Tag Archives: meaning

All sorts of stuff relating to the archive

After attending the OCA Photography Hangout last night, which was discussing Allan Sekula’s essay, ‘Reading an Archive: Photography between Labour and Capital‘, I looked back at the notes I’d taken at Photo Oxford in September, and realised there was considerable cross-over. So this is a post about both Sekula’s work and the Photo Oxford seminar.

Sekula’s Reading an Archive

Sekula’s essay Reading the Archive can be found as Chapter 42 of Wells (2003) The Photography Reader. It is a densely argued piece, which considers the political aspects of photography in some detail. He argues that all photographs potentially have a political angle which is frequently not acknowledged or even denied either at the time of making, or by later viewers. For example, Leslie Sheddon’s archive of commercial photographs from Cape Breton in the mid 20th century shows different strata of the local society when viewed now, although it might not have been directly considered at the time.

Sekula also considers the Archive, that ‘collection of primary materials waiting for someone to make connections between different elements within it’ (my definition). It cannot ever be complete, because it is amorphous, and constantly open both to new materials, but also to new interpretations of the material. It can never be fully understood.

Archives  constitute a ‘territory of images‘, i.e. those sources which belong to the person or institution who owns them, and who may buy and sell parts of it. However, ownership has little to do with the meaning of the work, which is produced by the researcher who picks and chooses the elements s/he wasn’t to compare, with the aim of telling a particular story (authorship). It is important to note though that the story is entirely dependent on the interpretation imposed by the researcher, and that there are a multiplicity of potential stories, with many different possible meanings, which can be gleaned from the archive. (abstract visual equivalence) This means that the politics and experience of the researcher will inevitably affect the outcome of that research, but also the politics and experience of the final viewer. There is no objectivity here; everything is subjective.

Sekula goes on to discuss how history is often dependent on pictures made at the time (whether they be paintings or photographs), and that these are frequently imbued with an aura of ‘truthfulness’ which when unpacked proves to be illusory. For example, an image of an Edwardian country lady with her family and servants has several potential histories depending on whose point of view you are considering it. What is civilisation to one person is barbarism to the next, always.

Moving on to the discussion we had at the Hangout, the following points came up:

  • once an image is accepted into the Archive, it loses its original meaning
  • we considered how one might research the archive and where to start – chronological, thematic etc.
  • once it has become disconnected from its original home, an image becomes untethered, waiting for a meaning to be imposed upon it.
  • so many old family photos become meaningless when the people within them die, as nobody then knows the stories and whom they describe
  • the Archive is not ‘truth’
  • in theory, photography could be a ‘universal language’ but its context is always affected by cultural assumptions
  • use of photographs as spectacle – an interpretation of history. History is as interpretive as art or photography
  • Moving on to how one uses images after they have been released into the internet, perfectly innocent images can have meanings attached to them that were never originally intended, e.g. the H&M advert. There is  no control by the original maker
  • potential of typologies to be used for nefarious purposes, such as eugenics.

The more I learn about The Archive, the more interesting it becomes. It can be used and interpreted in so many different ways, with the connection to the original maker being very close or wildly different. My next post will look at some of the exhibits at Photo Oxford with this in mind.


Sekula, Allan (2003) ‘Reading an archive; Photography Between Labour and Capital’ In Wells, Liz (ed.) The Photography Reader. Abingdon: Routledge. Also available at : https://monoskop.org/images/7/74/Sekula_Allan_1983_2003_Reading_an_Archive.pdf (Accessed on 12.01.2018)


Assignment 2 – further research

After having produced a few images, I asked my tutor whether the idea was sound, and he referred me to the following photography series, for ideas:

Richard Avedon – In the American West


© Richard Avedon

Joel Sternfeld – Stranger Passing


© Joel Sternfeld

For the purposes of this assignment, Richard Avedon’s work is not relevant, because there is no sense of place – everyone is photographed against a blank white background. This forces the viewer to concentrate wholly on the figure and their stance and clothing. But Joel Sternfeld’s Stranger Passing series is just the sort of approach I was thinking of. In each of the images, the subjects are shown in their own environment, rooting them firmly to a sense of place. There is a variety of postures, and the figures range from close up to quite distant. What they all have is a connection with the photographer, albeit sometimes very fleeting.

At the start of this project, my thinking was along the lines of following in the footsteps of David Hurn and John Myers, with their honest, yet sympathetic examinations of everyday life in non-urban Britain. However, Sternfeld’s work encapsulates the type of imagery I am looking to produce here, and further communication with my tutor makes me think I am on the right lines with this. Chris’s advice was this:

Using a reference such as ‘Stranger Passing’ is appropriate and I can see his influence in some of your shots, particularly shot 3 (lady, fence, field) it’s fine to use his work as a template for yours, it’s how we learn to develop our own practice. Look at 3  image and analyse why it works, look at the composition, the way that the subject holds herself, then compare to your other shots and Sternfeld’s. As I said previously, series of photographs work when there is a coherency of visual language running through the set, this is what you should be aiming for. The subject holding the sign is also interesting, although this is a tried and tested formula I can imagine you producing a successful series with this approach (Chris Coekin, email, 2016)

