Context and Narrative by Maria Short – Chapter 5

I observed Short described the study of signs (semiotics) in a clear and concise manner, without being either too pedantic or complicated. She compared the dyadic and triadic systems for signs of de Saussure and Pierce respectively, for which Pierce used an additional element. Even though de Saussure’s model was easier to grasp, I felt that Pierce’s model satisfied all aspects of any sign’s reading. This was because it introduced the ‘object’ and the ‘interpretant’ in place of just the signified.

Once aware of how to recognise a sign in photography, it is important to be clear what kind of a sign it is. There are three types – symbolic, iconic and indexical. Indexicality in photography interested me the most as this property is intrinsic in every photograph. It means its there-ness – it is a part of something that happened and was recorded through light by the camera. This differs from the symbolic (where something represents something else) and the iconic (something which is perceptibly similar). Reading about the various types of signs did make me wonder whether they could be used in combination. Because indexical signs could be apparent within a photograph as well as be the photograph itself I wondered what the implications of an indexical sign appearing on an indexical photograph would be. Would the effect be like a double negative or compound the indexicality to the viewer?

Signs give extra information for the photograph to be read as the photographer intends. In this way they act as a visual metaphor, reading to the viewer pointers for meaning to be inferred. They can be subtle and unobtrusive or fill the entire photograph. They can also be a mood in the photograph so not something tangible. Ways I could envisage signs appearing in the photograph as visual metaphors after reading Chapter 5 of Context and Narrative would be:

  • a simple object out of place or unusual in the context of the photograph which signified something more
  • the use of focus where sharply focussed symbolises in the present while out of focus in the background is more distant and of the past
  • a visually recognisable sign or symbol appearing high up in the frame of the photograph standing for power or authority
  • lighting in the photograph creating a pointed mood because of the time of day which lends to the subjects of there photograph

Implementing signs into photographs I would imagine is easier if the photographer has time/inclination to construct the photograph. Because a lot of documentary is unconstructed where the photographer has to work quickly it becomes harder to think about which signs should appear where in the photographic frame. Yet this placement can give the signs extra meaning or none at all if left out of the frame. Short alludes to this in Chapter 5 and gives some pointers as to how to work with this – ‘If the photographer is clear as to the function, purpose and intention behind the photographs, these [on-the-spot] decisions are easier’ – (Short, 2011). For this reason, I would think it is very important to have a clear rationale or concept behind your images beforehand so that you can implement the signs as you see them.


Short, M. (2011). Context and Narrative. 1st ed. Lausanne: AVA Publishing SA, pp.120-141.

Context and Narrative by Maria Short – Chapter 4

Right at the start of Chapter 4 – ‘Narrative’, I liked the description Short uses for the question what is narrative in photography. Here Short describes the techniques used to provide narrative in photography to be ‘seen as a kind of visual punctuation.’ – (Short, 2011). From this I gathered certain techniques provide the framework from which a photographer could structure their vision, much like the commas and full stops in this written sentence.(!)

The chapter starts properly by identifying what narrative is and I reconfirmed in my head it is essentially a story. However, because the medium is photography the format can be linear or in other ways too because it is a visual medium. I saw this as the ‘visual punctuation’ informing the visual word order and meaning of the sentence.

The first half of the chapter is dedicated to narrative within a series or set of photographs and while this may be less applicable to me for Assignment 2 of documentary, where I have to produce single-image narratives, it will no doubt prove of use beyond the assignment. Some techniques key to providing a strong narrative within a series or set of photographs Short outlined consisted of aesthetic continuity, so a theme is formed, size of the images in relation to each other as they appear and juxtaposition of the images in the series. I felt the latter of these techniques (juxtaposition) could also be assigned to the components of a single image in order to provide narrative there as well.

This led me onto the second half of the chapter ‘Narrative’ dealing with single-image narratives. Short initially poses the question: ‘what exactly is narrative within a single image and how does a photographer work to convey or create it?’ – (Short, 2011). I was left slightly frustrated after reading the page she poses the question on because she seems at first to not answer the latter part to the question directly or at least not as I had expected. I would have expected the answer to be solely the juxtaposition of compositional elements within the single-image. Reading this page and beyond again however, she does indeed hint at the juxtapositional element of not only composition but light and colour too when she asks: ‘What is the relevance of the empty space/dark sky/colour of the carpet?’ – (Short, 2011). She then additionally goes on to add in the next few pages ,methods for creating meaning in single-images – some of which I want thought of before. For example, she states that it is important to have clear preconceptions about the aim of the project. At the same time she suggests how ‘being open to unexpected elements contributing to the photograph’ can add extra, unforeseen meaning. This is later backed up at the end of the chapter with the case study. I had begun to understand that experimentation with photographs as they are being taken and after they are taken improve on concepts, which is very important. It is good practice to have a clear reason for taking the photographs in the first place though.

