Semiotic Analysis: Malcolm X at a Window

This analysis of Don Charles’ photograph of Malcolm X, will consider the elements of the picture (it’s signs) and attempt to uncover its meaning through semiotic analysis.

Malcolm X, Don Charles, 1964

Malcolm X, Don Charles, 1964

One over riding connotation of the whole photograph is that it is an accurate and objective view of reality: Here is something that exists, this is what it looks like. This is the photograph viewed as an indexical sign (i.e. a record of light hitting the surface of chemically treated paper). This factual value is important when the image’s context is considered towards the end of the analysis.

It is reasonable to accept that the image’s key signifiers can be understood because of a code which informs us of the concept of rooms and the forms of which they consist. In this code light coloured walls and curtains suggest that the room is probably a residence. The presence of a door next to a window suggests that this room is at the front or back of the residence, leading out onto a street or garden (or backyard). Our code also allows us to identify the person as male (short hair, suit and tie) and the object as a gun. We are also able to understand that his positioning suggests that he is hiding, or at least attempting to obscure his form from the outside world.

The main signs within the photograph (door, window, man and gun) are all iconic, that is to say that they resemble things in the real world. Further analysis and consideration of these signs helps to uncover the innate meaning/message encoded in to the photograph.

The man can be viewed as a number of signs: he’s black, has short, natural hair and wears glasses. He is dressed in a suit and tie, the tie is held in place by a tie-pin. The style of clothes, the fact that the photo is black and white, the type of gun and shape of the glasses (signifiers) suggest that the image is not current; the authors visual code interprets this image as one belonging to the 1960’s, this further informs the reading of the connotations of the image.

Within our code, glasses as a signifier bring about a signified of intelligence, whilst the man’s clothing suggests a degree of affluence, perhaps he holds a position of status or importance. There is a dichotomy between the signifiers of the man and the connotations of the gun. This manifests as a tension within the image.

The signified of the gun is violence, whether through attack or defence. We understand that the upright position is less threatening (the gun is not aimed to fire), hence we read this as representing defence. Further connotations of the gun are of strength and power, but the man’s stance and position suggest wariness or fear, he stands back from sight - avoiding exposure to the outside world.

This man is situated in a residence, hiding from view but holding a powerful weapon. A connotation of this is that he is defending a home (his home?) from some external threat (a signified of his stance at the window). Furthermore his back is facing towards the wall as he stands by the window - a visual signifier of the idiom “back against the wall”.

This authors’ decoding of the image is informed by a general knowledge of the US Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s - as such there are further connotations of a black male holding a gun at this point in history. As stated, violence is a connotation of the gun therefore this man does not subscribe to an ethos of non-violence. It is likely that he has either a personal agenda, or that he is affiliated to a group which is prepared to use violence for some purpose or other. We cannot see any other people with the man, a signifier of solitude or isolation, further enforced by the posture of the man as discussed earlier.

In summary the signs within the image speak of a man evading the outside world who is prepared to use violence in defence of his home. Beyond the analysis of the pure image it is worth exploring the context within which the image was originally presented and who the likely readers of the original image were. In 1964 Ebony magazine published an article about Malcolm X, a prominent and outspoken figure in the Civil Rights Movement. X had recently left the controversial and influential Nation Of Islam - an Islamist anti-white organisation. The core purpose of the article was to reveal some of the mystery of the man (X) to Ebony’s target African-American audience. Towards the end of the article the photograph of interest to this analysis appears with a caption: “Vigilant about possible attacks by assassins, Harlem leader keeps automatic carbine with full double clip of ammunition ready for action in his home...” (Massaquoi, 1964).  This caption adds a linguistic message which anchors the image’s meaning and limits the degree of interpretation which is likely to take place. The text itself could be further analysed, using principles of semiotics, e.g. the choice of the word ‘assassins’ with its immediate connotations of bad / sneaky / commissioned by others to kill.

