Write an essay of 1,000 words on an image of your choice. The image can be anything you like, from a famous art photograph to a family snapshot, but please make sure that your chosen image has scope for you to make a rigorous and critical analysis.
A PDF version of my essay is available here. assignment4
A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words
What contribution do photographers make to an individual family history and the social history as a whole? Through the deconstruction and analysis of a photograph, this essay attempt to answer the above question.
The photograph I chose to examine, has hung on my sitting room wall for several years. It was a Christmas present from my girlfriend, purchased from The Kennelly Archive, and features my grandfather Tadhg Prendiville. The Kennelly Archive is a pictorial record of County Kerry, and represents the life work of freelance photographers, Padraig and Joan Kennelly (The Kennelly Archive).
At the denoted level, a bar setting is clearly communicated by the Guinness kegs, shelving, glasses, cigarettes and the price list. My grandfather stoops to fill a glass of Guinness. He appears dapper with slick hair, dressed in a shirt, tie and dark suit.
The photograph is in someways reminiscent of August Sander’s People of the Twentieth Century, which feature people “defined by their profession” (Clarke 1997 p.113). Sander had a “severe portrait style” (Jeffrey 2010 p.132), with many of his photographs appearing static and formally taken at full or half-length1. Sander’s Young Farmers is where I see the similarity with Kennelly’s photograph of my grandfather2. The young farmers “seem to have paused, but only momentarily, to present themselves to the camera” (Jeffrey 2010 p.132), in much the same way my grandfather seems to have only just looked up at the photographer, who appears to be sitting at the bar. The candid style of Kennelly’s image render it more social documentary than portraiture, although this would depend entirely on the context in which the photograph is read.
The photograph is captioned, “September 1965; Kerry Footballer T Prendeville in Castleisland”3. The original proof books were the first source of caption information, and in some cases supplemented by research from newspapers and local people (The Kennelly Archive). The linguistic message is delivered by the caption and text within the photograph (i.e. price list and product labels), which work together to establish the who, where and when of the photograph.
While the caption establishes the photograph capture date as September 1965, two elements within the photograph support that approximate time period. Firstly, the price list behind my grandfather reveals the old pound, shilling and pence system (240 pence to 1 pound)4. Secondly, the kegs in the photograph which are concealed behind attractive covers displaying the Guinness brand, feature a bottom end pouring tap and a relief valve on top, which were phased out by 19665. Although the caption dates the image in September, a sheet of Christmas wrapping paper covering a section of the wall in the background, may lead the viewer to believe that the image was taken in December, perhaps questioning the reliability of photography as documentary (Clarke 1997 p.145).
In the photograph, my grandfather fills a glass with Guinness, the stout nearing the top of the glass, yet his attention is on the camera, and he appears frozen as he holds back a smile. Does he deliberately hold a pose for the camera or was it snapped as he worked? Examining the archive, reveals that the photograph was taken as part of a series of three. One photograph features my grandfather in an obvious, deliberate and very static pose as he holds an empty glass to an optic. While in another he stands behind the bar, placing a pint on the counter as he engages with his customers, a row of six men, all of whom are drinking Guinness. The six men appear to have been corralled along the bar into the photographer’s frame. A skylight and the windows in the background show daylight. One of the additional photographs is captioned, identifying my grandfather as the proprietor, “September 1965; Kerry Footballer T. Prendeville in his bar in Castleisland”. These two additional photographs appear posed and quite formal in comparison to the casual and opportune nature of the photograph on my wall.
