Critical Rationale for #phonar2016

Initially I found my given artist, publisher Lewis Chaplin, difficult to understand as his personal photography seems to have scarcely graced the digital world, that or I am not able to find much of it. I decided to complete my main task first in an attempt to connect with him, with the possibility of reshooting if necessary once my research was complete. I recognised the given task to be challenging me to let go of the constraints of composition, camera settings and preplanning. The task was freeing me to go with the flow, merely instructing me to walk north and take a picture a minute without lifting the camera to my eye, I was left to document my exploration. I found myself paying much more attention to the world around me than I would if I was either walking or photographing – taking most of the choice away from me I was able to freely press the shutter without much thought and enjoy my surroundings as well as the results.

My walk north set me upon a small stretch of Monarch’s Way, a 615 mile long walk through England following King Charles II flight from Oliver Cromwell after his defeat at the Battle of Worcester in 1651. My findings into Chaplin uncovered a digital collection of found items ( as well as multiple zines, appropriated imagery, and participatory design and publishing. I decided to create my own zine with my images, scans of found items from my walk and historical imagery to share my discovery of Monarch’s Way.

Monarch’s Way

All photographs copyright Emily Showell. Monarch’s Way map illustration reproduced with kind permission of Neasom Fine Art. Monarch’s Way logo used with kind permission of the Monarch’s Way Association. All other images and graphics used under Creative Commons Licensing.


Photographic Genres: Fashion Photography

Yves Saint Laurent shoot by Helmut Newton

“Fashions fade; style is eternal.” – Yves Saint Laurent

Ever since the dawn of photography the medium has been used to capture not only our surroundings, but the other people who share the world with us. Not long after the wealthy gentlemen of the mid 19th century began to make photography their hobby, many turned their lenses to the beautiful women of the day, capturing the most popular ladies in all their fashionable glory.

In order to look further into the lives and styles of different fashion photographers since this time as a group, my class and I each made a simple Power Point presentation to accompany our research. I researched the backgrounds and influences of Adolph de Meyer, Guy Bourdin and Terry Richardson.

 Part 1 – Adolph de Meyer

Adolph de Meyer

Born in Paris in 1868 to a Scottish mother and a German Jewish father, Adolph de Meyer joined the Royal Photographic Society at the young age of 25. Just over a year later in 1895 he moved to London and had his first solo exhibition. After moving to London, de Meyer started a trend of changing his name that continued throughout his life. This was presumably to elevate himself to a higher social standing so he could keep with the upper class circles he moved within. The surnames Meyer, von Meyer, de Meyer and Meyer-Watson were all used by him at some point, but the most prominent was Baron Adolph Edward Sigismond de Meyer which he used from 1897.

Olga de Meyer

Two years later in 1899 he married a fellow socialite Donna Olga Caracciolo, an Italian divorcee and Goddaughter to King Edward VII. It is presumed by many that she was in fact the illegitimate daughter of the King. It is also assumed that she was bisexual or a lesbian, and that her marriage to de Meyer was one of convenience as he is known to have been homosexual. However their partnership enabled them to both rise to greater social heights. De Meyer had become known for his photographic portraits of the wealthy, fashionable, noble and famous. He now turned to his wife, allowing her to dress in whatever fashion she wished, and made her his model. He became the unofficial court photographer, even taking a portrait of King Edward VII himself.

King Edward VII by Adolph de Meyer

After the death of the King in 1910, Edward and Olga moved to New York where he became the first staff photographer of Vogue in 1913. He was mentored by Alfred Stieglitz and Cecil Beaton dubbed him “the Debussy of the camera”. His images were soft and sensual, and retained a slightly Pictoralist influence, no doubt from Steiglitz’s teachings. To achieve the creamy soft focus many photographers would grind their lens around the edge and leave the centre sharp. Another method was a veil of gauze over the lens. One of de Meyer’s techniques was to backlight the negatives and retouch straight onto them before printing. Aside from a soft focus, de Meyer’s images were also defined by an atmospheric use of light and high contrast. Elegantly poised, his models varied between gazing at the camera or looking away to the distance. However the curves and shapes of their outfits and accessories were always distinct, such as the brim of the woman’s hat in the picture below.

The de Meyers ran a cabaret in New York, as well as advising their peers on interior design. They made cocaine and opium part of their lifestyle, then in the 1920s they moved to Europe and de Meyer’s career began to fail with the onset of sharp 35mm photography. After Olga died in 1930, Adolph moved in with his young lover who he then adopted as his son. He destroyed much of his own work, and in 1946 he died penniless and forgotten in Hollywood. In 1980 a trunk of negatives, letters and memorabilia was discovered at a warehouse and auctioned, which gave us the surviving pieces of his work we have today.

