Graham Clarke is not a photographer, but an academic in the field of ‘literary and image studies’ according to the short biography at the front of this book. As for why I am reading a 20 year old textbook, well, it’s because I didn’t think I’d like it much. A friend explained that this was one of the essential books on her UK photography degree course fifteen years ago and handed me the copy, adding ‘it’s pretty dry’.
I like a masochistic challenge once in a while and if you have read my article how not to buy photo books, you will also know that I think its invaluable to spend time outside of your comfort zone. So I read it from cover to cover! And yes, it was dry. However, I found it a rewarding experience, because it reinforced certain dislikes and expanded my thinking in equal measure.
The Photograph could be described as two-pronged: Firstly, it takes the reader through the history of photography, from the earliest processes and how they shaped what a photograph could be, to the development of the key genres we all recognise today. This condensed history of photography’s evolution and expansion is largely excellent and only blighted by the author’s rigidly academic literary style. If you’re willing to overcome Graham Clarke’s sometimes awkward delivery of information, it’s worth reading for this aspect alone.
Here are two photographs and associated text, to give you a sense of how the author approaches his subjects matter:
Graham Clarke: “... the scene is, in effect, a series of signs on which we look, and from which we derive the sense of two very different cultures and two very different traditions, in a process of fundamental transition…. In brief there is no historical perspective. Whatever suggests history has been subsumed into an iconography of advertising which not only dominates (the signs, especially those for Rye Whiskey’ and film) but determines the way we view the city…. her images are full of adverts, signs, boards, directions: the basic alphabets of communication in an urban space.”
Secondly,Graham Clarke discusses the language of photography and he does this by deconstructing a large number of well known photographs over the ages. This is the area where I begin to feel that Clarke has done what art critics so often do and that is to ‘overcook the goose’. In fact at some points, were this actual cooking, the goose would be turned into pure carbon. A typical example is his analysis of this fairly well known Salgado photograph (you may not agree with me, of course). The text presented here is far more accessible than other examples, which verge on being impenetrable:
Graham Clarke: “How do we begin to decode and unpack an image like this? It is stark and emotional; but equally, it is calculated to establish those particular terms of reference. The child is ‘hung’ amidst a series of secondary pointers; but they all relate to a western viewpoint. If the child is ‘weighed’ then it is against a larger frame of reference which, in the end, only invests in its image as part of a larger meaning. The photograph does not establish meaning in terms of the subject for its own sake. We can note the strategies, decode the terms of reference and read this as a deliberate image with a specific effect in mind.
Hence in the way the image splits between the child and the machine. The straps are so taut that they appear to form a triangle. They invoke an obvious contrast to the body below. There are, as it were, lines above and legs below, so that the tension between the two as symbols of an anonymous and human context is insistent. The geometrical imbalance creates and extraordinary resonance and a complex suggestiveness. Look at the arms: angular and malnourished. The whole play of the lines of the machine against the lines of the body reflects Barthes’s distinction between denotation and connotation, with vengeance. The child, obviously, is central. It is being weighted and photographed, and, in turn ‘weighed’ as a significant symbol (of hunger, weakness, poverty) for an assumed western audience. It is also naked. The camera uses the body as an extension of the official assumptions surrounding the individual; and any sense of an individual has been lost in the geometry of the image. And yet around the neck is a necklace, and in the ear is an earring; distinctive aspects of an individual existence which mitigate against the child’s used by the camera as a generic symbol. “
A significant concern I have of this sort of commentary is that it sometimes fails to clearly separate the critic’s thoughts from the original intent. In many cases the language used could leave the reader assuming that it reflects the thought processes, or considerations, of the photographer at the time of capture. Unfortunately, even a modicum of experience as a photographer suggests that this is unlikely to be the case, at least not to the level of subtlety and complexity presented by Clarke.
I am very glad to have read this book and appreciate Graham Clarke’s many genuinely useful and enlightening insights. However, I just wish academics/critics were a little less eager to assume the mantle of ‘custodian and gatekeeper’ in the way the clergy has in the past. I am left with a sense that the very act of ‘revelation’ is just another opportunity to further elevate ‘the truth’ to a place beyond the grasp of the ordinary person; where the language used to explain is simultaneously used to obfuscate the subject, while reinforcing the author’s enlightened status. But hey, this is art!
If there is one key selling point for this book for experienced photographers, I would choose these three words: history, context, communication. Graham Clarke does an exemplary job highlighting why particular images have proven ground breaking and appeal so greatly to collectors and historians alike. It also excels in expanding awareness of how an image may be deconstructed by critics and therefore will help photographers better manage the engagement that may exist between their images and such an audience. It will also greatly assist any photographer with contextualising their work within photography as a whole.
Well done Mr Clarke, you’ve annoyed me, bored me to tears and excited me in equal measure. That’s quite an accomplishment. That was great, but thank God it’s over!