This photographic sign is both indexical and iconic however, so powerful is the imagery that once published the sign became symbolic, representing freedom and advancement of black civil rights. The image itself is often recaptioned with  “Freedom By Any Means Necessary”, a Malcolm X quote. The imagery has been used in lyrics as a signifier of defiance and also as the basis for album artwork, attaching the immediate connotations to the artist and starting the cycle once again as a connotative signifier for that body of work.


Massaquoi, H J, 1964. Mystery of Malcolm X. Ebony, 01 September. 37.

​Lee Miller’s Non-conformist chapel, 1941.

Lee Miller’s early life was shaped by a love of art, adventure and a refusal to conform to stereotypes and expectations. As a 19 year old Art Student, Miller fell into a modelling career, wanting more she soon sought to create her own photo-journalism. Time spent in France in her early 20’s exposed Miller to a wider artistic community where she became influenced by surrealist contemporaries, and in turn influenced them. Most notably Lee Miller and Man Ray worked together during this time.

Returning to the states Miller enjoyed success in her own studio before becoming disillusioned with making photographs. She married at 27 and moved to Egypt where her thirst for culture, adventure and independence grew; as did her desire to return to the camera to document her experiences.

Making Europe her home Miller sought work at British Vogue as a photographer. Routine fashion, advertising and celebrity portrait assignments grew dull and she began to collaborate with two fellow Americans on a book titled “Grim Glory: pictures of Britain Under Fire”.

"Non-conformist chapel", 1941, Lee Miller

"Non-conformist chapel", 1941, Lee Miller

Lee Miller’s “Non-conformist Chapel” was presented in Grim Glory in 1941 alongside 108 other examples of black and white blitz photography, interspersed with text. At first sight the image appears to be an objective documentary record of the damage done to London’s buildings during the night time bombing raids of Hitler’s Germany.

The photograph is in sharp focus throughout and shows a scene composed of stone, brick and twisted metal. The picture is anchored by a single doorway which fills the centre of the frame. The viewer is drawn in by converging lines, compelled to focus on bricks and stone pouring from the doorway.

The scene is rough and disordered, we understand the violence of the apparent collapse; a fragment of a closed door remains in place; the rest of the door has been smashed away. Debris has surged from the doorway, twisting through a wrought iron fence in front of the building, carrying on through the bottom of the frame.

A poster remains in place to the right of the door advertising a “Children’s Sunday School”, the poster shows children running towards an open armed Christ. There is space for a similar poster on the opposite side of the doorway, however the poster is missing - it’s been torn down.

We’re drawn back to the bricks to re-evaluate their appearance, pouring from the doorway, each one shown in harsh contrast. We ask if this congregation is fleeing the church, or perhaps fleeing religion which no longer offers sanctuary. The top face of each brick is brightly lit by the sun creating areas of high contrast; are these faces looking to the heavens with hope or despair, will they be answered?

Columns of stone frame the door and leave the top of the photograph abruptly a couple of feet above the doorway - we glimpse the open sky on either side of the columns. The columns form vertical lines which lead the viewer out of the frame. It is impossible to know how much of the building remains intact, but our eyes are forced upwards in an attempt to seek an answer, just like the rest of the congregation.

Every facet of humanity was tested to breaking point during the horrors of this time. Lee’s photograph goes beyond describing the blitz and perhaps the illusion of the brick congregation hides the base nature of this photograph. As we take stock of the image and of our own thoughts around the story it tells, we stare back at a mouth unable to contain the sickening horror of war.

Perhaps this photograph is simply a mirror.


Antony Penrose, 1995. The Lives of Lee Miller. Edition. Thames & Hudson.

Jane Livingston, 1989. Lee Miller Photographer. First Edition. Thames & Hudson.

Historical Perspectives. Paul Strand and Bob Adelman.

1910 - 1919 “The White Fence”, 1916 - Paul Strand.