Another aspect I discerned from the single-image narrative part of the chapter was about immersing yourself in a project to the point that you are absorbed by your practice and are not thinking about creating art. This approach can yield work which is art once it has been selected from the larger body produced form the documentary practice. Short used the example of Cartier-Bresson’s lesser known photojournalistic bodies of work like his coverage of Mahatma Ghandi’s funeral to illustrate this concept. Perhaps I had been taking a wrong or at least starkly contrasting approach to that of Cartier-Bresson’s practice. Whereas I had tried to produce documentary images which could be considered as art, Cartier-Bresson produced large volumes of work where he was completely absorbed in producing images before selecting images he felt were art. Ironically, I had been heavily influenced by Cartier-Bresson’s art photographs in the first place as they seemed to exist as single decisive moments in time and I had only observed them singularly previously. Therefore it was a bit of a revelation at least some of them weren’t taken with art in mind particularly, like with Short’s example of Cartier-Bresson’s coverage of Mahatma Ghandi’s funeral. This reminded me of an article I had recently been reading by Eric Kim about forgetting composition when shooting photographs, entitled: Don’t Think About Composition When Shooting Street Photography. I had been browsing the internet, looking for inspiration for my assignment when I came across this fairly provocatively titled article with regards to street photography. I found it useful however in a similar way to Short’s example of of Cartier-Bresson’s coverage of Mahatma Ghandi’s funeral. The emphasis was to take photographs first and worry about (composition in this case) later. Kim still gives a list of basic compositional techniques to bear in mind before going on a shoot but argues: ‘use composition as a tool after you’ve taken a bunch of photos, in order to know which photo to keep (and which to ditch).’ – (Kim, n.d.). He then backs this up with a quote: ‘I would rather choose an emotional photo with soul (with poor composition), rather than a soul-less photo (with a great composition)’ – (Kim, n.d.) which resonates with some of what I had been thinking. Short is of the opinion that ‘total immersion in the process enables the photographer to be highly tuned into the vital aspects of the photograph’, so much so that as an experienced photographer absorbed in the process you can anticipate ‘At what angle and place in the frame movement will be frozen’ and ‘How and where light is falling’ – (Short, 2011). This implies once the photographer is absorbed in the project completely, composition becomes natural. It seems that with ‘total immersion’ in a project the photographer gets the best of both worlds – soulful photos (as there is now a more meaningful interaction with the subject) and good composition. If the composition isn’t exactly right the photographer could presumably select another photograph to use from the many they’d taken. One of these photographs is more likely to be ‘art’ than shooting sporadically and without absorption into the process.


Cartier-Bresson, H. (1948). Mahatma Gandhi’s last days and funeral procession, 1948. [online] Magnum Photos. Available at: [Accessed 23 Mar. 2017].

Kim, E. (n.d.). Don’t Think About Composition When Shooting Street Photography. [online] Eric Kim Photography. Available at: [Accessed 23 Mar. 2017].

Short, M. (2011). Context and Narrative. 1st ed. Lausanne: AVA Publishing SA, pp.96-119.

Marcus Bleasdale Interview

The work of Marcus Bleasdale with his photojournalism makes my own trivial pursuits seem quite selfish and ignorant especially with regards to his choice of subject to portray. He has literally changed his way of life to dedicate bringing to light inequalities in the world while I have so far chosen a much more enclosed, introspective perspective. I should remind myself there are still inequalities where I live and try to bring about change in these places.


He talks about the single-image narrative still being a powerful tool – ‘I know Tom [Stoddart]’s work has been used to raise large amounts of money for aid agencies just through the strength of the single image.’ – (Bleasdale, 2005). This is inspiring for my second assignment for Documentary because he was talking in regards to how other people read the image. My target audience – other people where I live – would need to understand what I was trying to tell through single images.

