This is a re-write of assignment 4, following my tutor’s recommendation that it should be phrased in an academic-style third person voice. There are also a few minor content adjustments. The feedback is here and the original assignment here. The self-reflection remains unchanged, as it doesn’t refer to the style of writing (see here).
Source of copy photo featured: spitalfieldslife.com
“A picture is worth a thousand words”. Write an essay of 1,000 words on an image of your choice. The image can be anything you like, from a famous art photograph to a family snapshot, but please make sure that your chosen image has scope for you to make a rigorous and critical analysis. (OCA C&N, p105)
A picture is worth a thousand words
The purpose of this essay is to illustrate how we might read or decode a photograph and the tools that can help us; ‘many people still doubt whether individual photographs can hold our attentions to the same extent as paintings or sculptures’ (Howarth, p7).
The photo selected for analysis was from the 60th Anniversary Edition of Steichen’s book The Family of Man, where it was referenced ‘France. Izis Rapho Guillumette’ (p 138). The photographer was Israel Bidermanas (1911-1980), also known as Izis. There are many photos that could have been selected from the book, but I was drawn to this through a recent experience of looking at the tombstones in a Yorkshire Dales church yard, reflecting on the impact of war on a small community. During the research, it was discovered that rather than France, the photo was taken in St John’s Cemetery, Wapping, UK, prior to 1952 (Prévert J and Izis-Bidermanas, p 61).
The photo denotes (or shows literally) a church yard of fallen tombstones, overgrown with weeds, and a boy centre image, standing on a stone, and encircled by fallen stones in the foreground and a tree canopy to the rear. The light on the stones creates a strong leading line from the front to the back of the image, where a building is partially obscured by the trees. A shallow depth of field is used to focus attention on the boy, who is dressed in jacket and trousers, has unkempt hair and looks very thin. It is difficult to see details, but he appears to be teenaged and his clothes shabby. He looks into the distance, not at the camera, still, with his hands at his sides and toes pointed towards the ground as he balances on a stone. The photo is black and white and includes the full range of tones in between; there is effective use of deep shadows to add contrast and volume, perhaps indicative of Brassai’s influence, who encouraged Izis. There is a strong feeling of Barthes’ ‘this-has-been’; that the photo is old and the boy is now an old man or has joined the dead he stands over. But this is reading into the image, which follows next.
What connotations (‘between the lines’) can be drawn from the image? Fallen monuments (tombstones) act as signifiers of a fallen society. They signify a time lost, or perhaps neglect during the war years. The photo was taken in the early 1950s, so in the aftermath of World War II. The boy is standing among the dead, looking into the distance, perhaps mourning someone he has lost, taking solace in his closeness to the dead, or waiting for someone who did not return from the war. He is alone, lonely, isolated from the outside world under the canopy of trees. The placement of the boy’s feet hit hard (what Barthes called ‘punctum’) – they point towards the ground as if he is being pulled towards the sky; an angel standing over the dead, or a sign of his own mortality. There is a strong sense of loss and loneliness in the photo.
Next, to consider the photo within the contexts of the books it is shown (context influences the way photographs are read). In the Family of Man, a post-war humanist photography project, the photo introduces the subject of funerals in different cultures. It also acts metaphorically, relaying with Homer’s aphorism, ‘As the generation of leaves, so is that of men.’ (Steichen E, p138). In the Charmes de Londres (Prévert J and Izis-Bidermanas), the photo appears alongside an extract from a poem in French by Jacque Prévert, Eau (ibid, p61). While the poem refers to the story of Hamlet and Ophelia, with the backdrop of war, it serves as intertextualisation for the photo, connoting the madness of war: using ‘broken bones’ as a motif, “Oh folie, os fêlés, Le Cimetierre est désert, les tombes dépareillees.” (ibid, p61); describing Hamlet’s madness; and giving us a sense of place, Shakespeare’s London. The poem describes grief and being closed off from others – as already read in the photograph.
What of Izis himself and his intention for the photo? His son is quoted as saying ‘Izis’s “poetic sadness” was rooted in personal tragedy.’ Notably, Izis was a Lithuanian-Jew and Lithuania is a country that was subject to rule by Imperial Russia, occupation by Nazi Germany, and rule by Soviet Russia. 195,000 of the 210,000 Lithuanian-Jews were murdered in the Holocaust (Brook). Izis fled Lithuania for Paris when he was 19, his parents were executed by the Nazis, and he endured a perilous existence in occupied France. How should one read the photo in this context? Was it a serendipitous photo of a boy in a church yard? It is more likely that it was arranged – the boy is not looking towards the intruding photographer but standing as if placed. The photograph can be read as a self-portrait with the boy representing Izis, connoting the loss of his people in the tangled undergrowth and fallen tombstones; a boy alone in the world, lost, looking into the distance for meaning.
It seems cruel that the legacy of Izis and his story is not as easy to uncover as those of his more famous contemporaries (Brassai et al), who supported him when he arrived destitute in France, over 85 years ago. His voice does not carry clearly through time: The Family of Man incorrectly placed his photograph; there is no dedicated biography; and Wikipedia, although not sourced here, is the only online space addressing him specifically. His poetic sadness, the story of personal tragedy and the tragedy of his people may fade untimely, ‘like a generation of leaves’. Here, at least it can be seen that his masterful photograph is easily worth 1,000 words.
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