Hello, is this planet Earth?


source: amazon.co.uk

We have seen photographs from space before; the ‘Blue Marble‘ image of Earth as seen from Apollo 17 by Eugene Cernan (known to trivia quiz buffs as the last man to walk on the Moon) is one of the most-reproduced photographs ever taken, and with good reason; it demonstrates how small and fragile ‘spaceship Earth’ is in the cosmic context.

Major Tim Peake had a closer view: low Earth orbit. For six months in December 2015 and early 2016 he was a crew member aboard the International Space Station. ‘Hello, is this planet Earth?’ is a collection of his photographs from that unique viewpoint.

A brief introduction describes Peake’s inspiration from his subject matter, and also some of the problems involved in photographing from space: cosmic radiation causing sensors to deteriorate, zero-gravity means that dust gets everywhere and, of course, shooting from a platform moving at 30,000kph. After that, we are into the pictures.

The images are thematically arranged: Night and Day shows how human influence and constructions are difficult to see during daytime, but dominate at night as our towns and cities (and even our individual fishing boats) are lit up. Oceans and Rivers was the most fascinating section for me – with an abstract quality to many of the images. Mountains and Deserts reminds me of the relief maps of my school atlas. Towns and Cities was mostly shot with very long lenses; most detail of human habitation being too small to see with the naked eye. Space and Home shows us astronomic and atmospheric phenomena.

This is a book of beautiful images, and worth seeing for that alone, but is also thought-provoking as we see how insignificant is man’s mark on the planet and how thin is that strip of atmosphere that we live in compared with the vastness of space around it. Peake had a privileged viewpoint; we are privileged to share it.


Peake, T.(2016)Hello, is this planet Earth? My View from the International Space Station. London: Random House (Penguin)

Understanding a Photograph – John Berger

‘Understanding a Photograph’ is the title of both a 1968 essay by John Berger (2013, pp17-21) and the more recent Penguin Classics collection containing it. As with any collection of essays in which this device is used, the book is both more and less than its title suggests. More, because the book ranges much further than the scope of a single essay. Less, because the student looking for an in-depth discourse on interpreting individual photographs will not find it here.

Penguin have collected together a group of Berger’s essays spanning 40 years from 1967 to 2007. For a book ostensibly about photography, there are very few photographs (a point also regretted by Geoff Dyer in his introduction (ibid. xvii)) which makes some of the essays difficult to follow; Berger refers peripherally to images with which he is familiar but I am not. Nowadays, I could make a Google search and find the image – an option that was not available to the original reader in most cases. Many of the photographs which are presented have suffered in the printing process, with shadow detail lost and spreading into the highlights.

In the title essay and elsewhere, Berger argues against trying to shoehorn photography into the fine arts, seeing it as something different (and apparently seeing the fine arts as morphing into expressions of valuable property, inimical to his left-wing views). What sets photography apart from the other visual arts is its characteristic reproducibility (I wonder if he views daguerrotypes and Polaroids differently); a photograph does not have ‘property value’ but, instead is witness to a human choice exercised in a given situation.

He is dismissive of the idea of ‘composition’ in photography (and scornful of arranged still-lifes), regarding composition as something that painters do when creating an image from a blank piece of paper. Instead, a photographer is faced by the world and has to select from it through the viewfinder. More importantly, ‘The true content of a photograph is invisible, for it derives from a play, not with form, but with time.’ (Berger 2013, 19). The photographer selects the instant at which he presses the shutter button. This part of the essay is an alternative take on Cartier-Bresson’s notion of ‘the decisive moment’, although without HCB’s regard for the ‘geometry’.

There are two other essays, ‘Appearances’ and ‘Stories’, both from 1982, which deal with photography in a theoretical way. The others could best be described as extended rambles triggered by particular photographs or photographers. For instance, a photograph by Sitka Hanzlová triggers a riff on the nature of forests. Berger has said, in this book and elsewhere that having the text describe the image, or the image illustrating the text, are tautologies which he tries to avoid. He seems to have succeeded in this collection.

In summary, this is a book to be read for breadth rather than depth. There is not a lot of instruction but it is an insight into the mind of one of the important figures in the 20th century art world.


Berger, J. (2013) Understanding a photograph. Edited by Geoff Dyer. London: Penguin Classics.