Camera Collection – Zenza Bronica ETRSi

In the wake of the excitement about my newest camera, I thought I’d detail my growing collection on here.

My latest addition is a Bronica ETRSi, a medium format camera. Similar to a Hasselblad, the viewfinder and film back are interchangeable as well as the lens. This particular model dates from 1989.

I got this for just over £200 which is a steal! It’s in almost mint condition with the standard 75mm lens, a 120mm film back and a prism viewfinder, as shown above in the stock photo. I have printed a manual online (available here) and cannot wait to go out and about with it!



Photographic Genres: Portraits

Tom Hanks by Dan Winters


What is a portrait?

A portrait is an image which attempts to capture the likeness of a person or animal. However, in modern times this definition has become more flexible; for example, in classical portrait paintings a portrait shows a person’s face and profile. The portrait would have been commissioned as a symbol of wealth and status, and portrait painters would become famous not only for their skill, but on the back of the fame of the person they painted. The more famous their subjects, the more demand for them increased as others clamoured for the same treatment to show themselves equally as powerful.

King Henry VIII by Hans Holbein c.1536

Today, with the prevalence of photography, portraiture has become less about power or realism but more about trying to convey emotion and depth. Arguably any image showing a person could be a portrait, but true portraits capture an essence or sense of who the subject is, what they’ve feeling or what they’ve been through. With portraiture leaning towards an emotional rather than physical portrayal of a subject, it is even possible to portray a likeness without the subject in the image, or of just part of them and not their face.


The British Photographic Portrait Prize

In 2003 the National Portrait Gallery began an annual prize for photographic portraits. For the first 3 years it was sponsored by Schweppes and known as the Schweppes Photographic Portrait Prize, then for the two subsequent years there was no headline sponsorship. Since 2008 the competition has been sponsored by Taylor Wessing, an international law firm. A shortlist of 60 images are selected for exhibition at the gallery, and the top four receive cash prizes. First place receives £12,000 and in 2013 was won by Spencer Murphy for his portrait of jockey Katie Walsh. After visiting the gallery with my classmates, I had the privilege of viewing all of the shortlisted portraits in person.

Katie Walsh by Spencer Murphy

Murphy was quoted as saying, “I was keen to include Katie… I wanted to show both her femininity and the toughness of spirit she requires to compete against the best riders in one of the most demanding disciplines in horse racing. I chose to shoot the series on large format film, to give the images a depth and timelessness that I think would have been hard to achieve on a digital camera.” For myself, one of the striking things about this image is the balance it achieves. The colours are complimentary and the image is even. Yet, the eye is still drawn back to the subject’s face thanks to the lighter background behind her, and the clarity of her eyes and expression. The portrait perfectly captures the physical and emotional impact of the race she has just completed.

Whilst the winning portrait was, in my opinion, deserving, there were of course other outstanding portraits included in the collection. One that stuck with me was ‘Three Colours Red’ by Tom Stewart.

‘Three Colours Red’ by Tom Stewart

Again, I loved the balance of colour in this image, and the calm neutral tones. I also enjoyed the symmetry of the girls and the bench arms. It is a very serene and mysterious image. The subjects are friends of the photographer, Katie and Jojo, and the cat is a Maine Coon called Tex.  The exhibition label states “Stewart originally intended to make a moving image piece, but found a photographic portrait communicated the idea more clearly.” However, there is no more information to be found about the image. It is not part of a series and appears to be a deviation from the photographer’s normal work. It is admittedly difficult to understand exactly what the idea Stewart wished to convey through this image.

Tom Stewart, the photographer, lives and works in London as a filmmaker and photographer’s assistant. He graduated from Manchester School of Art, in Contemporary Film and Video, in 2011, and his graduate film ‘When the Dust Settles’ won the ‘Cinematography Award’ and ‘BBC Best of the North’ Award at Exposures Film Festival. The film went on to feature at various film festivals throughout 2012.

Photographic Genres: Documentary Photography

Define what is meant by ‘visual eloquence’ in the context of photography.

A moment of visual eloquence makes a photograph “unforgettable”. It is when all the elements of storytelling come together to masterfully create an image that is revealing and powerful, and causes the viewer to “question what they know”.