The White Fence, Paul Strand, 1016

The White Fence, Paul Strand, 1016

This account seeks to understand Paul Strand’s “The White Fence” in the cultural, social, political and historical context of America at the time of it’s creation. By examining the world of 1910-1920 America, one can attempt to uncover meaning or influence in the artistic works of the period.

The early 1900’s were a turbulent time for the emerging Modern world. The industrialisation of the 1800’s had led to mass-migration from the countryside into cities in Europe and laterly in the US. Rapid advances in science and technology saw mankind establish a new level of dominance over the limits of the natural world. Engineers made mass transit a possibility with the invention of the railways, along with tunnels and bridges that made previously impossible journeys a reality for many people. Humans had also mastered flight, indeed by 1919 there had been a staged crossing of the Atlantic by plane. Scientists had proposed the theory of General Relativity (Einstein, 1905), Quantum Theory (Planck, 1900), discovered radiation and linked the world with transatlantic cables. New technology mechanised war with the invention of the machine gun in 1884 and of tanks in 1914, whilst medical science learned to develop vaccines, transfuse blood and use X-Rays.

Whilst the positive benefits of industrialisation were clear for others the experience was different. Poor conditions for women and children, urban squalor and a world fractured by war left millions displaced and disenfranchised. By 1920 around 27 million immigrants had arrived in the US in search of a better life (a third of this total arrived between 1910 and 1920). Against this backdrop of mass immigration, capitalism, industrialised America and global uncertainty, Paul Strand (from an immigrant family himself) began his education in photography under the tutelage of Lewis Hine. Socially conscious Hine was working on a project photographing immigrants arriving at Ellis Island and he “instilled in Strand a deep sense of commitment to the social betterment of humankind.” ( 2004). This sense of social responsibility echoed throughout Strand’s life (he grew to be a committed socialist) and strongly influenced his future work in both film and photography.

Hine also introduced Strand to Alfred Stieglitz, who contributed enormously to the introduction of modern art into America through numerous exhibitions including the work of Matisse, Picasso, Cezanne and the sculptor Rodin (Voorheis, 2004). Strand immersed himself in this new, modern art - especially the work of Cezanne and Picasso to such an extent that in 1916 he undertook a series of photographic experiments to enable him to understand "how you build a picture, what a picture consists of, how shapes are related to each other, how spaces are filled, how the whole thing must have a kind of unity." (Hambourg, p32. 1997). Whilst much of Strand’s early work was pictorialist in nature his experiments in 1916 saw him testing boundaries and questioning how he could use photography to respond to the modern art which influenced him.

“The White Fence” Strand’s 1916 photograph, is one of the results of his experiments in new ways of seeing through photography. It seems that Strand has de-constructed a typical rural scene, choosing to highlight a picket fence instead of the (more typical) larger picture. This alternative view of an otherwise normal subject has roots in Strand’s cubist influences. As photography began to replace traditional methods of painting, cubism sought to redefine the artists way of seeing the world - in a direct correlation The White Fence sets out to change the way photographs see the world. The image is also stark in contrast to Strand’s other work at the time, which concerned itself primarily with street portraits and the theme of movement within the city ( 2004).

The White Fence is an example of an arts movement effecting the work of a photographer more normally concerned with socio-political image making. If cubism provided the inspiration for Strand to subvert the use of the camera to describe, then our second photograph can be seen as a clear reminder of the stark power of the documentary photograph.

1960 - 1969 “A boy protests segregated education (1966)”, Bob Adelman

A boy protests segregated education, Bob Adelman, 1966

A boy protests segregated education, Bob Adelman, 1966

Bob Adelman’s “A boy protests segregated education” (1966) has an immediate and clear meaning to the viewer, made emphatic by the placards on display in the image.

Any attempt to contextualise this photograph must begin with an understanding of the Civil Rights movement and its social and political implications. From the origins of American slavery in the late 16th Century to protests on the streets of America in the 1960’s; the African American story is one marked by oppression, degradation, contradiction and war. The modern Civil Rights movement can trace it’s roots back to 1807 and the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire and in the United States.

