How To Read a Photograph – Ian Jeffery

I have been fairly hopping from book to book recently, mostly switching from Barthes’ Camera Lucida to Jeffrey’s How to Read a Photograph, and back again.

I can safely say that I’m finding Jeffrey’s book by far the more interesting, but perhaps not in the way intended.

In terms of looking at the history of photography, of learning about the methods and seeing the works of early photographers, it is a very good read. However, so far, it does not actually do what it says on the cover. ‘How to Read a Photograph: Understanding, Interpreting and Enjoying the Great Photographers’.

What I’m finding is that it gives a very detailed interpretation of certain images, but absolutely no explanation of how it came to that conclusion. It seems to me that ‘Interpretations of Photographs’ would be a more accurate title.

As an example, of Julia Margaret Cameron’s image ‘The Angel At The Tomb’ (can be seen at ) …

Jeffrey (2008:22) says…

‘The tomb was Christ’s, and the angel came down from heaven like an earthquake to roll away the stone which sealed the entrance. Christ, however, had already gone, to the added amazement of Mary Magdalene. According to Matthew the angel was male. What Cameron seems to have done is to present the angel as Mary Magdalene, out of whom Christ has expelled ‘seven devils’. The event took place at first light.’

Fascinating. But how did Jeffrey conclude this? How can a viewer of the photograph in question see the image, and in any way produce such an interpretation? I see a woman with somewhat unruly long hair, with a dark background, and bright light falling across parts of her face and hair.

To produce the interpretation offered by Jeffrey requires extra knowledge which is in no way present within the photograph itself. As suggested by the page on the Victoria and Albert Museum (2016), it would appear that Cameron based her work on Renaissance paintings. Jefferey does not tell us this, and as such, I feel this weakens his ‘interpretation’.  It’s like he’s saying “Here’s a very clever interpretation of this work, but I’m not telling you how I achieved it”… which completely invalidates the title and objective of the book.

To be honest, while I’m finding the book interesting, so far, and based on the title, I’m feeling somewhat cheated.

And while I’m in the mood for grumbling, this does seem to be a recurring theme in my studies. Lots of big conclusions and interpretations are shared, but the method of how to arrive at those interpretations seems to be jealously guarded. I find this is, at best, counterproductive. It’s like my maths teacher used to say to me, all those years ago… “Show your working! How do I know you didn’t cheat?”



Jeffrey, I (2008) How to Read a Photograph London: Thames & Hudson

Victoria & Albert Museum (2016) The Angel at the Tomb AT  (Accessed on 29/12/2016)