Joel Sternfeld

So, how does Sternfeld hold together a wide variety of different images, which ostensibly have nothing in common except that they are portraits? A comparative series of his images from the series are available at http://www.luhringaugustine.com/artists/joel-sternfeld/artworks/stranger-passing for viewing. The people have no names, and are merely identified by a location and perhaps a couple of words about what they are doing there. This lack of  names makes them seem to be examples of a range of different types and also keeps the concept of The Stranger in the foreground, as in people one passes by and notices, but without really taking any time to learn anything about them. Eric Kim’s appraisal of Sternfeld’s work has been very helpful to me, there being very little information about his methodology and motivation available online.  Kim argues that this lack of background is deliberate, in that Sternfeld’s images themselves leave out a lot of information. “You take 35 degrees out of 360 degrees and call it a photo,” he told the Guardian in a 2004 interview. “No individual photo explains anything. That’s what makes photography such a wonderful and problematic medium.”

Douglas R. Nickel (Lensculture) describes his work as an “intelligent, unscientific, interpretive sampling of what American’s looked like at the century’s end.” Unlike historical portraits which represent significant people in staged surroundings, Sternfeld’s subjects are uncannily “normal”: a banker having an evening meal, a teenager collecting shopping carts in a parking lot, a homeless man holding his bedding.  (Lensculture, publisher’s description). This describes his work as circumstantial portraiture, which says as much about its subjects’ lives as their personality, but leaves a informational void that the viewer can fill with their own opinions and explanations.

Despite the information contained in how we look, we could be almost anybody. And if we tend to hate people who pigeonhole us based on appearances, we’re also grateful when someone sees us accurately without summing up too comfortably. Sternfeld is that kind of observer; he sees, but he leaves the conclusions up to others — to history, maybe, or to God. Neither the best nor the worst that a person can be is ruled out automatically. On the questions of the content of a particular human soul, he maintains a strong agnosticism.” http://www.npr.org/programs/wesat/features/2001/010707.strangers.passing.html
Writer Ian Frazier, on artist Joel Sternfeld

Badger (2007, p. 218) describes Sternfeld as a latter day Carleton Watkins – the perfect balance of subjectivity and objectivity. The images are about the people, but also their interaction with Sternfeld.

Application to my own work

Taking the images I have posted above as a representation of Sternfeld’s work, what can we say about how he makes his work? The subject is usually in the centre of the frame, although not always. Their size in the landscape varies, but the subjects tend to be in the middle distance, which indicates a lack of direct contact. There are clear references to the subjects’ environment, some subtle, others obvious. The colour palette is strong and saturated but quite flat – there is no sense of light. Eric Kim argues that the specific colour palette is what differentiates Sternfeld from other similar street photographers. Some images have an element of fun, but others are sad, or pathetic.


These are some elements that I need to consider with my own series. I have taken about 150 images so far of six people, and am in the process of sorting out a set that has some internal consistency. While doing this it has become clear that my photographs of a couple of the people have not worked out as I had hoped and I am going to have to reshoot. So far, using contact prints, I have come up with a couple of different options, which are shown below. However, I still need to consider which is the better of the two, and suspect that my series title (whatever it may turn out to be) will inform that decision.

Varying distances

Full length, but all the same distance (or they will be, when post-processed)

I need to keep focused here, because my preferred images are currently from different sets. Also, having jettisoned the indoor close-up from my last attempt, I am not happy with either of the new male portraits yet and will have to reshoot them. Conversely, I reckon that amongst my images are the right ones for the three female ones.

Finally, delving down a little further into the images above, the body language of each person is revealing. Just looking at set 2, person 1 looks wildly uncomfortable but determined to face up to the camera, No 2 looks slightly wishful, no 3 looks sardonic, no 4 looks assertive and no 5 looks non-committal. All these are my own interpretations, based on what I know about the people concerned. Kuleshov, the Soviet filmmaker argued that a person’s relationship with their background and other co-located images tends to mould our opinion about people’s expressions (link here), so clearly there is an art to picking a group that together have the meaning one wants to express.


Badger, G. (2007) The Genius of Photography. Quadrille.

Higgins, C. (2004) False witness. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2004/mar/10/photography (Accessed: 8 November 2016).
Kim, E. (2014) 6 lessons Joel Sternfeld has taught me about street photography. Available at: http://erickimphotography.com/blog/2014/02/14/6-lessons-joel-sternfeld-has-taught-me-about-street-photography/ (Accessed: 8 November 2016).
Sternfeld, J. (1996) Joel Sternfeld – stranger passing – book review. Available at: https://bookpage.com/reviews/2113-joel-sternfeld-stranger-passing#.WCGhV4XXKmQ (Accessed: 8 November 2016).
Sternfeld, J. (n.d.) Stranger passing. Available at: https://www.lensculture.com/books/10705-stranger-passing (Accessed: 8 November 2016).