Critical Review – progress update

Posted on February 6, 2014


I have been spending a lot of time considering the critical framework for my review and researching my first photographer/work Roberts Frank/The Americans. It has become very clear to me even at this early stage that if I am to do each of my three chosen works justice my final text will be extremely long – perhaps twice the size of that suggested. As I do not wish my review to be superficial and do not want to annoy my tutor/assessors by presenting a text which is way too long, I have decided with the agreement of Sharon my tutor to limit my review to two photographer/works – Frank/The Americans and Norfolk/Bleed.

At the start of my text I have decided to present a brief overview of the critical context governing my review. As I will be away for a few weeks now on holiday, I have decided to post this overview to my blog now as a staging post and perhaps to gain some feedback/thoughts from others reading the blog. The text is set out below:


Andrew Mendelson proposed that to understand how meaning is created both the context within which the photographs are produced and the context within which they are presented and viewed, need to be considered. (Mendelson, 2008).

The need to consider the context of production is reiterated by Allan Sekula in his essay ‘On the Invention of Photographic Meaning’. Sekula compares two photographs, one by Alfred Stieglitz and the second by Lewis Hine and observes that ‘it is only by beginning to uncover the social and historical contexts of the [two] photographer[s] can we begin to acquire an understanding of meaning as related to intention.’ (Sekula, 1975).  A photographer’s intention is influenced by many factors: their background, interests, beliefs, culture, race, gender and so on; the prevailing conventions and constraints on what constituted ‘excellent’ and ethical photography at the time of the work was made; and the influence brought to bear by institutional decision makers such as curators, editors and publishers. The nature of the subject matter and the interaction between photographer and the subject are also important considerations. 

Interpretation of the meaning of a work of art (or photograph) focused largely on the question of the author’s intention until the latter part of the 2oth century, when the pre-eminence of author was seriously challenged by critical thinkers . In ‘Death of the Author’ Barthes argued that ‘text does not consist of a line of words, releasing a single “theological” meaning (the “message” of the Author-God), but is a space of many dimensions’. (Barthes, 1977A). (His argument was made with reference to literature but applies equally to images). Foucault also questioned the ideological nature of authorship in his essay ‘What is an Author?’ (Foucault, 1969).   Some, such as Irish literary theorist Sean Burke have presented critical arguments against the ideas of Barthes and Foucault. (Burke, 2008). Nevertheless, it is clear today that demystifying the author has resulted in greater empowerment of the viewer/reader. The author may not be dead but the relationship between photographer/author and viewer/reader has significantly changed.

It is now generally accepted that photographic meaning is mutable and is significantly (if not entirely) influenced by the cultural conditioning of the viewer, how and where the work is presented, e.g. gallery prints, in a book, as a slide show/video, on the internet and so on, and how (if at all) the photographs are associated with other images and/or text. These factors form  the context of presentation.

Roland Barthes’ essay ‘Rhetoric of the Image’ is a particularly useful construct for analysing the way in which viewers interpret images. (Barthes, 1964). Barthes proposes that a photograph creates meaning through both denotation and connotation. The former is the literal description of what is depicted – a picture of a cross denotes its referent, a cross. The same picture may also connote other meanings – in Christian countries for example the cross will stand for the church. Connoted meaning is created through cultural codes unique to particular societies and is also influenced by how and where a photograph is displayed – a photograph shown on Facebook and viewed on a computer screen may connote a different message from that if it were seen as a large print in a gallery. 

Barthes discusses the use of text with images and suggests that it is used to direct the meaning connoted by the image, either by locking it down (anchorage) or by providing additional information suggesting other possible connotations (relay). He also considers how sequences of images work to create meaning and takes the view that the ‘signifier of connotation is then no longer to be found at the level of any one of the fragments of the sequence but at that…of the concatenation’. (Barthes, 1977B). 

When reviewing each of my chosen documentary works I have given careful consideration to the contexts of their production and presentation and Barthes ideas on how viewers interpret their images/texts. 


Barthes R. (1964) Rhetoric of the Image In: Visual Culture: The Reader London: Sage, pp 37. 

Barthes R. (1977A) Image, Music, Text London: Fontana Press, pps 142 -148.

Barthes R. (1977B) The Photographic Message In: Photography in Print: Writings from 1816 to the Present. Albuquerque:University of New Mexico Press, pp 528. 

Burke S. (2008) The Death and Return of the Author Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. 

Foucault M. (1969) What is an Author? In: Art in Theory 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Oxford:Blackwell,  pp 949-953. 

Mendelson, A. (2008) The Construction of Photographic Meaning In: Handbook of Literacy Research: Visual, Communicative and Performative Arts.  Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, pp. 27-36. 

Sekula, A. (1975) On the Invention of Photographic Meaning Available From:  [Accessed on: 6th February 2014], pp 8