The assignment brief opens with the phrase ‘A picture is worth a thousand words‘ and (without any further reference to it) asks for an essay on a single picture, deploying ‘rigorous and critical analysis’ (Boothroyd, 2017, p.92).
There are numerous published approaches to analysing photographs. Combining Barrett (2000), Shore (2007) and Szarkowski (1978 and 2007) with Barthes and Derrida from the course, any analytical method should consider up to five main aspects of a photograph’s trajectory from camera to publication and consumption: the subject; the photographer’s physical and technical choices; their personal attitudes; the display environment; and the viewer’s circumstances.
The headline phrase means that a single image might replace many words (or vice-versa), as is evidently the case with instructions for self-assembly furniture. In more complex media settings, images can replace, reinforce, undermine or even negate any number of spoken and written words. In March, Alex Salmond was ‘cleared of sexual assault allegations’ (Hutcheon, 2020), but, nevertheless, is frequently depicted as failing to respect colleagues’ rights, and taking advantage of his position of authority. The Times used a thirteen-year-old photograph (fig. 2) when reporting the trial (Massie, 2020). Here, the denoted contents are a man trying to embrace a reluctant woman, the press photographers present suggest that there is celebrity or public interest involved. An informed reader might not need the anchoring text (Barthes, 1967) identifying the subjects. The display environment (Barthes’ ‘channel of transmission’) is significant: a national newspaper is using the image to undermine Salmond’s position and diminish his court victory.
Some images need an explanation to be appreciated and understood. Richard Drew’s Falling Man (fig. 3) might at first appear to be an abstract, then the body is noticed and the photograph becomes sinister, but when the title subtly reveals, through the date, that this was one of nearly 3,000 victims of the 9/11 attack, the full horror of this man’s predicament and choices becomes apparent. The significant analytical aspect here is the viewer whose reaction to the context (when the subject is revealed) far outweighs any aesthetic or technical considerations. Those reactions depend on the viewers political (and perhaps religious) views, but nevertheless constitute what Barthes referred to as punctum, defined by Bate (2007) as the ‘aspect of the image that affects them in a particular and personal way’.
The image chosen as the central subject of this essay is more complex and nuanced than those considered so far.
In Brandt’s Northumbrian coal miner eating his evening meal, 1937 (fig. 1), the denoted contents comprise an unwashed middle-aged man eating a meal at a table, watched by a woman of similar age who is not eating. The room decoration is not contemporary. The image’s title establishes the period, the event and the setting and is another example of the clarification a title can provide, Barthes’ anchoring.
Superficially, this might be considered a documentary image, a genre that Brandt ostensibly built his reputation on, with his early photobooks, following which he gradually became a regular contributor to British magazines such as Picture Post. While little documentation has been found on this particular image or more generally about his visits to the North of England in the late 1930s, Brandt’s manipulative and sometimes performative approach to seemingly documentary images is frequently described.
Hacking (2012, p.61) writes that ‘some of the photographs taken by Brandt for his first book … feature … family and friends posing as characters in purportedly unmediated scenes of British social life’ and Delany (2004, p.10) that ‘his subjects had to be “in character”, placed on a stage with the necessary props’.
The connoted aspects of Northumbrian coal miner are by definition subjective and personal to the viewer. Perhaps the most striking component (the punctum of the image in Barthes’ terms) is the dirt on the subject’s face, body and clothing which, we suspect from the title, to be coal dust: it seems strange to eat a meal without washing, however, pit-head baths were only introduced widely, starting in the 1930s (Wright and Herrera, 2017) and Orwell wrote that ‘a majority of miners prefer to eat their meal first and wash afterwards’ (The Road to Wigan Pier, quoted in Delany, p. 134). Given my upbringing (close to the South Wales coalfields and Aberfan), I am sensitive to mining issues and interpret the image as an illustration of the oppressive conditions imposed on the working class in post-Depression Britain, but Brandt, perhaps partly as a result of his privileged background, seems to have lacked social concerns in this context and ‘never intended them … for political propaganda’ (Brand, quoted in Hacking, p.61) and did not, in any case, publish the images for more than a decade (MoMA, 2003, p.19).
Other features of the photograph merit a mention: the female subject is not eating; a satchel hangs on the rear wall; the picture on that wall, partially obscured but showing a face, seemingly peering around the drying clothes. It is possible, even inevitable that the viewer will interpret such features in their own way, but given Brandt’s practice of arranging the scenery and choreographing the subjects, no sensible conclusion can be reached on their implications. This is a manifestation of polysemy, a Barthian concept that Salkeld (2018, p.56) defines as a photograph’s ‘capacity for generating multiple meanings’.
It is not suggested that the Northumbrian coal miner or the coal-searcher (fig. 4) were portrayed by actors, but rather that Brandt might have taken a directorial approach to the portrait subjects and settings.
I had naively accepted Brandt’s early British work as straightforwardly representational and was, at first, disappointed to learn in research for this essay that many images were staged. However, I have always supposed that many photographers manipulate their subjects, for example, I cannot see how some of Cartier-Bresson’s (fig. 5) and Ronis’ (fig. 6) street photographs can be anything other than contrived and Lange’s iconic Migrant Mother (fig. 7) has come under increasing scrutiny (Dunn, 2002). Ultimately, in this context, Brandt’s approach is appropriate.
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