Following the American Civil War a period of Reconstruction saw races mix in Southern politics and daily life, despite this apparent progress the “Jim Crow” laws enacted at the end of C19 saw black and white segregation made a reality. (Gould, 2001). Segregation argued that blacks and whites should exist separately, but equally - the reality was starkly different. Southern states contrived to prevent black people from voting: “..potential voters had to swear that they were white Democrats, the poll tax where a payment for voting was demanded, and the literacy test that compelled illiterate black and white voters to answer questions before being handed a ballot” (Gould, 2001).

Though the first half of C20 saw some progress for black Americans, culminating in President Truman’s desegregation of the US Armed Forces and racial segregation in schools being deemed unconstitutional, the US remained deeply split over the issue of race. Civil Rights dominated US domestic politics in the 1960’s. Martin Luthor King Jr and Malcolm X became prominent figures, spearheading both non-violent and violent protest - both men were great orators and both succeeded in galvanizing mass-support for their cause; by 1968 both King and X had been assassinated.

The 1960’s were a complicated time, besides the Civil Rights movement there were many other issues on the national agenda: John F Kennedy’s  presidency was defined by the Cold War: the failed “Bay of Pigs” assault on Cuba, the Soviet construction of the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis (which brought the world to the brink of nuclear war) and the race to the moon. Before his assassination in 1963 the Kennedy administration was growing increasingly concerned by the rise of communism in South East Asia. In the wake of his death America was a nation in mourning - still divided along racial lines, on the brink of war in Vietnam and living in fear of the rise of communism.

Mass media had become a reality, television played a huge role in shaping public opinion, Kennedy’s performance in the first ever televised Presidential debates was cited as one of the major factors contributing to his success in the election and TV images opened people’s eyes to the horror of the Vietnam war. Folk music and protest songs provided a soundtrack to the Civil Rights movement, while recreational drug use (pot and LSD) created a new kind of expanded conscience - personal expression permeated culture and counterculture. Women’s rights and female contraception saw the rise of a second wave of feminism, seeking to redress gender inequalities. The birth of pop culture, consumerism, increased personal freedom, flower power and free love stood in stark contrast to the ongoing Civil Rights and Vietnam issues.

In this postmodern period, the artistic community reacted to the world as it unfolded before them, pop artists such as Warhol and Lichtenstein echoed the explosion of consumerism, appropriating and subverting familiar objects and imagery in order to question the perception of art. Pop Art often provided a visual counterpoint to the shocking reality of the decade’s troubles, it’s meanings and motives were often political. Motifs of repetition and subverted imagery represented the emotional detachment which artists like Warhol believed was a symptom of endless exposure to TV news and advertising. Minimalism on the other hand eliminated the ephemera of pop art and reduced the experience of art to simple colours and geometric shapes.

Regardless of the observations and reactions of the artistic community, the issues and politics of the sixties were visible to all.  Like Lewis Hine half a century before, Bob Adelman was a photographer that understood the power of images in the fight against social injustice. By documenting the the civil rights struggle he was able to give a voice to the people he photographed. No single event or photograph was responsible for civil rights change in America, a continued and concerted effort of grass-roots protest and activism (documented by the likes of Adelman) allowed the US to observe their own hypocrisy, change was inevitable - the people, and the markets demanded it.


Hambourg, Maria Morris, 1997. Paul Strand circa 1916. Edition. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Lewis L. Gould, 2001. America in the Progressive Era, 1890-1914. 1 Edition. Longman.

Griffiths, Richard.  2001. Heinemann Advanced History: Civil Rights in the USA 1863-198. Edition. Heinemann Secondary Education.

Gaiger, J, 2004. Frameworks for Modern Art (Art of the Twentieth Century). Edition. Yale University Press., 2012. “Paul Strand (1890–1976)". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2004), accessed 17/11/2012.