What is the difference between news photography, photojournalism and documentary photography?

News photographers attempt to capture the essence of an event or story in a single image. The aim is to get that image onto the front page of a newspaper; not for it’s technical or compositional brilliance, but for it’s impact.

Photojournalism is a combination of news photography and journalism and is often known as ‘reportage’, from the French ‘reporter’ meaning to carry back. The story is communicated in a series of images, or a photo essay.

The phrase ‘documentary photography’ implies that a record is being created in order to not only present findings or a story to the world, but to preserve it. It may not be commissioned or short term like photojournalism, but is often the result of painstaking and long personal projects.


What is your opinion of ‘The Falling Man’ by Richard Drew?

The Falling Man by Richard Drew

I think ‘The Falling Man’ is beautiful, poignant and haunting. From a huge tragedy comes this image which is peaceful and disconnected from the destruction outside of it’s frame. The peace and simplicity of this image is why it became so controversial. When the American public looked at this on the front of almost every newspaper in the aftermath of 9/11, they were forced to consider the plight of this one, anonymous man, frozen in time as he fell to his death. He could be any American. He made people think about his situation and put themselves into his shoes. They wondered what decision he had made and why, and what would they choose to do in his position? Death, which is ultimately terrifying, is shown here as a peaceful escape. Did he jump, or did he fall? No-one knows, but the question will always hang over this image. America is still a very religious, Christian country, and in all facets of Christianity suicide is deemed to be a sin. This image made something black-and-white into a grey area and caused uproar and confusion.

In the aftermath, all so-called “jumpers” were declared as murder victims. Responsibility for their deaths was taken away from them in retrospect, postmortem. In a land which is founded on the ideals freedom, choice was taken away from the dead because the living couldn’t cope with ambiguity.

The tragedy of this one man’s death at once shows the tragedy of thousands. Whilst it divided opinion, it was also a symbol for America united in mourning.


What are the similarities and differences in News Photography between the present day and 100 years ago?

In the 1870s a new printing technique meant that photographs could be printed in a newspaper. This was known as half-tone printing and is still in use today. 30 years later, half-tone photographs appeared in most daily papers, and thus the rise of the press photographer began. However, in 1906 it took 8 days for images of an earthquake in San Francisco to reach the front pages on the east coast of America. Images had to be distributed by news agencies via whatever transport was available – planes, trains and boats. In the 1930s this was replaced by ‘wire photos’, a process whereby pictures could be transmitted down a telephone via scanning and translation into electric impulses. This meant photographs could now be sent across the world and used in countless publications. Newspapers and agencies hired many staff photographers to pursue the news and hoped to be the first with the big scoop.

Today, news photography is digital. Speed is of the essence rather than technical brilliance, and many front-page images could be a still from a security camera or taken on a mobile phone. Yet a working news photographer needs state of the art equipment to allow them to get the best image quicker than their competition. Their image can then be sent instantly using computers, tablets and phones and be published online within minutes, whether on a news site or via social media. Now, a photographer can tell a story faster than a paper can be printed.


What is Magnum and why did it have such a big impact on photojournalism?

Magnum is an independent photographic agency that was founded in 1947 by Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger and David Seymour. It was two years after the end of World War II, and these men helped to usher in a new era of photography. Photo-magazines were prevalent, and one of the main aims of Magnum was to keep the copyright of the photograph in the control of the photographer and to ensure that they received sufficient pay for their work. It also enabled photographers to work outside of the boundaries of news photography and to travel the world to places never before photographed.


What were the FSA and Mass Observation? Why were they so important and crucial to the development in photography?

Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange 1935

The Farm Security Administration (FSA) was a division of the US Department of Agriculture which hired a dozen photographers, including Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The aim of the project was to document the lives of the poor in rural areas, whose lives had been decimated by the economic crisis which began in 1929. It lasted over five years and opened the eyes of the American people to the plight of poverty.

In Britain, a project was launched in 1936 known as Mass Observation. It lasted until 1947 and was the largest ever investigation into one country’s culture. More than fifteen hundred ‘observers’ were sent across Britain to “reveal and preserve” the daily rituals and activities of regular people, aiming to increase awareness and “social consciousness”.

These projects were the first of their kind and influenced successive generations of social documentary photographers. They proved that any person or subject was worth photographing, documenting and remembering. Not only that, but they helped pave the way for a united world where information and culture was shared to increase awareness of those less fortunate.


What did Martin Parr photograph and why was his work so controversial, especially to the members of Magnum?

