Reading the Narrative Photography

October 30, 2016

With a power to evade mental defenses, change attitudes, or engage emotions, narratives affect people in such powerful and increasingly well-studied ways. The narrative continues to fascinate theorists and critics because it is so closely intertwined with our identity and the way we understand ourselves and the world around us. Increasingly, we are overrun with the notion of narrative photography, an idea that photographs can be used to tell a story. Some would say that the power of narrative is in the essence of all photography, while others would argue that photography is strictly a non-narrative medium for its irreducible temporality. Yet, when discussing this subject, it is very important to define the very notion of a narrative.

to create a great narrative should focus on things such as social aspects of your work
Eadweard Muybridge - A man standing on his hands from a lying down positionm, 1887

Defining the Narrative

Storytelling and listening to stories are part of human instincts and human nature. Beginning with the oral tradition and in forms of myths, legends, fables, anecdotes, or ballads, man has been telling stories and listening to them ever since he learned to speak. These were told and retold and passed down from generation to generation as a valuable knowledge and wisdom. When we talk about any form of storytelling, the term narrative always shows up. The Free Dictionary defines a narrative as “a story or account of events, experiences, or the like”. This definition implies that terms narrative and story are interchangeable, but is it really so? The story is usually defined as the chronological sequence of events. The event itself is not a story, it is a moment trapped in time. Even though the story always has a narrative, there are narratives that are not stories. This shows the elusive quality of the term.

According to the American psychologist Jerome Bruner, narrative's relationship with time and causality is especially important. He pointed out that the narrative is irreducibly durative and that there is no narrative without a timeline. Yet, to think about narrative, however, involves more than reflecting on how a series of events become connected. We also need to think about how something is constituted as an event in the first place. As Allen Feldman has stated “the event is not what happens. The event is that which can be narrated”, meaning that a narrative constructs the very events it connects.[1] Narratives are not found objects and are constructed by participants and observers, actors and analysts. Recognizing narrative as constructions means that we cannot escape the clash of interpretations. One of the narrative Merriam-Webster Dictionary is that it is “the representation in art of an event or story, or an example of such a representation”. This means that a narrative can be about the story - it creates connections to story and storytelling but does not in and of itself have to be a story. It can be the way the story is told.[2]

things like social aspect in your photos and work in general can create a new narrative
Darcy Padilla - The Julie Project, via wordpressphoto com

The Narrative Photography

As something non-verbal in nature, can photography tell a story or create a narrative? The story is a sequence of events unfolding over time, but a photograph is a single moment frozen in time removed from the timeline. Put this way, photography as a medium is almost completely incapable of creating a story. Yet, in her essay Pictorial Narrativity, Wendy Steiner states that while it's unusual for a single image to tell a story, it has been common throughout the history of arts for an image to imply a certain story or remind the viewer of a story he or she already knows. In this way, the photograph can depict a moment within a larger story, and the viewer is able to draw upon the story he or she already knows. Thus, this kind of photograph can be considered narrative because it recalls a story through association. This is called a staged-narrative photography where images are staged purposefully with the idea of narrative in mind. Gregory Crewdson is a photographer famous for using this kind of approach.

The Professor and Political Scientist David Campell says that "In telling visual stories about the world, photography is narrating the world", outlining that narrative is something far larger than photography. Yet, the narrative in photography is often connected to the context. The narrative of Dorothea Lange's famous photo Migrant Mother becomes apparent only if the viewer is aware that is was captured during the Great Depression.