Ways of Seeing • John Berger

‘Ways of Seeing’ was originally published in 1972, as a collaboration between the BBC and Penguin to extend and elaborate on ideas contained in the BBC series of the same name. My copy is the 2008 Penguin Classics reissue.

To say that it is a strange book is putting it mildly. It comprises seven ‘essays’, four of which comprise words and images and the other three are images only. Typesetting is unusual, in Univers bold script (quotes and emphasised passages in a lighter script) which is more normally used for headings, and each page or double-page spread appears individually designed. At times I felt that I was holding a piece of conceptual art rather than reading a book.

Therefore, it is unfortunate that production values have suffered. Cheap ink and paper mean that the illustrations are very ‘soot-and-whitewash’ and the shadows have bled into  the highlights. This is one of the reasons why I got nothing out of the illustration-only essays; I spent too much effort working out what the images are, to think properly about the way they are arranged.

The first essay deals with the importance of context and the distinction between the original artwork (the thing itself) and the reproducible image. The original artwork may have been commissioned for the space it finds itself in (gallery, church altarpiece or the drawing room of a stately home) and has a particular meaning in that place. However, once reproduced (for instance by photographing it), it can appear at various scales and in myriad forms: postcard, book, TV screen, Athena poster (OK, I know I am dating myself with that reference but I am reviewing a 1972 book). If seen on TV, or a podcast, it may be accompanied by speech or music, or have details extracted. It can be subverted for advertising – an idea that forms the basis of the final essay. Berger is particularly rude about the sort of art expert who spends 14 pages discussing the history and provenance of a painting, rather than the image itself, and of the obscurantist language used by some critics.

The second written essay deals with ‘the nude’ in art, noting that nude subjects are almost exclusively female. It starts with the proposition that a man’s ‘presence’ is chiefly external (it is about what he can to to or for ‘you’, the spectator) while a woman’s is internal (it is about what can or cannot be done to her) and develops to the idea, also expressed by Michelle Henning (Wells, 2000 Ch5), of men possessing the ‘gaze’ and women existing to be gazed at. Nudes appeared in notionally biblical or classical scenes but are clearly intended to interact with the Spectator (the viewer of the image) rather than the other figures in the painting – even when kissing a lover, her body is turned toward the spectator rather than the lover. I’m not sure that Berger comes up with any answers, he simply makes the rather disapproving observation.

The third written essay is the one least relevant to photography, except as a precursor to the fourth. It deals with the European tradition of oil painting between 1400 and 1900 and puts forward an argument that they were commissioned primarily to reflect the owners status, by reference to their possessions. The techniques of oil painting permitted a degree of realism unprecedented at the time which (according to Berger) was equivalent to owning the thing depicted. Photography also permits realism, but a photograph is reproducible and does not have the one-off status of a painting.P

The final essay deals with the use of imagery in advertising and publicity, and draws parallels with the tradition of oil painting. Artworks may be subverted or pastiched (p134 shows a pastiche of Manet’s ‘Dejeuner sur l’herbe’ ) or used as background (p135 suggests that Leonardo would have used a Parker pen for his doodles). Colour photography is used in a similar way to the oil painting described in the third essay, having an unprecedented realism and tactility. Berger sees the difference in the notion of ‘glamour’ (which could be an attractive quality, an enchantment or illusion, or a malevolent Scottish shapeshifter) which the photograph has and the painting does not need. The basis of publicity is that it engenders feelings of unease or discontent with the viewer’s present condition, or an envy of himself in an alternate reality where he has bought the product. While painting is rooted in the present, publicity invokes an alternate or utopian future.

The book is a bit of a period piece (but not so much as the TV series, with Berger’s hairstyle and shirt); for instance, it represents a pre-feminist age so much of the second essay appears dated. It was iconoclastic in its time, criticising the conventional way of viewing and criticising art (it was said to be a deliberate ‘counter’ to Kenneth Clark’s ‘Civilisation’ series) and appears to be still valid, particularly the final essay on advertising.


Berger, J. (2008) Ways of seeing. London: Penguin Classics.

Wells, L (ed) (2000) Photography: A Critical Introduction (2nd edition) London: Routledge

Roland Barthes – Camera Lucida (first impressions)

Camera Lucida is a book title that regularly comes up in OCA forums and social media pages. It is more relevant to a future course module, but I have allowed myself a ‘sneak preview’. This posting is written on the basis of a single read-through without taking notes. There will probably be a fuller review in a future module.