British Tabloid by Martin Parr 1991

Martin Parr is known for his highly saturated, bright images. They portray without bias stereotypical scenes of British life. People’s faces are often obscured, giving the figures a generalisation or anonymity; he shows us a scene that British people have all witnessed themselves, but removes the viewer from the scene causing them to think about why people behave in such a way. Parr doesn’t hold back and as such his confidence shows in the close-up composition of each image – he gets right into people’s faces. When he applied to join Magnum he was accused of mocking his subjects, and only got in by one vote. He is now one of their biggest earners.

Antoine D’Agata

Antoine D’Agata by Michael Grieve for the BJP, 2013

‘Antoine D’Agata’s existential realities’ – Article and Image by Michael Grieve in the British Journal of Photography, December 2013

Please note: some of D’Agata’s work is NSFW, but I have not used any such images in this post. However if you click any outside links to his work you may see more graphic content.

For anyone not familiar with the work of the French photographer Antoine D’Agata, his work is raw, visceral, unforgiving and at times horrifying. Viewing any body of his work leaves the viewer with a sense of unease and discomfort. D’Agata painfully and brutally explores the animalistic side of the human psyche, graphically displaying fear, insanity and sex. He does this by making himself part of his subject, pushing himself to extremes with prostitutes and drugs.

“It’s not how a photographer looks at the world that is important. It’s their intimate relationship with it. ”
Aside from the graphic content of his work, D’Agata is also known for artfully using blur in his images to convey the emotional turmoil of the scenes. This method also dehumanises the subject, causing them to look grotesque. Upon viewing many such images, one cannot help but get a sense of the rawness of the emotions conveyed, such as fear or madness; or the pain, confusion and ecstacy that the drugs and sex can cause.

‘ITALY. NAPLES.’ from ‘Stigma’, 2004 by Antoine D’Agata

In the article for BJP, Michael Grieve speaks with D’Agata about his controversial work, ‘Ice’ published in 2012, and his newest work ‘Anticorps’, published in 2013 and recipient of the prize for best book at Recontres d’Arles, a French photography festival.

Grieve writes,“Ice is an amoral journey that initially appears to be a dissolute array of profane sexual imagery. It is by far his most extreme photobook, and by his own admission very violent… D’Agata is a crazed, sexual drug-addicted protagonist, and together with the various emaciated women they are laid bare with a frightening starkness.” There was only one publisher brave enough to take the book on, Images en Manoeuvres Editions (now André Frére Editions), who have also in the past published D’Agata’s works ‘Stigma’ and Insomnia’. Despite it finally being published, no magazines or galleries wished to report or exhibit the work which shows “the empty lives and very violent reality of female prostitutes in Cambodia. It propositions a certain truth, raw and brutal, that by normative standards is not sufficiently diluted to be accepted.”

From ‘Ice’, 2012 by Antoine D’Agata

Referring to the women as “little warriors”, D’Agata explains that most of the women featured in the book are now deceased after a life of poverty, addiction and disease. The book is called ‘Ice’ because it is a street name for the drug methamphetamine – highly addictive and capable of inducing mania and euphoria. Many of the women take the job to cope with their lives, as the euphoria brings with it an increased libido and sense of self-esteem. As for D’Agata himself, “the drug is about experience – to extend his drug addiction to new levels of pleasure and pain.” The images shown in the work are given depth by added pieces of narrative from D’Agata, such as emails with his editor and children, prostitutes and excerpts from his personal diary. This enables the viewer to see beyond the shock the images cause and look deeper into the issues shown.

“I have been using photography to mostly invent my own life and to push limits beyond what I thought would be possible – to go inside into different territories.”

The experience for D’Agata was not truly about the sex or drugs, but nakedly pursing his fears. It was “an inner experience, with no illusions of grandeur, based inside the mind and body, into a dark hole.. it takes you to the rawness of reality.”

‘Anticorps’ exhibit in Paris, April 2013, by Antoine D’Agata

‘Anticorps’ was released and exhibited in early 2013. The work is a compendium of 20 years of D’Agata’s work, but it is not meant to be a collection of his best work. Rather, it was a chance for him to “go through my negatives and begin to make a logic of it.” Much of the work is of his signature blurred figures, but there are also documentary images of refugees, street photography and from his travels. At a glance it may seem strange to try and piece this work together, but as Grieve writes, “no matter what the environment, D’Agata’s work is always the documentation and expression of the human struggle to exist and coexist”. Many images from the controversial work ‘Ice’ make their way into the book, forced on the viewer who now saw the images in a different context. D’Agata stated that he wanted to show “people who are subject to violence and the violence that people impose on themselves and how it connects to the world in which we live”.

