Yesterday I did a guest lecture for a grad seminar in the education school, where I talked about visual literacy. I ran them through a short exercise in "reading" photographs that they could use in the high school English classes they are teaching. We started with the following two images by Dorothea Lange (click on image to enlarge):
We talked about each image in succession, discussing how composition and cropping influence our potential interpretations and considering the relationships among bodies -- white bodies and black bodies, fat bodies and thin bodies, male bodies. The students overwhelmingly interpreted the photograph as an image about race. One student suggested that the second image offers a picture of "racial integration," while others disputed that reading and suggested that it is an image of segregation and racial domination (one student mentioned something I hadn't noticed before, that the Coca-Cola sign over the head of the African American man on the far right reads "sold here"). Then I gave them a third image, the actual exposure from which the first two photos were derived by cropping:
This image introduces yet another body, that of agricultural economist and Lange's research partner (and husband) Paul Taylor. Though barely visible, Taylor's white, lanky, casual yet professorial body introduces yet another juxtaposition, that of insider and outsider. The students remarked that while in the first and second images the white man is visually dominant and powerful, in the third image Taylor's presence mutes that power and at the same time heightens the tension.
During our discussion we talked not only about composition and cropping but also captioning, context, and circulation. Dorothea Lange made the photograph in Clarksdale, Mississippi in 1936 while on assignment for the Farm Security Administration. She originally captioned it, "Plantation Owner, Mississippi Delta," though sometimes you will also find it titled, "Plantation Overseer" (a caption that she gave to a different photograph of the same man). If you do a google image search of "plantation overseer," the first two images that come up are this one.
None of this is rocket science in terms of interpretation, but sometimes it's good to go back to the basics, to see what you can see, look harder, and try to see more.