His work is still documentary and yet he often builds a rapport with his subjects for the photographs first and then this he believes is reflected into pictures. This is illustrated when he says: ‘I spend a lot of time helping as much as I can expanding the relationship that I have as a photographer and a human being.’, followed by: ‘If your subjects have respect for you and you for them, then I think this will be evident in the final image.’ – (Bleasdale, 2005). This interested me greatly because usually I would take candid photographs so the photograph remained unconstructed. This is something which I feel is controversial in documentary; is the photographer then not constructing the image and tailoring it to mean something else despite their best intentions? However if the photographer did not build this (relative novelty for me) of a rapport between photographer and subject, then the photograph wouldn’t be as intimate and affecting. Therefore if the goal is to bring about social change, then the photographs where there is a rapport visible on some level between photographer and subject would have more of a profound effect on the viewer. Indeed this is something I could see in Bleasdale’s work; specifically the ‘Sakura Lisi’ series.


Bleasdale, M. (2005). Inside. Foto8, [online] (Vol4No3), pp.68-70. Available at: [Accessed 6 Mar. 2017].

Bleasdale, M. (2008). The Rape of a Nation. [online] Marcus Bleasdale – Photographer. Available at: [Accessed 6 Mar. 2017].

Notes on ‘Mirror of Visual Culture’ by Maartje Van Den Heuvel

I have just finished reading a very intriguing, introspective (of the art world) essay by Maartje Van Den Heuvel entitled ‘Mirror of Visual Culture‘ and I have written down my notes as I went along.

Van Den Heuvel suggests documentary can still exist in the museum today, though only because documentary today is progressing from the documentary tradition, with photographers and filmmakers finding new ways to approach the genre. She explains this is necessary because the media is becoming ever-more prominent in society and as this increases so does visual literacy. Visual literacy is a way of saying viewers and indeed photographers understand and (produce work for) the world/images around them. This is the case so much so that the photographers have begun creating images based upon the way images are viewed in the context of the media – ‘art is beginning to function more and more as a mirror of visual culture’ – (Van Den  Heuvel, 2005). The implications of that made me think of a kind of meta-image where the image references itself. This was hard for me to imagine producing myself but something which also interested me greatly. Maybe the photographers would do this subtly in the form of visual metaphors. It is also important to remember that the media becoming more prominent in art not only applies to photographers but also filmmakers, advertisers, graphic designers or other image makers.

In ‘Documentary: the Militant Eye Witness’ (the first part of the essay), Van Den Heuvel makes the assertion we are talking about documentary tradition originating with Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine (around 1900) and continuing with photographers like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans with the FSA project (1935-1944). While this documentary tradition was often seen as being realistic and objective, during later years (1970s onwards), these suppositions were usurped by the belief that mostly all documentary was subjective in some way. This coincided with the advent of TVs becoming widely available. Ironically as soon as people became more visually literate they also changed what they used as their ‘window on the world’ to the TV. This was for me yet another paradox of the photograph, other paradoxes including a photograph’s reproducibility and semi-permanence set against how fleeting it is in the first place. Also how photographs connote and denote at the same time and the fact we (now) see photographs everywhere and yet they are essentially transparent objects. I felt at least some of these paradoxes could be related back to how to represent the ‘meta-image’ where the image references itself visually.


Van Den Heuvel in ‘Documentary Remix’ implies a lot of the photographers use classic documentary as a base and expand their ideas from there. This is similar I think to what my course is doing, making me look at classic documentary as a starting point and allowing me to form my own personal voice. She also uses a lot of examples of photographers thinking about and producing work approaching documentary in new ways. I aim to look at at a few of the artists she mentions as a lot of their projects sounded compelling.



Van Den Heuvel (2005). Mirror of Visual Culture. Documentary Now! [online] Available at: [Accessed 3/3/2017].

Bill Brandt’s Art of the Document

I was asked to find out how did B+W become such a respected and trusted medium in documentary in Campany’s 2006 essay: ‘Bill Brandt’s Art of the Document’.

I didn’t find too much relating directly to how the black and white image became such a respected and trusted medium in documentary in Campany’s essay. The most I actually found was a description comparing two photographs: ‘with their cluttered foregrounds, flattened vertical backgrounds and bold interplay of black and white shapes.’ – (Campany, 2006). This last bit indicated for me that form was more important in black and white photographs than colour. Maybe Brandt realised this was a strength of his work as especially in his later years (1960s onwards), Brandt’s style of processing grew harsher. He ‘sacrificed the mid-tones for more modish graphic blocks of black and white’ – (Campany, 2006). The high contrast between black and white thus creating distinct form became even more important and helped him to create a status as a documentary artist – ‘his latest photography was pursued more openly as art’ – (Campany, 2006). It seemed to me that Brandt wanted to emphasise the form in his photographs to suggest juxtapositions and interplay within the frame through the black and white medium.