Roland Barthes (1915-1980) was a French teacher and researcher in sociology and lexicology at the Centre National de Recherché Scientifique. Camera Lucida, published in the year of his death, was his final book.

I found it an odd read. The book is in two parts; the first part is a vaguely Cartesian exercise in understanding Photography (Barthes uses the capital P) from first principles, the second is more of a self-indulgent ramble triggered by viewing a childhood photograph of his recently-deceased mother. I will comment on the first part which is more what I expected from the book.

Barthes equivalent of the photographic triumvirate of photographer, viewer and subject is Operator, Spectator and Spectrum (Barthes sees this as a portmanteau of ‘spectacle’ and ‘spectre’) which detaches the terms from our usual language. He is upfront in telling us that he is no Operator (not having the patience to wait for processing) but a combination of Spectator and occasional reluctant Spectrum.

Incidentally, it is worth remembering that we read Barthes in translation and I wonder (in this book and the essay Death of the Author) how much of the language, some of which appears obscurantist, comes from Barthes himself, and how much from his translator. Presumably, words derived from dead languages (studium, punctum, eidos etc.) are Barthes’ and the dictionary-bursting English is Howard’s.

Barthes reminds us that the unique feature that distinguishes Photography from the other arts is that it is evidential. Unlike painting, literature or sculpture, a Photograph is proof that the Spectrum or referent existed, at least at the time and place that the image is captured. The direction in which I am (currently at least) unable to follow Barthes is the leap from this-has-been to a connection between Photography and Death, which occupies much of the second half of the book.

The headline insight of the book, however, is the notion of studium and punctum. My understanding, from a first reading is that studium refers to intrinsic properties of the image, the generality of subject, place etc. Not all images possess punctum, which appears to be a unique connection between the image and the individual Spectator. The word derives from the same stem as ‘puncture’ and ‘punctuate’ and the punctum is some detail which ‘pricks’ or arrests the Spectator’s attention – Barthes gives examples of a bandage on a girl’s finger or the type of shoes worn by a portrait subject.

Overall, I suspect that I have read the book too early in my art-student career, and I look forward to revisiting it in about a year’s time.


Barthes, R.(1980) Camera Lucida (translated by Richard Howard) (1993 edition) London: Vintage Classics (Random House Group)

Photography: A Critical Introduction – chapter 5

Chapter 5, ‘The subject as object: Photography and the human body’ is contributed by Michelle Henning, a multimedia artist and (in 2000) lecturer in the School of Cultural Studies at the University of the West of England. It is perhaps best seen as a set of four mini-chapters, mostly unlinked although there is a connection between social control and censorship, which are themes of the first and second sections.

I picked this chapter for review because the first section, subtitled ‘Embodying social difference’ includes some comments on the work of Francis Galton, which is also referenced in comments made by my tutor in his feedback on my second assignment

Embodying social difference

This section is about typology, archiving and control. There are two aspects to this. First, the use of standardised record photographs as part of databases or ‘archives’ (originally paper-based, now more likely digital). The obvious example is the police record of criminals, particularly when supplemented by other data such as Bertillon measurements, used for the identification of repeat offenders. Other uses are less obvious, until we are reminded by a quote from John Tagg (1988, in Wells 2000,223) ‘These are the traces of power, repeated countless times, whenever the photographer prepared an exposure, in police cell, prison, consultation room, home or school’. Institutions of all types need records, archives and identification, and photography is one medium to provide them.

More sinister is the use of photographic typology to define and stigmatise groups or ‘types’ on social, religious or racial lines. Photography grew up at the same time as the Victorian pseudosciences of phrenology and physiognomy which both claimed to read character or mental functioning from external appearances, in skull shape or facial features respectively. (This could be related to some of the more outlandish ‘deductions’ made in the contemporary Sherlock Holmes stories). The claim to be able to read character in a portrait photograph is one that we have, perhaps, all made but it was taken to extremes in the work of Francis Galton and others.

