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Photography – Stephen Bull

I read this as an e-book over what must be a couple of months. A tour de force of photography in all its forms, its eras, its interaction with the traditional art world, with discussions of influences on it and of it, references to important writing on photography, and all with clear and accessible writing! Bravo Mr Bull.

It is a book to return to for reference and it is so broad in scope that it would make little sense to summarise, what is already in the form of comprehensive summary itself. However, I cite a few of my highlights to help remind me that this is a book for revisiting:

Clarifying the difference between modernism and post-modernism:

  1. MODERNISM: THE NATURE OF PHOTOGRAPHY (Page 11 · Location 367)
    Szarkowski and Shore concentrate only on aesthetics –the visual content of the image –at the expense of what surrounds the photograph.
    Postmodernism calls into question the universality and progressiveness of modernist ideas. Offering, instead, a more fragmented worldview, it often focuses on social issues rather than aesthetic ones.

The concept of indexicality – was it ever really valid and how it is challenged by the digital revolution:

    Indexicality is a term from the writings of the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (which scholars began to collect together from the 1930s). Along with Ferdinand de Saussure, Peirce was a pioneer of semiotics: a way of understanding how communication works. Semiotics centres on the idea of the sign, a basic unit of communication.
  2. PAST / PRESENT / FUTURE: PHOTOGRAPHY AND TIME (Page 17 · Location 471)
    Barthes means the way that a photograph not only tells us that someone or something definitely existed, or something definitely happened in the past, but also brings that past into the present. It is this distortion of time that can make photographs so compelling,
    … the centrality of the book to so much photographic analysis has often led to a mournful, even morbid interpretation of photographs as being only to do with death and the past.
    semiotic terms: photography’s perceived indexicality was being called into question (Mitchell 1992: 24–28; see also Rubinstein and Sluis 2008), as if the weathercock in Peirce’s example was being turned by a motor, not by the wind … the more questionable ‘reality’ depicted in digital photographs fits a postmodern period of uncertainty … ‘Digital technology does not subvert “normal” photography, because “normal” photography never existed’ (Manovich 2003: 245) … To Batchen digitally manipulated photographs do what photography has always done: depict the world as an altered version of itself. From such viewpoints digital technology can be regarded not as representing a revolution, but as a gradual and continuing evolution in photography –and how it is thought about –since the early 1990s.

Pornography and photography – I recently grappled with the line between art and pornography following a visit to a Bettina Rheims exhibition (see here).

    Even though the evidence from many police raids during the 19th century reveals the massive quantities of pornographic photographs made and sold even in the first few decades of the medium, ‘dirty’ pictures are generally ‘quarantined’ from photography history (Solomon-Godeau 1991a; Williams 1995: 12).

Introducing Semiotics

  1. UNDERSTANDING SEMIOTICS: SIGNS, SIGNIFIERS AND SIGNIFIEDS (Page 34 · Location 751) ‘The Photographic Message’, an essay on press photographs (published a few years before ‘Elements of Semiology’), Barthes refers to what he calls the ‘codes’ of connotation that such photographs draw upon and which are understood culturally (Barthes 1977a). These include codes of pose and gesture, technical effects (such as focus and blur) and the meanings of objects in pictures.

Freud and Surrealism connection

  1. PHOTOGRAPHY AND PSYCHOANALYSIS: THE UNCONSCIOUS, FETISHISM AND THE UNCANNY (Page 49 · Location 1020) Freud’s ideas and those of his followers became the basis of Surrealism, a movement founded by André Breton in Paris in the 1920s after some key writings on psychoanalysis were translated into French. The main revolutionary, idea of Surrealism was to discard all culturally acceptable rules and access the unconscious mind through methods such as automatic writing where conscious control could be abandoned (see Alexandrian 1970; Breton 2003; Mundy 2001).

Insights into photography for selling. A reminder to self that I should be much more observant of this type of photography, rather than just see ‘an advert’. Note separate post on Judith Williamson’s critiques of advertising (see here)

  1. PHOTOGRAPHY FOR SELLING: ADVERTISING AND IDENTIFICATION (Page 63 · Location 1243) The rhetoric of the photographic image is powerful enough to convince us, in the instant that we glimpse the advertisement, that what we are seeing is real and to disavow the knowledge that we are looking at models in a highly constructed scene (and therefore disavow that the dream we see is unattainable).
  2. (Page 64 · Location 1262) belief that consuming products will improve our lives or, in more recent advertising, that buying a product will make us ‘ecologically sound’
  3. (Page 68 · Location 1320) ‘atmosphere’ or ‘feeling’ associated with the brand, rather than to sell any specific product.
  4. (Page 68 · Location 1325) Paul Frosh, around 70 per cent of the photographs that are put to use as part of everyday advertising –including images encountered in magazines, on packaging, or on the walls of fast-food restaurants and convenience stores –are stock photographs (Frosh 2003: 2)
  5. (Page 70 · Location 1353) images have come to replace any experience with the real world whatsoever
  6. ( Page 71 · Location 1376) The people who truly deface our neighbourhoods are the companies that scrawl giant slogans across buildings and buses trying to make us feel inadequate unless we buy their stuff. They expect to be able to shout their message in your face from every available surface but you’re never allowed to shout back. Well, they started the fight and the wall is the weapon of choice to hit them back. (Banksy 2006: 8)
  7. (Page 73 · Location 1416) market for art photography only began to fully emerge in the 1970s. Lindsay Stewart of Christie’s auction house sees this as the result of various coinciding developments.

The insight that snapshots are not simple, it is just that we are used to them!

  1. (Page 81 · Location 1548) They [snapshots] are sophisticated images and the majority of us receive an education in how to pose for and take snapshots from the moment we are born. It is only because this detailed knowledge becomes second nature at an early age that we forget our indoctrination into the culture of snapshot photography, making snaps seem simple and even ‘naïve’. They are neither.
  2. (Page 82 · Location 1559) The origin of the word ‘snapshot’ is generally agreed to derive from a 19th-century hunting term for a gunshot fired quickly and haphazardly.

Other topics covered in the book are: photography as document, photography as art, photography in fashion, and photography and celebrity. An excellent source of reference for discussions on photography!


Bull, S. (2009). Photography (Routledge Introductions to Media and Communications) [Kindle iOS version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com

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