Murphy, Derrick. 2001. United States, 1776-1992 (Flagship History). Edition. Harpercollins Education.

Bob Adelman's best shot | Art and design | The Guardian . 2012. Bob Adelman's best shot | Art and design | The Guardian . [ONLINE] Available at: artanddesign /2008/jan/03/photography. [Accessed 22 November 2012].

Voorhies, James. "Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946) and His Circle". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2004)

Image Making on the Periphery of War: A Comparison Between Photographers Working in the Genre of Photojournalism.

This essay will compare and contrast two images by photographers producing work within the genre of documentary photojournalism. War photography is a mainstay of the genre, but the boundaries of war are not as neatly defined as the conflict imagery we’re used to seeing suggests. For this reason I have chosen images which detail events before and after war, visions of how and why as powerful as any mid-battle reportage. Sebastião Salgado’s image of a firefighter in the oil fields of Kuwait will be compared with Georges Merillon’s photograph of grieving Kosovan women.

Oil Wells Firefighter, Sebastiao Salgado, 1991

Oil Wells Firefighter, Sebastiao Salgado, 1991

By considering why each photograph was made, where it was presented and whether or not the images were intended to serve a specific function, I will explore how the photographers’ approach to image making influenced the final work and whether their intentions had an enduring effect on the way the images are viewed. I will consider whether these images exist as objective testimony and if so, whether that testimony serves a purpose or whether they function as ‘entertainment’ in a news saturated culture.

Vigil funeral in Kosovo, Georges Merillon, 1990

Vigil funeral in Kosovo, Georges Merillon, 1990

Salgado (b.1944) spent his early years studying as an economist and by 1971 was working in London for the International Coffee Organisation, during which time he travelled to Africa on missions affiliated to the organisation; moved by what he saw he began taking photographs. Becoming preoccupied with these images Salgado left his career behind, returning to Paris to work as a freelance social documentary photographer. Merillon (b.1957) worked with the Gamma photography agency receiving two World Press Photographer awards and the European Fuji Award. He went on to become editor at Gamma before leaving to work on collaborative projects with other photographers in 2006. (Merillon, 2013)

In Salgado’s black and white photograph fire leeches from the ground to the right of the frame as a lone firefighter approaches, a protective chemical spray arcs into the image from the right; the sky is black from smoke and a sense of choking heat radiates from the page. The fire and chemical spray create a haze of light which dominates the entire picture, two equal but opposing forces in momentary stalemate. Around the source of the blaze we can see twisted metal, another fire burns on the horizon this is indeed an apocalyptic scene. In the context of Salgado’s ‘Workers’ series of photographs, we understand the fire to be a burning oil well, a bookend to the first gulf war. As oil burns out of the ground corporations stand to lose millions of dollars, they are reminded that workers are needed in order to protect their wealth, a moment of parity; for their part in this war for oil many of these men will return home millionaires. Salgado’s envisages the worker as a warrior, but here he is commodified in a battle to protect a commodity. The photograph is rich with the symbolism of conflict: workers fighting fires as one war ends and another begins; burning oil a visual metaphor for the power of the corporations, or perhaps for the lost blood of Iraqi, Kuwaiti and American soldiers; black and white, a power struggle representing good versus evil. Beyond all doubt the picture is visually stunning, a monumental and unashamed testimony to man’s willingness to risk all in a bid to tame the elements.