‘Odysseia’ exhibit in Marseille, 2013, by Antoine D’Agata

Also discussed in the article are D’Agata’s artistic use of blur and his new body of work, ‘Odysseia’. In his past works D’Agata manages to clearly express the emotion and turmoil of his experiences through his use of blur, which he freely admits sprung from when he first began taking pictures and was “technically useless”. However, he soon learned to love and take control of this technique. Yet, he now says he is “bored of blur”, and his new work has taken a totally different direction both in style and content. Using moving image and multimedia, this documentary work of displaced refugees in places such as Libya and Tunisia is presented as an installation with slow moving and still images overlaid with poetic text to give the work context.

Antoine D’Agata, 2012 by David Alan Harvey

In September 2013, D’Agata set out on his next adventure. He lives frugally out of one bag, and plans to visit Mexico, Japan and Cambodia. He said, “I know where I will go, but not what I will do there.”

Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens

Annie Leibovitz, 2009 by John Keatley

“What is a photographer’s life? It’s just a life, looking through a lens.”

Anna-Lou ‘Annie’ Leibovitz was born in Conneticut USA in 1949. Her mother was a dancer and her father was in the Air Force, and she spent much of her early life moving around with her parents and her 5 siblings. She took her first photos whilst her father was stationed in the Philippines during the Vietnam War, and upon returning to the USA in 1967 she studied painting in the San Francisco Art Institute in the hope of becoming an art teacher. But after taking a photography workshop the following summer, her career took a different route and she joined Rolling Stone Magazine as their photographer. Over her long and varied career she has been on tour with the Rolling Stones, taken the last photograph of John Lennon before he was murdered, worked for Vanity Fair and Vogue – taking the now iconic image of a pregnant Demi Moore, documented the troubles in Sarajevo in 1993 and become as, if not more, famous than most of the celebrities she has photographed. Despite working on a large scale and being known for being demanding, she remains a very down-to-earth and family orientated individual who has been deeply influenced by the loss of her father Sam and partner Susan Sontag.

“When you’re raised in a car, it’s easy to become an artist because you saw the world through a ready-made picture frame.”

‘Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens’ is a documentary of Annie’s life and work directed by her sister, Barbara Leibovitz, in 2006. After watching this on DVD in college, I was posed with a series of questions in order to reflect on her work.

“Really good photographers can’t stop taking pictures. They do it like other people eat and breathe. Her whole life is her subject.”

1. What were her two main influences from her photo education?

In the 1960s education at the School of Photography at the San Francisco Art Institute was based on two main photographers; Robert Frank and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Robert Frank was “the father of 35mm photography in the United States, and Cartier-Bresson was the same for Europe… they were considered to be the first photographers who took photography the way it had never been done before.” Annie also states that they made photography “portable… relaxed… fluid” and that was how she learned to take pictures. “It was personalised, reportage work”. She recollects sitting with the book ‘The World of Cartier-Bresson’ which made her realise “what it meant to be a photographer”. Annie says she looked through the book and realised she could travel the world, and that “the camera gave you this license to walk out and be alone in the world but you were there with a purpose. It was a very important discovery.”

Parade, Hoboken, New Jersey, 1955 by Robert Frank

Sunday on the Banks of the River Marne, 1938 by Henri Cartier-Bresson

2. Leibovitz has worked within a number of different areas of photography. Identify and discuss the different areas she has worked in.

When Annie first began working for Rolling Stone magazine she had little direction or education in photography. She “showed up one day with a bag of pictures” and she and the magazine “grew up together”. Her work was documentary in style and she was present at a pivotal time in American history to bear witness to huge changes in politics and music. In 1973 she was named Chief Photographer of the magazine, a position she held for 10 years.

In it’s early years Rolling Stone was not the music magazine we know today. As the  writer David Felton says in the documentary, they “worked for what we believed in, we were the only paper that described what was going on, and there was a lot going on back then.” As such, many of Annie’s assignments were not music orientated but of current affairs. She photographed astronauts and campaign trails, and in the wake of the Watergate Scandal she was one of the last photographers allowed in the White House to photograph Richard Nixon leaving after his resignation.

