Reading Photographs – Project 2: Reading pictures – Research point

Research point

Visit [accessed 24/02/14] for a blog about Jeff Wall’s, Insomnia (1994), interpreted using some of the tools discussed above.

Read and reflect upon the chapter on Diane Arbus in Singular Images: Essays on Remarkable Photographs by Sophie Howarth (2005, London: Tate Publishing). This is out of print but you may be able to find it in your local university library: some of the chapters are available as pdfs online. You’ll find the Arbus chapter on the student website.

If you haven’t yet read any of Judith Williamson’s ‘Advertising’ articles (see Introduction), now would be a good time to do so. See:

Wall, J. (1994). Insomnia, (transparency in lightbox, 172.2 x 213.4 cm).

I found Sharon Boothroyd’s dissection of Insomnia very insightful, informative and formulaic. By that, I mean that it had a solid structure, and the sum of the parts all equalled the ‘bigger picture’. It was logical and flowed well, and was actually quite easy reading. Big words and academic terminology were avoided which gives me hope that I can pull off Assignment 4! My notes on the blog post:

  • Started at the Formal Level – Denotative elements, the facts and how they translate.
  • Followed by a personal reading – The Connotative elements, based on own experiences and memories, the interpretation.
  • The photograph is then examined in reference to the wider ‘Canon’ of art, looking at Wall’s ‘history’ and artistic habits – references to Shakespeare and literature.
  • The article finishes with a look at the actual installation/print and summarises the audience and context.
Arbus, D (1966). A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing, N.Y.C.

Arbus, D (1966). A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing, N.Y.C.

Essay – Jobey, L. (2005) ‘Diane Arbus: A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing, NYC, 1966’, in Howarth, S. (ed.) Singular images: Essays on remarkable photographs. London: Tate Publishing.

Jobey’s essay in Singular Images goes into far more depth than Boothroyd’s example. Being relatively new to the idea of ‘reading’ photographs I’ve found both examples to very educational and both have helped to improve my understanding of deconstruction and semiotics.

Jobey’s essay is not quite as succinct as Boothroyd’s. There is a lot of ‘back and forth’ as she pursues lines of thought, which in themselves give the essay a structure. It surprised me just how much of her writing wasn’t about the actual photograph, but instead a lot of it focused on the author and the frames of reference such as America’s social and political climate at the time the photograph was made. Throughout, there are relations or parallels to other art forms. Jobey asks questions and has a tendency to assume that the reader has reached the same assumptions. Like Boothroyd’s example, she starts off by translating the denotative elements such as the poses, gazes and body language. She then interprets these into Signifiers and the Signified until we are left with this metaphor of the ‘unhappy family’ (the Sign).

At one point, there is a discussion about the use of the photo in a British newspaper magazine, and the accompanying letter from Arbus to the editor. This provides a great deal of context which further enables interpretation of the image in relation to the artists intent. This is further embellished with discussion about Arbus, her death and her estate.

At several points in the essay, Jobey makes reference to other writers (with quotes) who may have had differing views about Arbus’ work or counter-arguments. This gives the whole essay a critical and balanced feel, giving the reader further avenues of research and giving them the ability to form their own opinion.


Boothroyd, S. (2012) ‘Beneath the surface’, Photography, 17 October. Available at: (Accessed: 28 March 2016).
Jobey, L. (2005) ‘Diane Arbus: A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing, NYC, 1966’, in Howarth, S. (ed.) Singular images: Essays on remarkable photographs. London: Tate Publishing,

Reading photographs – Project 2: Reading pictures – Exercise


Rip out an advertising image from a newspaper supplement and circle and write on as many parts of the image as you can. Comment on what it is, what it says about the product and why you think it’s there. You could use this as the basis for your assignment if you feel it’s taking you somewhere interesting. Or you could adopt this method for your assignment preparation.

Come back to this exercise when you’ve reached the end of Part Four and see if you can add anything to your analysis.

Whilst looking at various print advertisements, I noticed a trend for simple images, which although effective, had little content for deconstruction other than some colour, text and a metaphor for ‘why you need this product’. So rather than choose an advert for a product, I chose an advertisement  from a campaign.


This print is one of a series from an American campaign to change the laws on gun control. Below I have highlighted the elements of the advert that I believe are pertinent, with a brief explanation as to what it contributes to the overall effectiveness of the image.


  1. A chocolate egg containing a toy. Commonplace in most of the world and loved by kids. An item that many of us will have memories of enjoying as kids ourselves. By choosing a small, seemingly delicate item, emphasis is made regarding the ridiculousness of current policy. It forces those who are ‘pro-gun’ to question their own morals and ethics. How can you ban one and not the other?
  2. The contrast. A large, dangerous item, made to seem larger and more dangerous in the hands of a petite girl. Goes hand in hand with 1.
  3. The classroom setting. A place where children ‘should’ be safe. a place of innocence and learning, but all too often the scene of tragedy due to mass shootings. This setting has been used to complement 1 and 2. Guns do not belong in the hands of children and certainly do not belong in schools. An Assault Rifle does not belong in everyday society, it belongs on the battlefield.
  4. Empty Chairs. A deserted classroom. Connotations of silence, a void, emptiness, a mourning for children lost to gun crime. Not wanting to send kids to school for fear of guns.
  5. Ethnicity and gender. At first I thought this might be a coincidence, but on looking at the rest of the campaign, each and every image features a seemingly typical white American child holding the gun, and then a child of typically ethnic origin holding the innocuous item. Both are always of different sex. To me this has 2 effects. Firstly it creates a contrast, which compliments 1 & 2. Secondly, it works on a subconscious level, triggering and using prejudices to communicate meaning. Americans have a history of being notoriously racist and of having a fear of the unknown. In these images we feel that it’s not the ‘unknown’ we should be fearful of, it is the homegrown dangers  of a ‘societal and cultural ‘need/dependence’ on guns that posses the real danger. Again, this is attacking the senses of those who are perhaps more old-fashioned and members of the pro-gun lobby, the real Rednecks.
  6. Style. The image has a contrasty, subdued and dark finish which gives it a sense of seriousness. It works to communicate that the issue is a serious one, despite the initial absurdity of the opening statement (1 & 2).
  7. The children are in a spotlight/vignette which separates them from their surroundings. This helps to detach them from the setting, allowing 3 to work to better effect. Their position in the centre of the frame makes the image easy on the eye and well-balanced, which allows us to look for longer without getting uncomfortable.
  8. Just in case we were in any doubt… The text at the top of the advert poses a question then leads us to the image, allowing us time and opportunity to make our own minds up and deduce an answer. For those that might not have quite ‘got-it’, this is then spelt out at the bottom.


D, L. (no date) 33 powerful and creative print ads That’ll make you look twice. Available at: (Accessed: 20 February 2016).