Rosemary Gilliat’s photograph depicts a young woman (Anna Brown) sitting in an observation car on the Pacific Great Eastern Railway. Instantly, questions are conjoured in our mind, ‘Who is Anna? Where is she going? What can she see?’ So what is it that provokes this reaction?
What Can We See in This Photograph?
We can see a young woman, who we know to be Anna Brown, riding a train. We can discern this from the tracks in the background and from the caption! It appears to be travelling across quite rural land; there are no buildings visible, and Anna has clearly seen something that delights her from the way she’s pointing and the smile on her face.
‘Most photographs offer another layer of experience—a reading experience as rich as any written prose—if we take the time to observe and process the photograph’s visual language’ – Dawn Oosterhoff – How to Read a Photograph
The first thing that strikes me is the composition. Anna is placed in accordance with the rule of thirds but her body language has turned her to face out of the shot. This goes against what we usually expect of photographic rules and ‘leaving space’ for the subject to look or travel into. This produces a slightly uncomfortable feeling and may frustrate. It further heightens the desire to know what Anna has seen. If we could see that, I’m convinced the photograph would lose its impact. Part of the joy of this photo is the mystery behind Anna’s enjoyment.
We can also see that the train is moving towards us, which
again is at odds with the direction of our subject, Anna. The tracks recede far into the distance, creating a feeling of depth and motion. The composition is slightly off-kilter, a bit imperfect in just the right way. The lines of the bench seats slope down and push our eye back towards Anna. You can almost feel the train rocking on the track. These conflicting ‘movements’
create a more interesting photograph. Would this have had the same effect if
she was sat in the middle of the frame? Is this why the photograph was cropped
to a square?
Would it change your interpretation of this photograph if I told you that Anna and Rosemary (the photographer) were friends? Suddenly this becomes a heartfelt documentary of friends travelling together, perhaps part of a road trip, rather than a photographer/model set up shot. Knowing the context of a photograph can dramatically change our reading of it.
About the Photographer and Photograph
The photograph was taken by Rosemary (Cassandra) Gilliat in August of 1954 as she travelled Canada and the US with her friends Anna Brown, Audrey James and Helen Salkeld. Given that she was born in England and has recently emigrated to Ottawa, Canada in 1952, we can assume that the image captured in our example here was part of a very exciting journey. Everything would have been new to her and this was probably reflected in the pictures Rosemary took.
Later, in 1960, Rosemary moved to Nova Scotia and became
renowned for her nature photography. Library and Archives Canada have a large
collection of her work.
Your Turn! 'Refugees at Ipoh Station'.
This is another photograph depicting train travel and a woman expressing happiness but when you view the caption and research the historical context, your interpretation of the photograph can completely turn around.
If you're unsure of what to look for in a Photograph, then check out Dawn Oosterhoff's excellent article: How to Read a Photograph and let us know what you see in this image: