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A4 C&N – submission to tutor

Source of photo copy: 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).

I selected my photo for analysis from the 1955 book Family of Man, where it was referenced ‘France. Izis  Rapho Guillumette’ (p 138). The photographer is Israel Bidermanas (1911-1980), also known as Izis. There are many photos I could have chosen from the book, but I was drawn to this one as I had recently been looking at the tombstones in a rural Yorkshire Dales church yard, reflecting on the impact of war on a small community. During my research, I 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 our attention of the boy, who is dressed in jacket and trousers, has unkempt hair and looks very thin. It’s 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 toward 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 blocked-up shadows to add contrast and volume, perhaps indicative of Brassai’s influence, who encouraged Izis. I have 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 is 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 destruction through war. 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 me 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. I have a strong sense of loss and loneliness from the photo.

Next, I consider the photo within the contexts of the books it is shown (context influences the way we read photographs). 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 we already have read into 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. 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 can we 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 to me cruel that the legacy of Izis and his story is not as easy to uncover as 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 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’. I have at least shown that his masterful photograph is easily worth 1,000 words.


Barthes R (1979)  Camera Lucida, Reflections on Photography Vintage 2000 ed. 

Cooke T & Kinnedberg C (ed.) (1997). The Photography Book (2014 edition). New York. Phaidon Press Inc.

Datab [online database]. Izis. Available from: http://datab.us/i/Izis [accessed 28.3.16]

Fatras [website]. La Succession Jacque Prévert. Available from: http://www.jacquesprevert.fr/en/succession/presentation/ [accessed 2.4.16]

Howarth S (2005). Singular images – essays on remarkable photographs. London, Tate Publishing.

Lausanne University Library [website]. Jacques PREVERT et IZIS, Grand Bal du Printemps, 1951. Available from: http://wp.unil.ch/livre-photo/guilde-du-livre/les-albums-sur-paris/grand-bal-de-printemps/#pn4 [accessed 2.4.16]

Mabillard, A. The Hamlet and Ophelia SubplotShakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. Available from: http://www.shakespeare-online.com/playanalysis/opheliaplot.html [accessed 3.4.16]

Masters of Photography (2011) [blog]. Izis — Israëlis Bidermanas. Available from: http://mastersofphotography.blogspot.co.uk/2011/09/izis-israelis-bidermanas.html [accessed 28.3.16]

Parr M and Badger G (2004). The Photobook: A History, vol. 1. London: Phaidon. p. 222.

Prévert J and Izis-Bidermanas (1952). Charmes de Londres (Edition de Monza, 1999). Paris, de Monza.

The Red List [website]. Izis (1911 – 1980). Available from: http://theredlist.com/wiki-2-16-601-803-view-humanism-profile-izis.html [accessed 2.4.16]

Rosenblum N (1984). A world history of photography (revised edition). New York, Abbeville Publishing Group.

Spitalfields Life (2014) [website]. Izis Bidermanas’ London. Available from: http://spitalfieldslife.com/2014/02/11/izis-london/ [accessed 28.3.16]

Steichen E (1955, copyright renewed 1983). The Family of Man (2015 edition). New York, The Museum of Modern Art.

Trussel [website]. Directory of Notable Photographers – Izis. Available from: http://www.trussel.com/maig/izis.htm [accessed 2.4.16]

Wikipedia [website]. History of Lithuania. Available from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Lithuania [accessed 3.4.16]

Wikipedia [website]. The Holocaust in Lithuania. Available from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Holocaust_in_Lithuania [accessed 2.4.16]

Wikipedia [website]. Izis Bidermanas. Available from:https//en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Izis_Bidermanas [accessed 4.4.16]

A4 C&N – preparation 2

This post follows on from my initial preparation (see here). Some additional context for the upcoming essay:

  • The book Chames de Londres arrived. I found it strange – Izis’s black and white photographs are used as backgrounds to a monty-pythonesque montage of colour images, including cherubs, plants, horses, people, and even a light-house covering Nelson’s column (perhaps not to the French’s liking). It is really quite tasteless in today’s context. On further investigation, it seems that the collage could be the work of the poet and co-author of the book Jacque Prévert; Fatras, an organisation that looks after his legacy, indicates the Prévert created many collages. Perhaps when the book was first published in 1952, the inclusion of colour was a rare novelty. I’m glad it cost me only £2.80. The book confirms the location of the grave yard photo as St John’s cemetery in Wapping, England and not France as captioned in The Family of Man. The book is contains poems (mostly from Prévert) and photographs. The poem alongside the photograph is:

Oh folie
os fêlés
Le Cimetierre est désert
les tombes dépareillees.
Orphéons et fanfares jouez-nous encore un fois
cet air fou d’autrefois
cet air si dechirant enluminant le temps.
Oh folie
os fêlés.
Dans sa boîte cranienne
au couvercle doré
un prince s’est enfermé
Dans sa cage cérébrale
il ne cesse de tourner
Une folle fille d’Eros
voudrait le délivrer
Si la cage est fragile
les barreaux sont solides
elle a beau les secouer.
Oh Folie d’Ophélie
os fêlés d’Hamlet.

My French is poor, but with the some help from Google translate, I understand the gist of the poem. It is about madness, with a backdrop of a deserted cemetery and mismatched graves, with the broken bones of a mad Hamlet. I consulted with a friend, who is a French graduate and discussed further … initially, ‘So it is about Hamlet being shut away in his folie/madness and she can try to get in but the bars on the cage (His head) are solid.’ I suggested it was a metaphor for the madness of ward, and she replied, ‘No you are right it is about madness and war and grief and being closed off from others’. The poem in the book is an extract from a longer poem that refers to the river thames with blood running through it (http://www.wikipoemes.com/poemes/jacques-prevert/charmes-de-londres.php).