In the 18th century thesis Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry, Gotthold Lessing argued that although painting could not communicate narrative in the sense of telling a story, it could imply drama by aspiring to capture the “pregnant moment”. In photography, this idea thrives as the “decisive moment” first introduced by Henri Cartier-Bresson and his followers. Yet, classics of the decisive moment such as Cartier-Bresson's Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare can often be more of an enigma than a story to be read. This often goes for documentary photography. Thus, the viewer is invited to invent a narrative of their own from the elements of the image that becomes a blank canvas for interpretation. In the case of the Alfred Eisteinstaedt's famous photograph of a sailor kissing a woman at Times Square after the end of the World War II, it turned out that the narrative general public constructed couldn't be more further from the truth.

the good narrative can be created if you focus on people in your photos
Left: Henri Cartier-Bresson - Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, via / Right: Alfred Eisenstaedt - The VJ Kiss

Collages, Sequences and Photo Essays

The narrative without a story can be made through a photo collage. Even though each photo represents a separate event, their juxtaposition can create a narrative relationship in the viewer’s mind. Each viewer can develop their own story by connecting these images in their mind or having a certain collage of emotions. Thus, these images have a narrative since there is a tendency towards a story, even though the actual story is not present. Even though a story requires a sequence of events, the narrative simply requires an implication or reference to story events without those events actually happening. [4] David Hockney broke conventions and challenged the single image, constructing a narrative with multiple images through a collage or a photo montage. He first started making composite images of Polaroid photographs arranged in a rectangular grid, and soon after he switched to regular 35-millimeter prints to create photo collages, physically compiling a complete photograph from a series of individually photographed details.

Be sure to check out works by David Hockney on our marketplace!

Narrative’s demand for a sequence of events can be satisfied with a sequence of photographs. The 19th century photographer Eadweard Muybridge created many sequence photographs in order to study the motion that create a literal and clear narrative. The photographer Duane Michals has created a variety of photo-series arranged in a sequence conveying ideas about love, emotion, philosophy, life and death. One of his most famous pieces is Paradise Regained that shows a recognizable narrative structure of progression. In some other pieces like Dr. Heisenberg’s Magic Mirror of Uncertainty, he avoids using the standards narrative structure, creating works that are somewhat ambiguous.

Narrative can also be created though a photo essay or a photobook. Even though these are rarely read as narratives in the sense of an ordered sequence unfolding over time, photobooks convey an overall concept, theme or idea behind the selection of images that represents a narrative. Through editing and sequencing photographs for a book, the final group of images and the way they are presented can clearly point at a story, a feeling, or an idea. The overall narrative would be the way this all comes together. The approach can vary and connections between images can range from being very specific to quite vague. The famous 18-years series The July Project by photographer Darcy Padilla documents the life and death of one woman. Through thousands of pictures, as well as letters, journal entries, logs of phone conversations and newspaper cuttings, it tracks the blighted life of Julie Baird, capturing in miniature the plight of America's permanent poor. This approach is quite different from, for example, Robert Frank’s The Americans that dissected the American image and creates a narrative that is more ambiguous and elusive.

good narrative will work with new people
Left: David Hockney - My Mother, Bolton Abbey, Yorkshire, Nov, 1982, via / Right: Duane Michals - Paradise Regained, via

Photographs as Clues

It might not be too much of a stretch to say that all photographs allude to some sort of story, however vague it might actually be. While narratives are powerful, how we interpret them and how they make us feel changes dramatically with our point of view, our existing preconceptions, and our emotional state when we experience them. Photographs aren’t really entities of their own. Instead, they point at something else, whether that something else is a story, a feeling, an idea, or simply its maker’s expression to affirm her or his presence. Photography can create a narrative, but the most powerful role of photography is its ability to complement narratives rather than express them and frame stories rather than tell them.[5]


  1. Campbell, D. (2010) Photography and narrative: What is involved in telling a story?, David Campbell
  2. Sundberg, I. (2011) To Plot or Not to Plot. Ingrid Sundberg
  3. Steiner, W. Narrative Across Media: The Languages of Storytelling, Pictorial Narrativity. Illus, 2004
  4. Anonymous, Photography and Narrative, CPH Mag [October 28, 2016]
  5. Meyer, M. Storytelling Photography Considered Harmful, Photo Mark [October 28, 2016]

Featured images: Robert Frank - The Americans, via; Darcy Padilla - Julie Project, via World Press Photo; Cindy Sherman - Untitled Film Stills, 1977, via

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