Galton, in the 1880s, developed a technique for making composite portraits by which he attempts to isolate features that define particular types. The book (Wells 2000, 223) gives an example of ‘The Jewish Type’ but Galton also used the technique to ‘identify’ facial features of types of criminals. Henning regards Galton’s work as fundamentally racist, and notes that Galton was a pioneer of the eugenics movement, and that his classifications were embraced by Nazism.

She briefly refers to latter-day examples of composite photography in the political works of Nancy Burson and in some advertising uses.

Objects of desire

This section, the longest in the chapter, appears to deal with nudity, pornography and censorship from a feminist perspective. Apart from a brief reference to American ‘physique’ publications, all discussion is of erotic portrayal of the female form for a presumed heterosexual male viewer. However, the starting point (Wells 2000, 226) is a presumption that all representations of women, clothed or not, including advertising and fashion images, are about objectification for a male gaze.

This is justified, over the next couple of pages, by a discussion of the Freudian concepts of voyeurism and fetishism (by which a physical object – such as a shoe or a photograph – takes on a sexual significance).

A question raised, but not satisfactorily answered, is how to distinguish ‘feminist political opposition’ to certain images from ‘conservative disgust’ (Wells 2000, 229). However, the question leads into an interesting history, comparing the grotesques of medieval carnival, with its glee about bodily functions, with the ‘classical nude’ (smooth and orifice-less) and seeing a basis for class distinctions. Photography, having democratised art is seen as a way of challenging social hierarchies with magazines such as Hustler (specifically named in distinction from the more tasteful images in Playboy or Penthouse) bringing the carnival grotesque back to the notice of the bourgeoisie.

The censorship debate concentrates on the American experience, allying conservative feminists with the religious right although each are anti-pornography for different reasons. By contrast, what is described as ‘queer culture’ sees some forms of pornography – particularly homosexuality and cross-dressing – as a way of bringing unconventional practices to mainstream attention. Given that the edition I am reviewing was written before the current flowering of ‘gender politics’, it would be interesting to view a current version of this chapter.

Technological bodies

This section conflates the concept of the ‘camera as mechanical eye’ with the ‘body as machine’. The stop-motion images of Muybridge and Marey gave the Victorians an understanding of how the body ‘works’ as it moves. This has parallel in the 20th century with the ‘science of work’ and ‘time and motion’ theories of Taylor, Gilbreth and their followers, who used motion pictures as part of their study.

We also see a merging of human and machine in art and advertising.

Photography and death

This short section starts with Victorian post-mortem photography as memento, and an advertised service. Photographs continue to preserve memories but, from about 1880 there is an unease about photographing the dead. Effectively, our photographic memories of the dead are images made while they were still living. This section finishes with a brief introduction to two art photographers, Sue Fox and Andres Serrano, who photograph in mortuaries. Serrano’s images, in particular, have the ‘only sleeping’ look of the Victorian post-mortem images


Overall, I found this chapter difficult to read, partly because it is aggressively feminist and partly because it is disjointed, bouncing from subject to subject with no linking thread and no clear conclusion.


Wells, L (ed) (2000) Photography: A Critical Introduction (2nd edition) London: Routledge

Magnum Contact Sheets

Pulling a good picture out of a contact sheet is like going down to the cellar and bringing back a good bottle to share. (Henri Cartier-Bresson)

‘Magnum Contact Sheets’ is a coffee table book, not just because it looks good on the coffee table but, at 524 pages of 150gsm art paper, it weighs roughly the same. According to the copyright page, the 2014 book is the compact edition.

The premise is simple, iconic images from Magnum photographers are presented with commentary (either from the photographer or Kristen Lubben, the editor) and the contact sheets from which they are extracted, complete with the editor’s chinagraph markings. The result is an insight into how photographers work on location and how they, or their editors, approach the task of selection and editing.

The book starts in pre-Magnum days, with HCB’s image of street kids playing among wrecked masonry in Seville 1933. Almost uniquely among the featured photographers, HCB did not like revealing his contacts. Indeed, it seems that he cut out his usable negatives into separates and would discard those he did not like. He is quoted thus, ‘A contact sheet is full of erasures, full of detritus. A photo exhibition or a book is an invitation to a meal, and it is not customary to make guests poke their noses into the pots and pans, and even less into the buckets of peelings’ (Lubben 2014, 18)

However, most contributors had views similar to David Hurn (quoted on p159), “The contact sheet is a valuable instructor. … Ruthless examination of the contact sheet, whether one’s own or another’s is one of the best teaching methods”