‘However, Dinner is Served is unusual in that something of those tensions is at play within its frame.’ – (Campany, 2006). Rather than a photoessay where meaning is put forward from one photograph to another – tensions being palpable between photographs, here is suggested the concept of a single-image narrative. By juxtaposing various elements within the frame, Brandt creates tensions in one photograph which Campany feels is unusual. I found this of interest because for my second assignment for documentary I have been asked to produce 8 single-image narratives of the same theme. By looking at the image ‘Parlourmaid and Under-parlourmaid Ready to Serve Dinner’ which juxtaposes the foreground elements with the similar yet contrasting faces of the two parlour maids, I could potentially gain some insight into how to create single-image narratives.

For instance there is the main theme of social class disparity with both the parlourmaids uneasy about their status in relation to the foreground ‘upper-class’ elements. Then there is a sub-theme where there is another social class divide amongst the more senior parlourmaid and the under-parlourmaid. Here, the more senior parlourmaid looks more indignant while the under-parlourmaid appears a bit tense and afraid.


Parlourmaid and Under-parlourmaid Ready to Serve Dinner (1936) – Bill Brandt

I was also pulled into the world of the Surrealists. Their photographic document was a ‘charged, enigmatic fragment that left as much known as it revealed, coaxing the viewer back onto their own judgement or imagination.’ – (Campany, 2006). This offered a solution to the problem I was experiencing where my work was aiming to be a literal visual document, mainly denoting but not connoting much. Brandt himself was wary of this approach: ‘he remained unconvinced of the efficacy of the photograph as a means of straightforward social description’ – (Campany, 2006). By perhaps using visual metaphors and unresolved connotations I could get across the meaning I was aiming to convey to the viewer in the context of a theme.


Brandt, B. (1936). Parlourmaid and Under-parlourmaid Ready to Serve Dinner. [Photograph].

Campany, D. (2006). Bill Brandt’s Art of the Document. [online] David Campany. Available at: [Accessed 22 Feb. 2017].

Survival Programmes

When I read about the Exit photography group: three, young photographers trying to bring about social reform by documenting harrowing poverty through purely black and white photographs as well as interviews over 5 years, I found the magazine article about Survival Programmes to be eye-opening and moving at the same time.


Survival Programmes: In Britain's Inner Cities
Home-bound pensioner, Maryhill, Glasgow, Scotland, 1975


Home-bound pensioner, Maryhill, Galsgow, Scotland, 1975 by the Exit Photography Group depicts a man who’s thoughts are elsewhere. Whether his thoughts are on what is outside his window, or in my opinion more likely his retirement, it seems from his intent gaze they are elsewhere and not on the TV which dominates the composition. Ironically the TV shows a scene which may be something akin to what he regards as retirement which is why I’ve found this image so compelling. The black and white medium allows the viewer to concentrate on the compositional aspects of the image as well as lighting so this potential message becomes clearer.


Survival Programmes: In Britain's Inner Cities
Rootless Youth, Small Heath, Birmingham, 1975.


Rootless Youth, Small Heath, Birmingham, 1975 by the Exit Photography Group was the most moving image for me of the series as the youth looks very dejected and run-down and the black and white treatment subtly leads the viewer to the unfortunate youth because of the converging perspective centring in around his head.

In terms of the Exit photography group’s photographs’ success in fighting for social reform, because the photographs were black and white, for me their cause was aided as the black and white element helped. I felt the photographs themselves were very well-composed and indicative of the struggles with poverty that were happening but because the medium of black and white was employed they did indeed take on an extra authority. I have thought about why this may be and one reason which occurred to me was that people associated black and white with truthfulness as photography had traditionally been this medium (colour had not been possible until later in photography’s life). For that reason the viewer was more likely to accept what was represented in the frame as fact.


Survival Programmes: In Britain's Inner Cities
Vandals, Tenement Block, Govan, Glasgow, Scotland, 1975.


Vandals, Tenement Block, Govan, Glasgow, Scotland, 1975 by the Exit Photography Group was for me a look into a different world with the vandals photographed on two extreme corners of the frame. This added to the drama in my opinion.

