How To Read A Photograph – Ian Jeffrey

Following the suggestion my tutor made in his feedback report on my Assignment 3, I’ve now completed reading the book he recommended ‘How To Read A Photograph’ by Ian Jeffrey and I must say that it’s given me a new insight into interpretation of contemporary photography.

As many will have seen from my previous ramblings I’ve struggled a great deal with contemporary photographs, trying to pin them down into likes and dislikes and whether or not they engender any feeling of pictorial art within me.  What this book has shown me is that every picture has an interpretation that is unique to it and to the individual viewing it, which may or may not be what the artist originally intended it to portray and each interpretation is no less valid than any other.

Contemporary photographic art isn’t necessarily intended to be viewed as a single image in isolation, but more often as one within a series and of a style peculiar to that artist.  Several artists can, and have, made images that are of either the same or similar views, but the outcome is different from their individual interpretative style and can lead the viewer to have different interpretations as a result.  It’s similar to having several bottles of wine from the same region, of the same vintage but each with its own distinctive taste depending upon how the vintner blends his product.

What Ian Jeffrey has achieved with this book enables a recent novice to discover how each photographer has changed the blend of his art from the teachers and experiences they’ve encountered and allow the reader to see the progression or parallels more easily than with most other books of this type.  Each photographer is treated in exactly the same manner, with a short piece of personal historical introduction a couple or three images with interpretation added and where the greatness of each artist requires it, further pages discovering more history and other images.  Each history is populated with high points and relationships with other contemporaneous photographers who’ve influenced the current artist and with images that allow the reader to flit backwards and forwards to view the relevant influences.

The book is very easy to read as each photographer is in effect a distinct chapter in their own right, although there are no defined chapters within the book.  This makes it easy to pick up and put down at leisure as no artist is more than 14 pages long and is a discrete unit of learning.  With the book spanning 371 pages there a great number of artists covered, most of whom I as a novice have never heard of, but the textual account with each shows where they fit into the history and breadth of the subject.

I heartily recommend this book to anyone like me who has been struggling with contemporary photography, I only wish I owned the book rather than borrowed from the library, as it is a marvellous reference work that I could keep returning to and dipping in and out of.  I think it should probably be on the reading list for the photography courses as it is a reference that will be useful throughout each level.

4 Responses to How To Read A Photograph – Ian Jeffrey

  1. CliveW says:

    Ian Jeffery was my tutor at Goldsmiths, an excellent man, who was instrumental in establishing the serious study of photography in this country at the beginning of the 70s.

  2. Eddy Lerp says:

    Wow…. how interesting Clive. This book has to be the best one I’ve read to date about the history and reasoning behind the way photography has developed and although I’ve read a lot of criticism about the title not being reflected in the content I have certainly found that he has certainly helped me develop my ability to read a photograph, which I hope is reflected in my write-up here https://lerpysphotographyblog.wordpress.com/ma-other-art-postgraduates-2012-exhibition-street/

  3. CliveW says:

    He’s a very modest self-effacing man and very open in looking for the essence of the new work that’s sent to him from all over the world; one of a handful of people that I’ve met my life that I’ve respected enough to consider a kind of a role model, up to a point, because he has a vast knowledge of the history and culture of photography that I’ll never have, or would even want to quite frankly, because it can fill up your entire head and not leave any room to make your own work.

    But I think you’ve made fantastic progress in the way your engaging with photography and I hope making images is coming easier to you now. ‘ }

    • Eddy Lerp says:

      I initially had some reservations about whether or not you needed to have the in-depth knowledge he obviously has about all the artists he wrote about and their near incestuous relationships, but once you realise this is something to strive for, and probably never reach, it releases you to realise you can make your own voice heard about what you see in images, and what anyone else thinks of your interpretation is irrelevant, so it’s freedom of mind.

      That and the discussions I’ve had with JA my tutor has I believe enabled me to see much more clearly what I need to do with regard to my own work, and yes I guess I am finding making images much easier than I did.

      Thanks very much for the compliment it’s very encouraging when you get that sort of thing popping up on your blog.

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