Possibly, the most interesting question is, why were the photographs taken ? I grew up with the understanding that my grandfather’s knowledge, commitment and views on the game of football were renowned and highly respected within Kerry footballing circles. Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) historian, Denny G. O’Sullivan, regularly referred footballing matters back to Tadhg Prendiville for verification (Reidy 2005). In 1965, my grandfather was treasurer of Kerry GAA, and that September, Kerry were due to play Galway in the final of the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship, having lost the final to them the previous year. In the build-up to important Gaelic football matches, The Kerryman newspaper would publish photographs of establishments known for their love and knowledge of football, and Tadhg Prendiville’s public house was no exception. “Debates begin here, to be carried on in other houses …… before being brought back for final analysis and absolute settlement” (Reidy 2005). So, in 1965, it would have been perfectly reasonable for Padraig or Joan Kennelly to photograph his bar prior to the impending encounter with the possibility of publication in mind, especially given his reputation and position within the footballing organization. However, having searched the archives of The Kerryman and other regional and national newspapers, there is no record of the images having been published.
Looking at the technical aspects of the photograph, there is a slight yet obvious flaw in the point of focus. A wide aperture may have been required given the dark interior of the bar, and although a flash was used, the photographer seems to have made the price list in the background the sharpest point of focus, instead of the human subject. This blemish may explain why the photograph didn’t make publication, however, fortunately for my family, Padraig and Joan deemed it worthy of archival.
If the ‘Studium’ of the photograph is man tending bar, then a subtle ‘Punctum’ appears in my grandfather’s eyes. They appear watery, which could simply be tiredness or the effect of cigarette smoke, however, this ‘Punctum’ alludes to the possibility of a night out or a few after-hours drinks. Looking again to the series, reveals that his eyes appear perfectly normal when not looking directly at the camera, thus, the ‘Punctum’ is possibly the result of catch light from the photographer’s flash. However, the focusing flaw along with the compositional difference to the other two in the series, has me wondering if it was taken much later in the day and possibly even after a number of drinks. A photographer coming to the bar could have been a cause for celebration. A celebration where all concerned took part, including the photographer and my grandfather.
The bar is stocked, perhaps lacking the efficient utilization of space, which is now common practice. The cigarette packets are missing the public health warnings of today. The kegs are positioned where my grandfather has to stoop to use them, yet high enough to require a good deal of strength to lift them in place. Judging by the size of his hands, he was more than up to the physical demands of his job, and after all, the caption describes him as a footballer, which in itself connotes, strength and fitness. It’s interesting to note that his everyday dress, is now what we consider formal, and is even undergoing a resurgence in many bars and barber shops. The photograph could easily be an advertisement for Guinness, and connotes thoughts of good, even simpler times. The photograph has become more than an object which simply provokes the memory of my grandfather’s identity (Barthes 2000), it has enriched my understanding of his life, and the time. Padraig and Joan Kennelly have amassed a vast and rich archive which is invaluable to individual family histories. Their photographs have done for the social history of Kerry, what Franz S. Haselbeck has done for Limerick, or Evans, Frank and Winogrand have for America.
2 Tom Ang quoting Sander, describes that after moving to Cologne, Sander’s style evolved from conventional studio work to “simple, natural portraits that show the subjects in an environment corresponding to their own individuality” (Ang 2014).
3 The Kennelly Archive use the spelling ‘Prendeville’, as opposed to ‘Prendiville’ used by my grandfather.
4 Decimalization was introduced in Ireland with the 1969 Decimal Currency Act which came into effect on the 15th February 1971 (Decimal Currency Act 1969).
5 The Easy Serve Keg was hurriedly introduced in England in time for the company’s bicentennial in 1959, despite imperfections, but didn’t appear in Ireland until 1964, once fine tuned. The Easy Serve Keg was a single metal keg containing two sections, one with stout and the other with a pressurized mixture of carbon dioxide and nitrogen which allowed stout to be delivered to counter mounted taps (Yenne 2007). The glass is filled directly from the keg, as was the practice prior to the introduction of Easy Serve kegs. The Easy Serve role-out was slow in Ireland, as searching The Kennelly Archive, I was unable to find any trace of counter mounted Guinness taps in Kerry before 1966. Thus, one could deduce that the photograph was taken prior to this.