  • It is difficult to read the photographs in the book because of the absurdist collages covering them. The pictures show everyday street scenes in London, and would be a wonderful document without the corruption. They are reminiscent of the work of Brassai, who was a mentor to Izis. The library of Lausanne shows some of Izis’s images online from the book Grand Bal du Printemps. A screen dump of one is reproduced below.
Source: Université de Lausanne
Source: Université de Lausanne
  • In my previous post, I learnt about ‘‘Izis’s “poetic sadness” was rooted in personal tragedy.’  I wanted to understand more about the Lithuanian-jews, Izis’s people. A well-referenced article on Wikipedia gives enough information for this purpose. ‘Prior to the German invasion, the population of Jews was estimated to be about 210,000 … the number of Lithuanian Jews murdered in the Holocaust [was] 195,000 to 196,000′. Over 95% of Izis’ people exterminated. The Red List, tells us the Izis’s parents were assassinated by the Nazis.

There is important context to the photograph – it’s place in time is soon after World War 2, most likely taken between 1945 and 1952 when the first edition of the book was published. In the aftermath of a time of unspeakable tragedy, particularly for Izis with the genocide of his people and murder of his parents. Prévert’s poem connotes this with reference to madness, broken bones, and mismatched tombs.


Lausanne University Library [website]. Jacques PREVERT et IZIS, Grand Bal du Printemps, 1951. Available from: http://wp.unil.ch/livre-photo/guilde-du-livre/les-albums-sur-paris/grand-bal-de-printemps/#pn4 [accessed 2.4.16]

Fatras [website]. La Succession Jacque Prévert. Available from: http://www.jacquesprevert.fr/en/succession/presentation/ [accessed 2.4.16]

Prévert J Izis-Bidermanas (1952). Charmes de Londres (Edition de Monza, 1999). Paris, de Monza.

The Red List [website]. Izis (1911 – 1980). Available from: http://theredlist.com/wiki-2-16-601-803-view-humanism-profile-izis.html [accessed 2.4.16]

Trussel [website]. Directory of Notable Photographers – Izis. Available from: http://www.trussel.com/maig/izis.htm [accessed 2.4.16]

Wikipedia [website]. The Holocaust in Lithuania. Available from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Holocaust_in_Lithuania [accessed 2.4.16]

A4 C&N – preparation 1

“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)

To choose my picture, I looked through The Family of Man for a suitable photo that also appealed to my interest. There were many photos that I could have happily chosen, but I was drawn to one simply captioned as ‘France. Izis  Rapho Guillumette’ (p138), showing a teenage boy standing among toppled gravestones in a church yard. Other than ‘France’, none of the other names were familiar to me, so research was essential. As well as being a poignant post-war photo, the picture struck a chord with me as over the previous weekend, I been looking at the tomb-stones in the ancient church of Linton, in the Yorkshire Dales and the loss of life to war in an already small rural community struck me as a great tragedy.

Izis was the preferred name of Israel Bidermanas (1911-1980). I found a few biographical facts on the blog Masters of Photography. As a young man of 19, he fled his native Lithuania (then under Tsarist Russia) and arrived in Paris destitute. Datab identifies Izis as Luthianian-Jewish, which is highly significant at that time. He belonged ‘French humanist movement that focused on scenes of everyday Parisian life, but he never achieved the fame of his contemporaries Robert Doisneau, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Willy Ronis and Brassai.’  Isiz’s son Manuel is quoted as saying ‘Izis’s “poetic sadness” was rooted in personal tragedy.’  Cooke and Kinnedberg describe Isiz as one of the ‘great poetic photographers of the post-war years (ibid, p246).

As Izis did not achieve the fame of his contemporaries, it was not easy to find online resources to discover more about the photograph itself. However, the Spitalfields Life blog features the image and places it in London, not France as captioned by Steichen. Specifically, the blog references the book Charmes de Londres (by Jacques Prévert and Izis Bidermanas), which delivers a ‘vivid and poetic vision of the shabby old capital in the threadbare post-war years.’  It places the photo in In the cemetery of St John, Wapping. I have located online a £2.80 used copy of the book and await with anticipation to see if it will provide more information.  I’ve also emailed the blog in the hope of some source information.

The photo is shown below (source: spitalfieldslife.com)

source: spitalfieldslife.com
source: spitalfieldslife.com

Cooke T & Kinnedberg C (ed.) (1997). The Photography Book (2014 edition). New York. Phaidon Press Inc.

Datab [online database]. Izis. Available from: http://datab.us/i/Izis [accessed 28.3.16]

Masters of Photography (2011) [blog]. Izis — Israëlis Bidermanas. Available from: http://mastersofphotography.blogspot.co.uk/2011/09/izis-israelis-bidermanas.html [accessed 28.3.16]

Rosenblum N (1984). A world history of photography (revised edition). New York, Abbeville Publishing Group.

Spitalfields Life (2014) [website]. Izis Bidermanas’ London. Available from: http://spitalfieldslife.com/2014/02/11/izis-london/ [accessed 28.3.16]

Steichen E (1955, copyright renewed 1983). The Family of Man (2015 edition). New York, The Museum of Modern Art.