Richard Nixon leaving the White House, 1974 by Annie Leibovitz

Annie continued her documentary style in her music assignments. She was a big music fan and very determined to work with the musicians she loved. When she discovered that John Lennon and Yoko Ono were going to be interviewed, she begged to be allowed to join and despite admitting she didn’t know how to direct people, she not only captured the spirit of the couple but took an iconic portrait of John Lennon which was used as the cover of the next issue.

Rolling Stone cover featuring John Lennon, 1971 by Annie Leibovitz

In 1975, against the advice of Jan Wenner, the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Rolling Stone, Annie went on tour with the Rolling Stones. She integrated herself with the group, taking part in their drug-fuelled Rock ‘n’ Roll lifestyle and becoming fast friends. Their intimacy allowed her to take candid photographs behind the scenes. Instead of finding her intrusive, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger both felt that she was “part of the gang” and it became normal for her to be constantly taking photographs. One example of this is when Mick Jagger cut his hand by falling onto a glass door, and Annie was with him in the hospital taking photos of him getting stitches. She also took photos of their performances from the pit or backstage, the likes of which had never before been seen.

“In order to get the best possible pictures, one had to become part of what was going on.”

The Rolling Stones, 1975 by Annie Leibovitz

In 1978 Rolling Stone magazine moved to New York, and Annie with it. She met Bea Feitler, a designer and art director, who took Annie under her wing and helped drive her to achieve her ideas through honest and constructive criticism. Annie’s work became bolder and more colourful, such as her image of Bette Midler for Rolling Stone in a bed of roses – over a thousand were used and Annie cut the thorns off every single one.

Rolling Stone cover featuring Bette Midler, 1979 by Annie Leibovitz

On December  8th 1980, Annie had a shoot with John Lennon. Originally it was only meant to be John in the photograph, but he insisted that Yoko Ono be in it as well. Annie wanted to recreate an intimate nude portrait of the pair, inspired by their album cover for ‘Double Fantasy’. She recalls, “What is interesting is she said she’d take her top off and I said, ‘Leave everything on’ — not really preconceiving the picture at all. Then he curled up next to her and it was very, very strong. You couldn’t help but feel that he was cold and he looked like he was clinging on to her. I think it was amazing to look at the first Polaroid and they were both very excited. John said, ‘You’ve captured our relationship exactly. Promise me it’ll be on the cover.’ I looked him in the eye and we shook on it.”

Annie Leibovitz was the last person to professionally photograph John Lennon. He was shot and murdered only 5 hours later. The resulting cover for Rolling Stone magazine had no headline, as none was needed. The image exploded across international media and became iconic, not only capturing the beauty of John and Yoko’s relationship, but also catapulting Annie to fame. It was a landmark on her path to becoming a celebrity portrait photographer.

Rolling Stone cover featuring John Lennon and Yoko Ono, 1981 by Annie Leibovitz

Annie’s fame and growth as a photographer led to an offer of work from Vanity Fair, and she left Rolling Stone in 1983 after Jann Wenner spoke to her about her drug use and recklessness – he told her to “get better and move on”. She went to a rehab facility and was “cured forever”. Annie recalls, “It was like growing up. I needed to understand what I could do and who I was.” Vanity Fair was a fairly new magazine and had a lot of competition from better established publishings such as Vogue. However, once Annie Leibovitz was their photographer things changed for the magazine and she made her name as a demanding, expensive perfectionist. Photographing celebrities such as Whoopi Goldberg and Demi Moore, her images became much larger in scale and more conceptual.

When she photographed Whoopi Goldberg, Annie said that she wanted to put her in a tub of milk to show her “emerging from what was – which was all white”.

Vanity Fair article featuring Whoopi Goldberg, 1984 by Annie Leibovitz

Her image of a nude, heavily pregnant Demi Moore remains famous to this day, and the controversy and debate it caused only served to almost double the readers of Vanity Fair and increase public awareness of Annie Leibovitz.

Vanity Fair cover featuring Demi Moore, 1991 by Annie Leibovitz

In 1993, influenced by her partner Susan Sontag, Annie took a break from the demands of celebrity photography and documented the Bosnian War for Independence in Sarajevo. It took Annie back to the roots of her photography, and she was faced with the horrors of war and death. She said that it was a “levelling experience – put some of the work I do back into the correct perspective”. At this time Annie also took pictures in Rwanda in the aftermath of the genocide of the Tutsi.

“It’s been the bane of my existence… becoming so famous, that the focus is on that rather than on taking good pictures.”