Overall, I’m pleased with my submission for this assignment. Drawing directly from the information contained within the image, I feel that I carried out a comprehensive deconstruction and analysis of Kennelly’s photograph. I initially had concerns as to whether I would have enough to say about the image, but in the end I wrote well over the thousand words required. I found editing the essay challenging, and with difficulty reduced the word count to what was asked of me. Word processing is not my forte, and I struggled a little in this department.
Thinking about my grandfather’s photograph, again Roland Barthes’ Winter Garden comes to mind. While my grandfather’s image isn’t quite for me, what the Winter Garden photograph was to Barthes, it does do something similar in that it has helped me to see a different side of my grandfather, perhaps better understanding how he lived.
This section has again introduced me to a number of fascinating photographers. I found Diane Arbus a particularly interesting character, and I really enjoy how Jeff Wall enriches our intertextuality, as he references other artists in his work. This was probably the most interesting section of the course to date, and has really opened my eyes to photography as a means of communication. While Roland Barthes’ writings are often demanding, I believe Rhetoric of the Image to be the most importance piece of research I’ve read so far, and I imagine I will be referring back to it time and again.
Assignment 4 – Updated August 2016
Below is the updated Assignment 4 Essay PDF following analysis and tutor feedback. The only change is to the first line as mentioned in the above feedback. A post on Assignment 4 Feedback is linked here.
The original first line read; What contribution do photographers make to an individual family history and the social history as a whole?
The new opening line reads; What contribution do photographers’ archives make to an individual family history and the social history as a whole?
The amended Assignment 4 PDF can be seen here: 512301assignment4UPDATE
Ang, T. (2014) Photography The Definitive Visual History, London: Dorling Kindersley.
Badger, G. (2007) The Genius of Photography: How photography has changed our lives, London: Quadrille.
Bailey, R., Boak, J. (2016) ‘Draught Guinness in the 1960’s’, Boak & Bailey’s Beer Blog [online], 20 Jan, available: http://boakandbailey.com/2016/01/draught-guinness-1960s/ [accessed 21 May 2016].
Barthes, R. (2000) Camera Lucida, translated by Howard, R., London: Vintage.
Barthes, R. (1977) Image, Music, Text, translated by Heath, S., London: Fontana Press.
Boothroyd, S. (2014) Context and Narrative, Barnsley: Open College of the Arts.
Clarke, G. (1997) The Photograph, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Irish News Archive (2016) Irish News Archive [online], available: https://www.irishnewsarchive.com/ [accesssed 21 May 2016].
Irish Statute Books (2016) The Decimal Currency Act 1969 [online], available: http://www.irishstatutebook.ie/eli/1969/act/23/section/2/enacted/en/html#sec2 [accessed 21 May 2016].
Jeffrey, I. (2010) Photography A Concise History, London: Thames & Hudson Ltd.
Jobey, L. (2005) ‘Diane Arbus: A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing, N.Y.C. 1966’, in Howarth, S., ed., Singular Images: Essays on Remarkable Photographs, London: Tate Publishing, 67-76.
Kennelly Archive (2016) The Kennelly Archive [online], available: http://www.kennellyarchive.com/search/?search=prendeville&year=1965&location=castleisland&basic_search=Search&usingmoreoptions=0&topic_a=any&startmonth=01&startyear=1953&endmonth=12&endyear=1973 [accessed 21 May 2016].
Reidy, J. (2005) ‘Après match memories at Tadhg’s passing’, The Kerryman [online], 8 Dec, available: http://www.independent.ie/regionals/kerryman/news/aprs-match-memories-at-tadhgs-passing-27365527.html [accessed 21 May 2016].
Sontag, S. (1977) On Photography, London: Penguin.
Tate (2016) Tate [online], available: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/search?q=August%20sander [accessed 21 May 2016].
Warner Marien, M. (2010) Photography: A Cultural History, 3rd ed., London: Laurence King.
Yenne, B. (2007) Guinness: The 250-Year Quest for the Perfect Pint, Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley & Sons.