That appears to be the raison d’être for this book. Later (p162) Hurn tells us, “Looking at other peoples’ contact sheets allows one to understand their method of working and their thinking processes. When I first came to Magnum, I learned an enormous amount by perusing shelves of books of contacts from Henri Carier Breton, Marc Riboud, Réne Burri, Elliott Erwitt, etc. … What was a revelation to me was that I could see a similar working pattern in virtually all the photographers I admired. Little sequences which show the photographer seemingly stalking the image”

The book includes some classics of reportage. On p50 we learn how most of Robert Capa’s D-Day negatives were destroyed by a darkroom error, and on the following page we see the nine which survive. Pages 208-215 covers Gilles Peress’ images from Bloody Sunday together with a sketch and part of his statement to the Widgery and Saville enquiries.

There is also a leavening of lighter material, such a Martine Franck’s Buddhist monks of 1996 (p403) and Elliott Erwitt’s 2000 ‘Bulldogs’ (p457)

I bought this book as part of my research for EYV Assignment 3 (The decisive moment) for which it was useful (I liked Peter Hurn’s comment about stalking the image). I regard it as essential reading for any topic relating to reportage or documentary work.


Lubben, K (ed) (2014) Magnum Contact Sheets (compact edition) London: Thames and Hudson

Photography: A Critical Introduction • review part 1

This is the first introductory textbook to examine key debates in photographic theory and place them in their social and political contexts (Publishers note)

With the manifesto set out at the top of the first page this book, although said to be introductory, dives into (for me) some pretty deep waters and requires careful reading and several re-readings. This is the first of an occasional series of postings which will each concentrate on a chapter or two. I am working from the 2nd edition (2000)

The book is arranged in seven major chapters, each with its own bibliography, together with an extensive introduction, indexes, glossaries etc. In this posting I will be looking at the ‘topping-and-tailing’ material and at the first chapter, ‘Thinking about photography‘ by Derrick Price and Liz Wells.

The introduction signposts the structure of the book chapter-by-chapter, setting out its arrangement and purpose. I initially found the section, ‘How to use this book’ rather patronising but, after a foray into chapter 1, I began to see the point.

The end material will probably be the part of the book that I refer to most in my future studies with OCA as it seems to be a jumping-off point for research. In addition to the (expected) index and bibliography (14 pages!) we get a glossary of key terms and lists of archives, journals and websites.

Chapter 1 Thinking about photography

It must be said that this chapter makes heavy reading; the language being both dense and ‘technical’, particularly some of the late 20th-century pull-quotes. Having a scientific/engineering background and being exposed to ‘Pseuds Corner’ and Monty Python’s caricature art critics (example here at 3:47) it came as a culture shock to encounter similar language used in serious technical discourse, which leads me to consider  the reasons for it.

I am aware (from use in my own primary profession) that jargon has two uses, to obfuscate or (more properly) to serve as a form of shorthand between practitioners in a specialist field. I believe Price and Wells are using it in the latter form and it is a privilege to be allowed into the discussion at that level even if it means diving into the glossary at regular intervals. The first part of the chapter is particularly difficult because it is trying to introduce a theory of criticism and ‘art theory’ from scratch, without resorting to circular definitions. This is analogous to the sort of pure mathematics text that introduces number theory (“what, precisely do we mean by ‘two’ anyway?”). We all learned to count in primary school; most of us use numbers every day without thinking about then, but it is sort of comforting to know that they have a valid foundation.  Similarly with art criticism, it is useful to have a framework to work within and comforting to know that it has a firm basis, even if we do not consider it from day to day.

The chapter is arranged in four main sections. The sections are subdivided but I found that there was not a great correlation between the subheadings and the text.

‘Aesthetics and technologies’ eschews the standard list of inventors  but instead looks at the evolving technology in the mid-19th century and asks (but unfortunately doesn’t answer) why the need to produce and fix an image became an active field of research at the time. Once the technology is in place, it became adapted to social uses in a variety of ways, not all of which were intended by the original inventors. This appropriation and subversion of the technology continues to the present day in such forms as social media.