Merrilon’s "Vigil funeral in Kosovo" shows a group of women gathered around a young man, he is covered by a sheet and his eyes are closed, one woman’s face is turned to the sky as she cries, her arms shaking in front of her, the other women look, or reach toward her. Window light spreads across the image from the right hand side of the frame, creating a sense of depth which pulls us into the picture, we’re transported into the room and feel an immediate sense of both intimacy and voyeurism. The light in the photograph creates richly coloured tones across the faces and clothes of the women, the viewer is reminded of works of art hanging in a gallery - this could be a Rembrandt, Vermeer, or a scene from a Caravaggio. However this is not high art, and we’re reminded of our presence as an observer, or intruder by the unrelenting stare of a girl to the right of the frame, her gaze makes us complicit. In Regarding The Pain Of Others Susan Sontag notes:  “We want the photographer to be a spy in the house of love and of death, and those being photographed to be unaware of the camera, "off guard." (Sontag, 2003, p38) - Vigil Funeral does not allow us to passively ‘look’ at the picture without the scrutiny being returned. The photograph is especially poignant given the knowledge of the deaths and war that followed in Kosovo; indeed French artist and filmmaker Pascal Convert argues that Merillon’s photograph was first valued (and lauded by 1990’s Press Photographer of the Year award) on its aesthetic merits, as an imitation of western Christian archetypes of painting, before becoming testimony to the atrocities of the Bosnian war when viewed post NATO’s 1999 intervention (Convert, 1999).

The two images document events at the periphery of war; Salgado’s post-conflict image was taken days after the end of The Gulf War, whilst Merillion captured a single event, a moment in Kosovo’s long descent into war. Both photographs convey an immediate sense of something raw and powerful. Merrilon’s moment captures everything that it means to be human: life & death, love & loss are laid bare on the page, the viewer’s reaction is immediate and visceral as they are compelled to look at this scene. Salgado replaces emotion with awe, showing man pitted in a battle against the power of nature; despite the blistering heat and danger to life and despite the backdrop of war, he chooses to make his image monumental, beautifully toned and expertly composed. The events documented almost certainly happened (that is to say they were not staged for the camera), however they comfortably occupy the territory described by Martha Rosler’s essay in The Contest of Meaning. Rosler suggests that whilst the liberalist origins of documentary photography are all but gone, it continues to serve a social function by acting as a reminder of fear and uncertainty to the middle/upper classes - it’s both “flattery and warning”. (Rosler, 1992, p306-307); these images did little at the time to further the cause of the subjects, Kosovo descended into War and the West continues to wage wars over oil.

That Salgado and Merillon view their work as photojournalism, reportage images for use in the press to document a story, belies their status as lauded objects. Salgado goes to some length to stress this in an interview: “These pictures of workers tell stories .. in the pages of El Pais .. My work is not art and I certainly don't think of myself as an artist: it is reportage.” (Glancey, 1993). However, despite protestations and original intentions these images have been elevated to the status of art as summarised in Regarding The Pain of Others, “So far as photographs with the most solemn or heartrending subject matter are art—and this is what they become when they hang on walls, whatever the disclaimers” (Songtag, 2003, p78).

Each photographers’ approach to producing their work was very different, Salgado’s image is one of a series of hundreds from his ‘Workers’ project, a six year tour of the world conceived to document manual workers in an increasingly post industrial age. In the introduction to Workers Salgado makes it clear that he aims to illustrate the nobility of the people he photographed, he describes sugarcane workers in Brazil and Cuba as warriors - the Cubans proud of their war effort and rewarded by their boss (the state), whilst the Brazilian warriors are described as day labourers, delivered by truck to the battlefield, part of the production mechanism of large companies. Salgado also uses his introduction to Workers to raise questions around production in the developed world, he states that “the developed world produces only for those that can consume .. the remaining four-fifths, who could theoretically benefit from surplus production, have no way of becoming consumers”. Despite seeing a world in crisis of first world excess, third world need and the ruin of the second world’s socialist ideals, he suggests that mankind must build a new world and “adapt, resist, believe, and survive” (Salgado, 1993).

Merillon’s image is perhaps more in line with our expectations or preconceptions of photojournalism. He travelled to Kosovo in 1990 with no translator or escort, to document growing tensions between the Yugoslavian government and Kosovo Albanians over the erosion of the region’s autonomous status. After witnessing minor protests he followed a news camera crew to a nearby village where they were shown the scene that was ultimately made famous by his photograph (Koch, 2009, p106).

