Part 4, Project 1: The language of Photography


Figure 1: Allan O’Neill Lucy (June 2016)

Photography acts as a language in so much that it is ordinarily used as form of communication or expression. Examples of photographic images not used in this way in their original context could be; medical and dental imagery, CCTV images, forensic crime images, passport photographs could all be seen as straightforward forms of representation used primarily for identification and evidence with no need for wider interpretation or purpose.

Interpretation (noun) – Oxford Dictionary definition

The action of explaining the meaning of something

A stylistic representation of a creative work or dramatic role

We must remember that pictures are not words how we read photographs is a result of our many personal and cultural components reflecting our own position in the social world. There is no such thing as a universal photographic language when we speak about photography as a language we mean to interpret rather than to translate.

Letters are arbitrary symbols in that when put together in specific formations they can come to form a meaning. C A T put together spells CAT. Add T L E and we have the word CATTLE with an entirely different meaning.

Photographs are referents in that they are not a true representation of the subject themselves but, because of the way photography works for us, they will always possess a certain proximity to their subject. They refer to the subject.

Exercise 1


Figure 2 Elliot Erwitt, New York, 1974

Having seen this photograph many times before I had always interpreted the image as merely a quirky picture of a small dog dwarfed by an adult and a surreal like giant dog. I can now see how Erwitt composed a specific frame from a wider scene containing infinite possibilities for composition in order to express and communicate his particular idea in a manner which could be effectively interpreted by it’s viewer.

The skill of the photographer and artist is in achieving their own objective even it this is to create ambiguity for the viewer; the role played by the viewer is all important as is the relationship between the photographer and the viewer.

As a point of interest at the beginning of this article is an image I took of our family dog several months ago as part of a personal project and the intention was to depict Lucy in a more intimate manner which showed her on her own terms of individual personality rather than as an objectified family pet or human accessory. To do this I decided, as Erwitt before me, to drop to the eye level of the subject to create the sense that they were central and not peripheral in general terms.

I now use the picture to to demonstrate a sense of active learning.

List of images

Figure 1: Allan O’Neill Lucy (June 2016)

Figure 2 Elliot Erwitt, New York, 1974

taken from:  (accessed 15 September 2016)

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