How to Read a Photograph: Understanding, Interpreting and Enjoying the Great Photographers by Ian Jeffrey

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Review by Liz Dexter

How to read a photograph

Of course, reading a photograph is subjective – there are not really any rules for what makes a photograph great or why a particular person will love or hate a particular photograph. However, when you’re training your eye, what better method than to examine photographs by people who are known, for good reason, as being among the great photographers, with an expert to guide you in what their meanings might be and why they appear so powerful?  

As Max Kozloff says in his Foreword

Far from producing a mere inventory of things and gestures, Ian Jeffrey discusses psychological relations implied in the frame, just then visualized by a micro-second’s opening of a shutter. A view of these relations is inevitably speculative and allows for alternative readings.

This also implies that there is more to these photographs, even the ones done as public works of record, than just “transcripts of the setting and its characters” as critics saw Roger Fenton’s Crimea photographs. Jeffrey comments that “It was photography’s destiny to be scanned and seen through in this way, leaving the nuances as a reserve – too elusive for public speech” and it is this depth that he seeks to reclaim in this volume, it seems.

So this emphasises that if you’re looking for a list of rules as to what makes a good photograph, that’s not exactly what you’re going to get (maybe there could have been a general essay on basic principles, but maybe that’s not something that can be written). What you do get is a leisurely, expansive and carefully examined survey through photography as an art and a tool, right from Fox Talbot and his ladders and haystacks through to Kawauchi Rinko, the most modern of the collection. The people you’d expect are in here, Julia Margaret Cameron, Paul Strand, Bill Brandt, Ansel Adams and Cindy Sherman, but also lots of photographers you might not have met before, from all over what I will admit is pretty much the Western World. Large sweeps of history are covered – the Depression, the world wars, and tiny details that echo each other in one photograph are noticed.

Each photographer is given at least a double-page spread with some paragraphs of biography followed by photographs with extended captions discussing what they might be trying to do with the photograph, or perhaps how it feeds off previous fine art or other photographers, then a sort of summary pulling together some themes. Most photographers get a few pages, some more. Most of the photographs are black and white as there’s a concentration on the early years and then development of schools of modernism, materialism, surrealism, etc., but later ones play with colour, too. The paper is thick and semi-glossy and the reproductions excellent and clear: the book is a fairly large format so you can see the detail.

There are sections on World Wars I and II, the interesting point about the former being that they are all by German photographers, as according to the author, they were doing more interesting things than British and French ones and had a better-developed camera trade. I really enjoyed the early French photographs of shops and street sellers, with all their detail, as well as the moving records of poverty in the US. Doris Ulmann’s portraits were a revelation, so full of life and personality, and it was nice to see a good few women photographers represented, too. Brassai’s images were also stunning and apparently one of the first uses of night photography, making them extra atmospheric.  Cartier-Bresson of course has a major section and it was interesting to read the details of how he brought in innovations, taking the modernists’ schematic  pictures of machinery and streets and “combin[ing] these settings with human figures – to suggest a meaningful connection”. The book is full of details on these innovations and interplays between schools and practitioners of photography.

When you look at Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California” and read how Roy Stryker thought it was “the ultimate” photograph, you feel you can see how that is so, educated by the sight of so many wonderful images. I got a better appreciation of Ansel Adams’ work than I’d grasped before, although, as emphasised in my last review of The Pursuit of Art, one would really want to go and stand in front of them at the proper scale.

There is a slightly idiosyncratic bibliography (instead of being in straight alphabetical order or divided by format, we find the headings ‘Colour’, ‘A Critic’, ‘Some Monographs’) and a full index at the back of the book, and a discussion of format and dimensions at the start, and the book is as lovely a physical object as you would expect from this publisher.Liz Dexter has been taking a photograph a day since 1 January 2014, although she’s very much not one of the Great Photographers. She blogs about reading and running at

Ian Jeffrey, How to Read a Photograph: Understanding, Interpreting and Enjoying the Great Photographers (Thames & Hudson, 2019). 978-0500295380, 440 pp., col. Ill., paperback

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