Reading visual images
Reading visual images

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Reading visual images

The 1990s wedding photograph

Figure 3
Figure 3: Wedding group in 1997.

Now let us look at the 1990s image. This too depicts a wedding. What makes it different from that of 1900? Some aspects of the two pictures are really quite similar, for instance, the centrality of the couple and the arrangement of the participants in rows or planes with the all-too-obvious gendering of the group (although this is rather different in that the men are mostly kneeling in the front row, the women mainly standing behind but in the same row as the couple). The group is more informal, and there is less evident standardisation of dress codes (and fewer moustaches). Masculinity is marked by crouching on the ground rather than sporting a moustache in the 1990s, yet people are still parading their ‘best’ clothes. They are attired for a celebration. Some of the informality of the picture is a compositional effect, a result of where the photographer is standing. This is not a professional wedding group picture, although it is drawing on the arrangement of the participants made by the professional who was there to produce the official record.

What the picture depicts (and it is, as you have probably guessed, two photographs taken about a second or so apart which have been joined together) is the process of making a document. The ‘father of the bride’ is making his own record of the event. It will be frontal, composed, organised and balanced. Its depictive power will be at least partly rooted in the official sanctioning of the event provided by the professional photographer's images, which the father's snapshot will reproduce but perhaps with ironic, or even shambolic overtones. It will reinforce the sense that the event itself has been furnished with social significance. The change in identity that the couple has undergone (or is in process of transacting) has been sanctified by the making of a photograph. The event can now enter history.

Thus, despite some obvious differences in terms of perspective, composition, location, clothing, etc., the two pictures are almost equally illustrative of a social process in course of enactment and sanctioning. All of the things we have deduced about the social functions of the 1900 image remain present (though subtly modified) in that of 1997. If we were to bring in additional information as we did for 1900, we might also suggest that, for example, in 1997 Miss Brown kept her original second name.

We have left some important questions about these two photographs unanswered. They concern nationality and ethnicity. Did you guess that one was made in England, the other somewhere else (in France, as it happens). It is hard to interpret much about nationality from the images, but ethnicity may offer a more fruitful field.

Until now we have been primarily concerned with how we can scan the image and any other facts we may know about it to accumulate social science data. However, another way of understanding such images, considered as part of a visual language, would be to say that they are involved in a wider set of understandings or discourses which serve to locate individual identities within a particular framework of meaning. In that sense the photographs and their symbolic content may be understood as social constructions, images which only make sense because their meaning has already been established by rules and conventions that are socially recognised.

As these two approaches to photography may indicate, the analysis or reading of images is both highly relevant to the social sciences and subject to different interpretations. Like all evidence used in the social sciences, the social processes of image construction must be considered when we look at photographs as documents. Photographs are depictions of what happens, but are produced through a series of operations that must be understood in terms of their social organisation. Only by understanding these operations – their social, economic, political and psychological organisation – can we properly evaluate the depiction.

2.4.1 Summary

  • Photographs can provide documentary evidence like other sources.

  • Such evidence supports claims and theories in social science.

  • Realist approaches suggest the images bear a strong resemblance to what is depicted.

  • Conventionalist approaches see pictures as sets of symbols.

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