthes calls a rhetoric.

 He ends by noting that the meaning (of an image) is torn internally between culture and nature – but the whole thing combines to tell a story.

In summary:

Barthes defines anchorage as the controlling words that direct the reader to what the creator wishes him/her to see. Relay in text is something that sits alongside the image and gives additional value, is complimentary. Anchorage directs you; relay suggests possibilities.


  1. In the book Our Forbidden Land by Faye Godwin (Godwin, 1990) she uses a combination of both. The images are accompanied by a simple text such as ‘Stubble Burning, east Kent’ which, by itself, would allow you to look at the image and think ‘Oh. It must be winter’ or ‘That makes a lot of smoke’ – but she then accompanies the image with a passage of information about the context which makes it clear that she wants you to read it as an obnoxious and dangerous process.
  2. In The Ballad of Sexual Dependency by Nan Goldin she uses simple factual titles such as ‘Christie and Sandy on the beach, Provincetown, Mass.1976’ which’ while grounding the image in reality, this happened, I was then then – allows you to make up your own story.
  3. In Tal Uf Tal Ab by Robert Frank there is even less information, the name of the person or a place. You are left with your own interpretation.
  4. In a copy of the magazine Breathe (picked at random off the floor) -the images (while often very attractive) are clearly secondary to the anchoring text, for instance, a long article entitled ‘Food for the soul’ (Yates, 2016) which is accompanied by luscious looking strawberries, cherries and raspberries. This is very similar in use to the advertisement Barthes describes in Image of the Rhetoric, although here you are being sold a lifestyle rather than a specific product.

How might this help me?

In much of the work I do I want the reader/viewer to develop their own ideas. To Think. To feel. To imagine. But, equally, I do want to give some direction – I take images of people with disabilities. I do not want the viewer to be negative. I want them to go into their world not look from outside with contempt. I think I need to consider the relay type text, maybe a simple caption, a single word – but with an essay (possibly too formal) at some point.

I am thinking about a piece of memory work – maybe the words need to be totally separate. Single words in a grid? Minimal size captions on the alternate page?


Frank, R. (2010) Tal Uf Tal Ab. Gottingen, Germany: Steidl.

Godwin, F. (1990) Our forbidden land. London: J. Cape.

Goldin, N. et al. (1986) The ballad of sexual dependency. New York, N.Y.: Aperture Foundation.

Wells, L. (2019) The photography reader: history and theory. Abingdon, Oxon; New York, Ny: Routledge.

Yates, J. (2016) ‘Food for the soul’ In: Breathe 2016 pp.74–75.