How to Read a Photograph (not what it says on the tin)

Any reader expecting this book (Jeffrey, 2008) to give instructions on how to view a single image and extract the maximum meaning from it will be disappointed; “How to Read a Photograph“, unlike Ronseal, does not do ‘what it says on the tin’. However, the subtitle, ‘Understanding, Interpreting and Enjoying the Great Photographers’ is an accurate reflection of the book’s scope and content.

The book is a survey of photographers from Fox Talbot onward, with examples of their work, description or explanation of the pictures and some relevant biography. Arranged in two-page spreads, a typical spread has a main image and one or two secondary, complementary images (each with title, date and description), a column of biography and a paragraph or two of reflection or interpretation. Presumably, the number of pages reflects Jeffrey’s view on the importance of the photographer; most get two or three spreads (4 or 6 pages), some get only one and the greats such as Cartier-Bresson (pp152-161) and Bill Brandt (pp182-191) get five (10 pages).

Photographers are arranged in approximately chronological order, with also an informal grouping by theme. For instance, the Farm Security Administration photographers are grouped together, as are the Japanese photographers of the 1970s. There are also two larger sections on the world wars, showing how soldiers (mainly German) recorded their experiences.

There are some surprising omissions. Where, for instance, are Bailey, Avedon, Mapplethorpe, Karsch, McCullin, Parr or Leibovitz? Also, surprisingly for a 2008 book, there are no 21st-century examples and very few from the 1990s.

When read from cover to cover, the book is a fascinating tour of the development of (mainly) 20th century photography. However, it is probably more use as a ‘dip-in-and-out’ starting point for study of individual photographers. The individual pages give useful references for the photographers’ more important exhibitions and publications and the thematic arrangement of the bibliography is particularly useful.

Jeffrey, I. (2008) How to read a Photograph, London: Thames & Hudson Ltd

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