Reading visual images
Reading visual images

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2.4 Looking closely at photographs for social data

Activity 2

Look at the photographs of a wedding group in Figures 2 and 3. They were taken at intervals of about 100 years. Let us focus on the concept of identity.

To what extent can the photographs supply us with information about the dimensions of identity (whether of gender, class, nationality, or ethnicity) in the 1890s and the 1990s?

Try to look at both photographs in two ways, first, in terms of the information they provide about the people and events being depicted, and second, in terms of any evidence you can find which informs you about the visual conventions being employed in the making of the picture.

Figure 2
Figure 2 Wedding photograph taken in 1900.
Figure 3
Figure 3: Wedding group in 1997.


Wedding photographs, like the data concerning marriage we discussed previously, are documents that can offer us information about how the institutions of marriage and the family are socially constructed, and about identity. We’ve deliberately chosen two quite different types of photograph: one is formal and direct, the other is informal and indirect.

In the case of the 1900 picture, what can we see? First, that it has been made in a room, probably in the dwelling where the wedding breakfast (the reception) was held. However, we cannot know such information from the image itself. We can, though, observe the manner in which the participants have been arranged, in three rows, facing directly towards the camera. In the front row, centred in the arrangement are the bride and groom. They are surrounded by what we can assume (but in fact can only know from other documentary evidence) are family members from both of the families being united by marriage. Distance from the bridal couple indicates a weakening relationship to them, or a lower social status. For instance, notice how the children are dispersed to the edges of the group. Also, what about the women? It is the men who anchor the composition, and are centred in the frame. The gendered identity of the participants is established by their positioning within the composition.

Now look at the arrangement of the group: there must be some hidden apparatus in place so that each line of people is able to present their face and upper torso to the camera. Yet this apparatus is not merely a pictorial device, for it also structures the group, and places it in a hierarchy. The front row is the most important, followed by the second and then the third: each row denotes a degree of separation from the centre of gravity of this grouping.

We could also note that this tells us something about the nature of the society in which such pictures were made. We can do so because we can observe from other examples of the time that this is a perfectly banal and ordinary depiction of a marriage, which was replicated countless thousands (if not millions) of times in this era. The very ‘commonplace’ nature of the image suggests that we are looking at a social fact of some significance. The organisation of the picture, made by a professional who specialised in weddings and portraits, reflected a widespread social demand for such images, which were designed to be kept as mementos. We might argue that their making helped secure the new identities that are depicted, and that the picture itself has a dual social function. It not only records the event (‘this marriage really happened’) in a way that the marriage certificate could not, but is also part of the rite of passage between one social status and another for the participants in the event. In this sense the photograph represents a ritual moment in the lives of individuals. The photograph records an important event, plucked from the flux of time because of its significance to the parties involved. It follows that what is photographed is worthy of such recording: the act of photography is a process by which such rituals are furnished with social significance.

The organisation and arrangement of the participants, then, also tells us something about their status and their identities in relation to each other. The couple are surrounded by members of the two families. Their central and frontal positioning indicates their inclusion within a wider social group. By marrying, their social identities have shifted, they now have to be considered as Mr and Mrs Smith, whereas they were once Mr Smith and Miss Brown. The identity shift is, however, more significant for Miss Brown as she now has a new name. So the picture immortalises a union (a social contract) between individuals and families, at the same time as it records a social process, the reformulation of identity. It places the couple within a social structure, and, by the same token, records their agency, their willingness to be united in such a way, to accept the redefinition of their identities that follows.

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