Author: Ian Jeffrey

Publisher: Abrams

Review by Conrad J. Obregon

Photography (like painting or writing) is not an art. It is a mechanical process of capturing light on sensitized media. On the other hand, some photographs are art while others are merely snapshots. The ones that are art have an overlay of meaning beyond the mere representation of the subject. To me, reading a picture means exploring that overlay.

Meaning may come from the content but it also comes from the way that the form (or technique) explicates the content. The literary critic Mark Shorer spoke of technique as discovery. For the photograph that means that things like lighting, composition, focus and selection of subject help show us the meaning of a photograph.

How to Read a Photograph: Lessons from Master Photographers is organized chronologically by photographer, beginning with Fox Talbot and ending with Joel Sternfeld. Each photographer gets one or more two-page spreads with the left page providing some biographical data and a small picture with description, and the right page with a larger picture described on the left page. There is also a brief conclusion about the photographer, usually on the right page if there is room under the picture and if not, then on the left page. I found the smaller pictures which are less than two and one-half inches wide extremely difficult to discern.

The author appears to be most concerned about the subjects of the photographs and speculates freely on what the subject reveals, often in an historical context. Much of the material is concerned with details of the artist’s life which have no bearing on the meaning of the picture, or if they do, whose relationship is not made clear.

As a history of photography, this approach is just barely satisfactory but it tells us little about how to understand the meaning of the individual photographs or photographs in general. The author appears to put his emphasis on black-and-white photography of a documentary nature. The fact that the written material is mainly descriptive of the subject matter made me wonder if the author considered any of the photographs to be art.

Although a few living artists like Stephen Shore and Joel Meyerowitz are included, missing are references to Annie Liebovitz, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall or their ilk.

It might be possible to construct a theory of how to read a photograph from examining all of the images in the book and working out what leads one to the meaning in these photographs, but little in the text will help you construct this theory.