Fallen bicycle of teenage boy killed by sniper, Sarajevo, 1994 by Annie Leibovitz

Annie returned home with a fresh perspective and continues to photograph celebrities for Vanity Fair and other publications to this day. Her conceptual style grew into something epic and what the celebrities were wearing became almost as important as the celebrities themselves. This led to Annie branching from simple portraiture to fashion. Vogue commissions her to undertake large-scale projects featuring a celebrity, tying in with the main interview or fashion editorial of that issue. These series are often quite fantastical in nature, following a piece of well-known fiction, such as Drew Barrymore as Beauty from Beauty and the Beast.

Vogue editorial featuring Drew Barrymore, 2005 by Annie Leibovitz

Firmly in place as a famed celebrity photographer, Annie also shoots advertising campaigns. Still working with celebrities, she has produced work for high-end fashion houses such as Bulgari and Louis Vuitton.

Louis Vuitton advertisement featuring Angelina Jolie, 2011 by Annie Leibovitz

Finally, throughout her career as a photojournalist, documentary, celebrity portrait and fashion photographer, Annie has taken candid and intimate pictures of her family, friends and home. Annie met Susan Sontag in 1989 and the pair quickly became close. They never clarified or discussed their relationship, lived together or married. However they always lived within walking distance of one another, and after Susan’s death in 2004 Annie has clarified that they were lovers. In her book, ‘A Photographer’s Life’ Annie states, “Words like ‘companion’ and ‘partner’ were not in our vocabulary… We were two people who helped each other through our lives. The closest word is still ‘friend’.” Rather than flinch from the harsh reality of Susan’s illness and death, Annie photographed it.

“In the wake of actual loss it’s so comforting to take pictures.”

Susan Sontag by Annie Leibovitz

3. What do you notice about her commissioned work in relation to her personal work?

It seems that Annie Leibovitz’s original, instinctive approach to photography is more candid and documentary in style, whereas overtime her commissioned work has grown to be much more directed, fantastical and posed.

At the start of her career when she was still finding herself as a photographer, Annie photographed her professional assignments without much planning or forethought, as she would her family. Because she is a talented individual with a good eye, she captured some iconic shots and learned as she went along. After meeting Bea Feitler, Annie was driven to become better and expand her ideas. She studied past photographers and their work and her work became more conceptual and diverse. Each commission grew larger in scale, and from cutting off the thorns of hundreds of roses by hand for Bette Midler, Annie has become a world famous photographer who has huge teams at her beck and call. She is renowned for her colossal, wonderous ideas which require huge budgets to achieve – but she usually gets that budget. The images she creates are breathtaking and immediately recogniseable as her work.

However, despite her growth and commercial success, Annie remains a true snapshot photographer. She is constantly documenting her family and friends at home by taking hundreds of pictures, and her three young children are used to her having a camera in hand. Annie seems to deal with life through the lens of her camera. Whereas for most people it would seem strange or disrespectful to take pictures of a sick or dying loved one, photography was Annie’s coping mechanism when her partner Susan and her father Sam passed away. She has been constantly taking photographs since picking up a camera out of boredom on her father’s airbase in the Philippines when she was 16, and she’s not going to stop now. She said she wants to keep on taking photos until the day she dies.

“Taking photos of my family and people to whom you are close to is a privilege, and it certainly brings a certain kind of responsibility”

‘My Parents with My Sisters Paula and Barbara and Paula’s Son’, Peter’s Pond Beach, Wainscott, Long Island, 1992 by Annie Leibovitz

4. What one question would you ask her?

I feel that this documentary, perhaps because it was a project between sisters, was very honest and answers a lot of questions I might have about Annie Leibovitz as a person or her life. I did however notice that when she was being filmed on shoots, she used many different types of cameras, and even said in the Vogue shoot with Kirsten Dunst that she was “switching formats”. I would love to ask her about the different types, brands and formats of cameras she uses and what she feels each one brings to the image. I recognised medium format, DSLRs and perhaps CSCs or compact cameras in her arsenal and wonder which one the final images come from, and how it varies depending on her subjects.

Annie Leibovitz with a Mamiya medium format camera, photographer unknown

5. What do you think of her work? Which work are you most interested in from her varied portfolio?

Personally, I think Annie Leibovitz’s work is fantastic. She has lived an interesting and varied life coloured by history, drugs, fame, love and loss. All this time she kept her family and her work as her foremost priorities and still produced individual and thought-provoking work. Her eye for detail is shown by her framing of a documentary style snapshot, but also in her choices of colours and tones in her fashion work. She has depth and vision, which inspires me and I can only hope to emulate. What I admire most is that she has not allowed herself to become restricted by one kind or type of photography, but has dabbled in everything and allows her creativity to shine through.