Herein lays the fundamental difference between the two approaches, Salgado worked to his own schedule, choosing when and where to shoot. He knew that he was making a book and that this image would be one of many, he had the luxury of time to execute his ideas and time to build a narrative for the final viewing. That Salgado makes his intentions so clear in his introduction calls into question the documentary nature of the series, instead it is ladened with the overt intentions of the photographer and his world view. Conversely Merillon worked in the moment, a chance encounter leading to his iconic image. Despite different approaches there is, perhaps, a shared motive - as stated by Sontag, “The hunt for more dramatic (as they're often described) images drives the photographic enterprise, and is part of the normality of a culture in which shock has become a leading stimulus of consumption and source of value” (Sontag, 2003, p19).

The images serve multiple purposes: They are beautiful to look at and have therefore received prizes or become objects of art, they represent the coming together of the photographer’s vision, opportunity, and the viewers’ desire to access information about a world beyond their own boundaries. They are symbolic of the effect of conflict from both a female and male perspective: Women grieve for their dead sons and husbands, whilst the men enjoy the spoils of war, or indeed are responsible for war in the first place; in this way the texts are a powerful indictment of the nature of war.

By asserting the function of their images as photojournalism Salgado and Merillon must acknowledge the commercial imperative of such work, and in doing so must aim to produce work which is suitable for the medium, i.e. saleable, the images must shock, entertain or in some way illicit the attention of the consumer. Salgado’s stated aims are rich with the language of Marxism, however the final destination of Salgado’s work (the coffee table book, the gallery) is incongruous with the ideology, Workers treads a fine line between celebration and exploitation of the post industrial worker. It seems clear that the progression of his work from camera to high culture was calculated, perhaps inevitable and that his photojournalistic intentions cannot surface under the weight of his polemic approach. Conversely Merillon sought and delivered a ‘news’ photo that depicted a scene of universal suffering which strikes an immediate chord in the viewer; it is difficult to imagine a more raw photograph and its immediacy lends credence to the veracity of the image.

Photojournalism exists in a complex space with conflicting aspects of truth, aesthetics,  meaning and saleability, it is apparent that despite the different approaches and motives both works are able to exist in the space of art and photojournalism. The images carry rich symbolism and have powerful connotations addressing themes that are immediately recognisable by the viewer, this ability to seek out and identify the humanistic traits of a story and capture a representative image is the principle skill of the photojournalist.


Convert, P - Pietà du Kosovo (no date) [Internet] Available from: [Accessed 25 February 2013].

Glancey, J (1993) Workers, warriors, heros: Sebastiao Salgado's 'Workers', now on show in London, is an epic account of the world of manual labour. But what does it tell us? [Internet] Available from: [Accessed 23 February 2013]

Koch, R (2009). Photo Box. 1st ed. London: Thames & Hudson.

Merillon, G (no date), Biography [Internet] Available from: [Accessed 23 February 2013], Biography: Sebastião Salgado (2004) [Internet] Available from: [Accessed 01 April 2013].

Rosler, M (1992). In, Around, And Afterthoughts (on documentary photography) in: Burton, R The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography. 6th Edition. The MIT Press, pp303-342

Sontag, S (2004). Regarding the Pain of Others. Picador.

Bert Stern, Marilyn Double X,1962

Marilyn Double X, Bert Stern, 1962

Marilyn Double X, Bert Stern, 1962

Bert Stern’s iconic photographs of Marilyn Monroe were the last before her suicide in 1962 - the image Marilyn Double X is part of a series of nudes and fashion images, commissioned by Conde Naste for inclusion in the Vogue magazine. The picture can be considered from a number of critical (or ideological) perspectives which this exercise seeks to outline in the following paragraphs.