The “is it Art” debate is aired by quoting opposing views from Baudelaire (quoted on pp.13-14) who said that photography would corrupt or supplant art (by which he appears to mean painting) and should serve only as a ‘handmaid’ to the arts and sciences, and Lady Elizabeth Westlake (quoted on pp.15-16) who considered that a good thing. Photography was not ‘Art’ but would displace the old structures of Art.

Outside the ‘high art’ world of galleries and salons, we see the proliferation of jobbing photographers, mainly portraitist but also producers of views and postcards, springing up in most towns, which upset the painters (presumably, the jobbing portrait painters) with their improved speed, accuracy and quality control.

This accuracy, together with ease of reproduction makes photography a very democratic medium and valuable in documentary uses. However, there is some debate about whether a photograph shows us more than the surface appearance of a subject.

We move forward to the modern and post-modern eras with the rise of ‘straight photography’ presenting a new way of seeing the world. Moholy-Nagy (quoted on p.19) wants us to see what is ‘optically true’ rather than the pictorial framework erected by individual painters. In other words, he wants us to see what is really there, rather than what we have been taught is there.

Contemporary debates‘ looks at the development of ‘photography theory’ out of ‘art theory’ in the early 20th century and the shift in emphasis from techniques to a reading of the image as image, with a brief reference to the more recent approach through semiotics.

Price and Wells consider that the ‘great masters’ approach found in other branches of art criticism does not fit particularly well with photography (although it is traditionally used) because of its democratic nature and the difficulty of separating ‘masters’ from movements. This is a theme repeated in several places in this chapter.

The realism debate compares Sontag’s view of photographs as objective traces of the subject with Kozloff’s view of the photograph as a ‘subjective witness’ with the possibility of misunderstanding or partial information.

The major part of this section is a case study showing alternative readings of a particular image, Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant mother’. The image is seen as a testament to an event and a period of American history, although the title was changed (‘Seasonal Farm Worker’s Family’ has an entirely different meaning) and there was some minor retouching (part of a hand holding the tent flap was removed). We see that other images from the same set were not used, and Lange posed the subjects, giving the iconic ‘madonna’ impression that we now know and which has been appropriated or subverted into different forms.

The context of the image is important; we would get one reading from its placing in a report on farming conditions, properly captioned, and quite another when seen enlarged and out-of-context on a gallery wall.

Histories of photography‘ notes Martin Gasser’s 1992 classification (Wells, 46) classification of photographic histories into (1) the priority debate, (2) the development of equipment and techniques and (3) histories of the photograph as image. The first two are dealt with fairly swiftly with a warning against taking contemporary and early 20th-century accounts at face value. Nationalistic factors come into play with, for instance, French accounts giving the daguerrotype more importance than I consider a blind alley deserves.

Viewing the history of the photograph as image became the the predominant approach after the Second World War. This section compares the contributions of Beaumont Newhall and the Gernsheims and the later 1989 works by Mike Weaver and John Szarkowski which marked the sesquicentenary of photography (both works starting as exhibition catalogues for the Royal Academy and MoMA respectively). Price and Wells note that all of these histories ultimately tend toward a ‘grand masters’ approach.

Photography and social history‘ moves away from ‘grand masters’ and the gallery wall and considers the review of ‘popular photography’ meaning the postcard, the family album, the records of clubs and societies, etc. In other words the sort of images encountered or used by most people. In noting the use of photography as a testament to history (initially by the popular medium of television, rather than by traditional historians) we are warned that context and provenance are important but can be difficult to determine.

There is also a short section on ‘categorical photography’ noting that photography was implicated very early in issues of surveillance and control. This, of course, is an issue that concerns us today with the proliferation of CCTV and other monitoring technologies. Control issues include the Victorian attempts to categorise races, social classes, criminality etc by means of ‘typical’ or composite photographs (introducing a point that will be covered in more detail in chapter 5)

The final part deals with photographs viewed out of context, on the gallery wall or in forms of history other than that for which they were taken. Again, provenance is important but there is a concern that images are often selected for aesthetic reasons, ignoring their original context, and thus becoming unreliable witnesses.

The final paragraph is a teaser for chapter 2 on documentary and chapter 3 on personal photography.

Overall, the chapter was a fascinating insight and a good introduction to a more serious approach to viewing and reading photographs and their contexts. I look forward to reading and reviewing further.


Wells, L (ed.) (2000) Photography: A Critical Introduction (2nd edition) London: Routledge