The work I find most interesting is her celebrity portraiture. What I like the most about this work is that she humanizes her sitters and brings some of their character and personality across to the viewer. She does not believe that a portrait can capture the essence of a person, but she does believe that a portion of it can come across – and in my opinion she achieves this.

“The way Annie photographed people told us who they are. Portrait photography had been around for decades… but Annie brought a totally different dimension to it.”

As a fan of John Lennon, my favourite image by Annie Leibvoitz has to be the Rolling Stone cover of him and Yoko Ono. I find this extremely powerful and emotive, and believe that even if he had not been cruelly murdered that the image would have still achieved fame and the recognition it deserves. For the sake of choosing an image I have not already included, another picture I admire is her portrait of Heath Ledger. For me, it captures the essence of a troubled young star with so much to offer the world, yet with so many dark thoughts occupying his mind. He doesn’t seem to be engaged with the camera or the viewer, and his emotional distance only enhances the perception of inner turmoil and emotional detachment.

Vanity Fair ‘Something Just Clicked’ featuring Christopher Nolan and Heath Ledger, 2008 by Annie Leibvoitz

The video of the documentary can be found here:

Semiotics – Photo Analysis


[see-mee-ot-iks, sem-ee-, see-mahy-]

noun ( used with a singular verb )

1. The study of signs and symbols as elements of communicative behavior; the analysis of systems of communication, as language, gestures, or clothing.

2. A general theory of signs and symbolism, usually divided into the branches of pragmatics, semantics, and syntactics.

The process of analysing a piece of visual media is something which we all do on a subconscious level. Our conclusions depend on many different factors such as our background, culture, age, wealth… the list is endless. What an image actually shows, or denotes, can be drastically different from what we interpret it’s meaning to be – it’s connotation. These are also known as the signifier and the signified respectively. In addition, how informed we are on relevant history or events etc, will affect our interpretation.


This photo is from a body of work called ‘Ray’s a Laugh’ by Richard Billingham. When relatively uninformed about the image, I interpret it as follows:

Denotation – A shabbily dressed man sits on the floor by a toilet. It is filthy and the toilet seat is broken. The decor is a retro seventies style, and the room is also dirty. The man has his eyes closed and could be asleep or unwell. The door frame is brightly lit, the colours are strong and there is a circle of light on the door so I assume a flash was used.

Connotation – I would guess that the man is poor due to his unkempt appearance and raysurroundings. He almost looks sad, as if he has given up. Due to the mark on the toilet bowl, I would guess that he has been sick. He is quite red and looks unwell. His slumped sitting position suggests that he is asleep or unconscious, which evokes a stereotype of someone who has drunk too much alcohol. Perhaps the redness of his face is also from drinking, and he is an alcoholic. Maybe he drinks as a form of escapism due to poverty, or maybe he is impoverished due to his drinking.

‘Ray’s a Laugh’ was published in 1996. It is a body of work showing the intimate home life of Richard Billingham’s family in Cradley Heath, Birmingham. His father Ray is an unemployed alcoholic and his mother Liz is an overweight heavy smoker. The book shows candidly the struggles and poverty of his home life using the cheapest photographic equipment available to Richard. The emphasis was not on an artistic or technically brilliant presentation, but a candid and honest representation of the lives of the Billinghams.

With this knowledge in mind, the denotation and connotation of the image change. We now understand that in this photograph, Ray is almost definitely drunk and unconscious after vomiting. We also know that the family live in poverty, partially due to his alcoholism. There are connotations of the low social status of the working class man, which provokes thoughts about whether it is his fault he’s an alcoholic. Perhaps the conditions of his surroundings or background led him down an involuntary path of self-destruction – or has he fallen to a lower social status due to his problems, dragging his family with him? Do the harsh photos depicting this reality show his son’s lack of respect for his background, or by documenting it is Richard immortalising it, showing his father’s problems candidly to give understanding to others and cause the viewer to feel empathy?

In regards to this particular image, I personally feel that the information is key to the interpretation. Without a high quality or artistic approach, the uninformed significance of the photo is less powerful than it is with an informed understanding of the body of work. It is most definitely a subjective piece of work where Richard Billingham, almost childlike, has given the viewer an honest and unrestricted view into his home life, hoping that through his candidness he himself will be better understood.