A formalist view of the image would concentrate on the elements in the frame, observing the high key tone of the photograph and the fact that Monroe’s arms formed diagonal lines framing her face and disrupting the symmetry of a traditional head and shoulders portrait. The square crop would be noted as choice made by the photographer, eschewing the use of the rule of thirds or golden mean for a more confrontational composition, perhaps indicating strength or power. The scratches and orange crosses added by Marilyn would be seen as adding texture, line and colour - effectively de-harmonising the composition and creating an awkward juxtaposition between the beauty of the subject and her own violent intervention.

The marxist perspective on the picture would choose to consider the idea of Marilyn as a product of a capitalist society: a working class woman moulded and exploited by the American studio system and used to sell movies and magazines. The photograph serves to turn Marilyn into an object of desire, a product to be attained or owned by the viewer. The fact that the images were published posthumously serves to further underline the exploitation of Monroe. Consideration would also be made of the status of the photographer, Bert Stern was a successful fashion and advertising photographer. The marxist perspective would posit that his work did nothing to further the human condition and existed purely to feed capitalist society’s appetite for images of the rich, the famous and the beautiful. Such images create aspirational goals requiring further consumption or acquisition of capital, whilst enforcing existing boundaries between the working class and the elites.

A feminist reading of the photograph would seek to examine the relevance of gender roles in the final image and in it’s production and consumption. Monroe’s status as an object of desire, curated by a male dominated Hollywood studio and posed to fulfil the fantasies of the male photographer, would be seen as a reinforcement of the patriarchal hierarchies entrenched in society. The paradox of her ability to overcome a problematic childhood to become an international star, yet still be used as a decoration to tantalise men and enforce beauty stereotypes on women, is a further example of gender inequality. The image series was sent to Monroe to preview, forcing her to view herself as seen by the eye of the (male) photographer. Monroe’s crosses and scratches could be considered as a sign of non-compliance, of feminist activism - or conversely could represent insecurity and concern that the images did not meet the standard expected by others (the men that made and commissioned the series, or the women likely to consume them from the pages of Vogue).

The psychoanalytic perspective of the image would seek out unconscious meaning in the image, that is to say the subconscious motives at play the creation of the images. Stern had been fascinated by Monroe for many years before he took these photographs, in his own words: “I was preparing for Marilyn’s arrival like a lover and yet I was here to take photographs.” - the series (including several nudes) could be seen as reflecting Stern’s own desires, though his own comments suggest that these may have been more overt than subconscious. Additionally one may consider Marilyn Monroe’s own marks on the photographs - the scratches and crosses take on a new meaning when considered within the context of her suicide a short time after the shoot.

Each critical perspective considers the photograph in a different way, the political viewpoints of marxism and feminism seek to identify the social / cultural context and consequences of an image, whilst formalism looks at the image more literally using the language of description rather than meaning. Finally psychoanalysis attempts to look below the surface of the picture to uncover the subconscious influences on either the photographer, the subject or the viewer.


Terry Barrett, 2005. Criticizing Photographs: An Introduction to Understanding Images. 4 Edition. McGraw-Hill Humanities/Social Sciences/Languages.

Hans-Michael Koetzle, 2008. Photo Icons II (Icon (Taschen)) (v. 2). Edition. Taschen.

Free Squarespace Plugins

We all know that Squarespace is brilliant, but sometimes it needs tweaking. Here are some amazing free (and some paid) resources for fellow SS'ers.

  • Muno Space (

Squarespace Specialists that share hints and tips for free, based in Florida.

  •  Square Plugins (

Squareplugins have free and paid plugins / CSS / html hacks that range from handy to damn-right useful! Based in North Cali.

  • Silvabokis (

Some great fixes and functionality improvements on Colin Irwin's site.

  • Squarespace Guru (

Promoting paid services, but lots of good free content too. Looks to be getting fresh content at the moment.

  • Fix8 (

One to watch.