Perhaps another less obvious reason the photographers for the Exit photography group employed black and white solely may have been that although colour was available and was more immediate and modern, black and white was also available but more aged. Viewers may subconsciously read the images as part of an older time, stuck in its ways. Therefore in a way it possibly signified the divide in contemporary colour and older black and white. The message of social reform being communicated with the viewer that way (poverty belonged to the old age with black and white). Perhaps colour would be used as a more positive, immediate energy to celebrate social reform by these photographers, if social reform was brought about?


A link to the license for the images above:

issuu. (2006). Volume 5 Number 1. [online] Available at: [Accessed 12 Feb. 2017].

Steele-Perkins, C., Battye, N. and Trevor, P. (1975). Survival Programmes: In Britain’s Inner Cities: Home-bound pensioner, Maryhill, Glasgow, Scotland, 1975. [Photograph] Newcastle: AmberSide Collection.

Steele-Perkins, C., Battye, N. and Trevor, P. (1975). Survival Programmes: In Britain’s Inner Cities: Rootless Youth, Small Heath, Birmingham, 1975. [Photograph] Newcastle: AmberSide Collection.

Steele-Perkins, C., Battye, N. and Trevor, P. (1975). Survival Programmes: In Britain’s Inner Cities: Vandals, Tenement Block, Govan, Glasgow, Scotland, 1975. [Photograph] Newcastle: AmberSide Collection.


Photo Notes – Elizabeth McCausland

I have compiled some of my notes relating to Elizabeth McCausland’s notes found in her ‘Documentary Photograhy’ Photo Notes (1939).

The discoveries I made after reading her notes answered some questions I had regarding documentary. Although I didn’t agree with all she had to say (finding some of it showing age compared to nowadays), there were some interesting statements I found thought-provoking.


  • McCausland routinely encourages the use of objective photography rather than subjective, seeing the world as a better place with photography being used in this way. An example of this encouragement for objective photography is: ‘documentary photography, an application of photography direct and realistic, dedicated to the chronicling of the external world.’ – (McCausland, 1939). This is in comparison to the ‘pattern of sterility, of ideas which could not reproduce themselves’  found in the pictorialists for example – before they turned their energy ‘to newer and more objective purposes’ – (McCausland, 1939).
  • In the same breath, McCausland, while seeing favour in concentrating on reality, hints at negative associations – the ‘sober chronicling of the external world’- (McCausland, 1939).
  • McCausland praises the virtues of ‘new’ documentary photography. ‘Old’ photography in the form of ‘pretty pictures’ for her have been explored, while instead documentary photographers should embrace photographing ‘life’.
  • She believes that documenting the external world, the world of human beings, is honest endeavour and time better spent than photographing ‘the inner ebb and flow of consciousness’ – (McCausland, 1939).
  • McCausland, acknowledging photography’s indexicality, calls for a ‘documentary ideal’.
  • Her ‘documentary ideal’ would be: work that ‘must have meaning, content, must communicate and must speak to an audience.’ – (McCausland, 1939). The work should be carried out by a photographer who is objective in all aspects of their work. Basically that through working in a way such that the photographer is almost invisible, without personality, the target audience becomes more aware of the real world, whether it is a positive or negative view on the world.
I found Paragraph 4 in particular very interesting. She admits the camera can and most often does lie but doesn’t see the interpretation every photographer imposes on each scene they photograph by their framing of the scene. I would agree admittedly more should be done to photograph the negative, less photographed parts of life rather than just ‘the wide miles of America and its mountain ranges’ – McCausland, 1939). However, even if life were to be photographed unbiasedly the work would still remain subjective due to framing. This presents why I found some of these statements McCausland makes a bit outdated. When all McCausland urges documentary photographers to partake in has been accomplished then what now? People have become desensitised to ‘social horrors such as war’ and regardless of whether the photographer has the intention of providing an objective response to this world it is invariably subjective. For me the reason it is subjective is because the photography partaken is biased income way or form and the resultant images are in some way an interpretation based on the photographer’s own schemas concerning the world around them. There were however, certain aspects of these Photo Notes I found very useful including the idea the external world consisting primarily of human beings suggesting that anything ‘worthy’ of a camera’s attention should be based around people. This observation doesn’t mean I will follow some of McCausland’s suggestions but her assumption that: ‘Actually there is no limit to the world of external reality the photographer may record.’ – McCausland, 1939) was of particular interest to me at this stage of the course. The reason for this was that a lot of my work so far had been limited to ‘the inner ebb and flow of consciousness’ – McCausland, 1939) and so, particularly for Assignment 2 of Documentary, it might be beneficial for me to photograph other people more.