When considering this subject, it is best to start with what is it that’s considered narrative within photography. When researching online, David Campbell’s website gave this insight:

“In telling visual stories about the world, photography is narrating the world. Of course, narrative is something that is far larger than photography. Social communication is one of the defining characteristics of being human, and narrative stories have long been a common and powerful mode for transmitting information.” (Campbell, 2010)

Campbell has expressed how photography is merely a carrier of narrative. Through photography, viewers have been given a visual exploration of story telling, creating room for each of the viewers’ personal experiences to generate a narrative through the use of the visual elements used in each image. The following essay investigates into this idea further, identifying cultural, social and historical progressions that may alter or change the perception of the images. 

Mary Warner Marien has communicated the idea that through literature and other forms of story telling, photographers have been able to develop their narrative structures for the viewers: 

“In overwrought language and outlandish plots, popular fiction played on the visual veracity of photography, suggesting that the medium could reach beneath the surface to penetrate the minds of sitters” (Warner Marien, 2006: 75)

Warner has explored how the way we view images has altered and the veracity within images had changed. Before photos were mainly considered as documents, however with the use of ‘overwrought language and outlandish plots’, it has given photography the opportunity to play around with the details. As viewers, there is more room for creativity and ways for viewers to connect with the images. In addition to this, French theorist Roland Barthes found a Latin term that deal with the way we read and interpret photographs. The term Studium relates to the emotional reaction to viewing an image; Barthes states this in his book Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography: 

“It is by stadium that I am interested in so many photographs… for it is culturally (this connotation is present in studium) that I participate in the figures, the faces, the gestures, the settings, the actions.” (Barthes, 1982: 26). 

This confirms that through Studium, viewers have individual reactions to photographs, personal to themselves through their experiences, cultural and social influences. From there, each focuses and interprets ‘the faces, the gestures, the settings, the actions’ differently, pertaining to their own understandings. Gradually, each generates their own narratives through when they see within the images, relating back to whether photographs can narrate. 

The concept of narrative within Photography originally derived from literature, yet the first form of a visual representation of narrative is painting. A painter such as Édouard Manet explored this early idea through paintings including Olympia (1863) (Figure 1). Many indicators lend themselves to a narrative being created within the work. For example, viewers are not drawn to the woman on the bed due to her nakedness but rather her confrontational gaze. During the period in which Manet painted Olympia, it was unconventional for a woman to be represented in such a sexualised fashion. Additionally, Manet purposefully included a black cat that, in Paris, France during the late 1800s, symbolised heightened sexuality and prostitution; the painting easily fits into the “boudoir” genre. Because of these indicators being put in place, as well as further use of props, it’s easier for a narrative to be created. Leading on form the genre of the sex industry and prostitution, photographer Tom Hunter has completed the photographic series Living in Hell and Other Stories that is heavily influenced by this genre. Many of his images in the series stem from a similar sexualised nature like Manet’s painting, following stripper pubs and sex workers. Figure 2 titled Rat in Bed depicts a young woman sleeping in a Bordello-like room. Instantly the viewers are given a voyeuristic view into the room as well as further visual aids indicating she is a sex worker; the viewers generate a narrative from what they see and how to interpret it through their own cultural references. For example, the large feather in the corner of the room could be associated with careers including being an entertainer in strip clubs; now a culturally accepted career path. Another element of this photograph that creates narrative is the use of rats on the bed. They could symbolise the sly acts that happen in the bed, along with the people who commit them. Furthermore the rats are used as a device, connoting a menacing presence within the room. Both examples draw on Barthes Studium, where those viewing the painting or photograph make social and cultural connections, in turn creating a narrative of sex workers and the industry. 

The previous painting and photograph showcase two representations of a narrative being created, focusing on the sexualisation of the viewer and the subject in the image. Other photographers use a different way to present and narrative. Charlotte Cotton notes this way in The Photograph as Contemporary Art: “Whereas the photographs… draw on specific imagery and cultural codes for their narratives, other photographers use the tableau formula for much more ambiguous and unreferenced narratives.” (Cotton, 2009: 57). This next photograph by Jeff Wall exploits this different genre of narrative. Wall has chosen to use elements such as colours, lighting and props to help define a narrative, following the tableau example of narrative within his image The Quarrel (Figure 3). As viewers, we are immediately drawn into the image and being submersed into an already apparent narrative. When looking at the photo, there is an obvious tension depicted between the two characters. The strained sheets give a visual display to the viewers about the tension between them, adding to the melancholy feeling within the image with the dull blue colour of the bed sheets. Universally, blue is regarded as a colour that symbolises sadness that, in this case, connotes the couple is emotionally low and at a strenuous place within their relationship. Other theatrical uses such as props help to continue this documentation of a relationship. As viewers, it’s easier to relate to images such as this, allowing separate narratives to unfold through another representation. David Bate examines this within Photography: The Key Concepts, detailing what it is about documentary (style) photography allows for distinctive representations: “…documentary photographs construct representations of reality, according to someone’s view, their desire to see.” (Bate 2009: 61). Continuing Bate’s theory of representations within documentary (style) photography, American photographer Gregory Crewdson is renowned for the theatrical quality to all his images. When searching through, Bed of Roses (Figure 4.) appeared to have the most to give regarding a narrative. Crewdson, similar to Wall, uses props, lighting, settings and other elements to generate a wide variety of narratives. Mary Warner Marien notes this as High Art Photography in Photography and its Critics, A Cultural History, 1839-1900. Warner delves into this stating: “High Art photographs blended theatre, print-making, and painting with photography.” (Warner Marien, 1997: 87). Within this particular image though, Crewdson has allowed room for different narratives to be created using this theatrical approach, generated through each viewers’ personal experiences and influences. For example, the roses could be seen as a romantic gesture from a lover, however when looking closer it’s easier to see they’re dead roses that could alter to meaning to something more threatening; This in turn relates back to Barthes Studium theory; viewers are creating a narrative based on what they may have seen first hand or through the medias interpretations. From this, it becomes clear that through the use of theatrical elements and points of view, a narrative can be created within any image. 

Conclusively, it can be agreed that photographs can narrate. Through research, it’s become abundantly clear that through the use of various elements necessary to create a photograph including lighting, props, models/actors, and settings a narrative can be transmitted. Through the images referenced, there is a progression of narratives being created, starting with paintings and their ability to narrate, and leading through the similarities within photography. After examining Barthes theories and other critical analysis’, the question whether photographs can narrate is yes they can; through both the photographers use of practical elements to create the image, yet mainly through the viewers individual response based on social and cultural influences and personal experiences. 


Barthes, Roland (1982) Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Translated by Richard Howard. London: Jonathan Cape Ltd. 

Bate, David (2009) Photography: The Key Concepts. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. 

Battye, Greg (2014) Photography, Narrative, Time: Imaging our Forensic Imagination. Bristol: Intellect Ltd.  

Campbell, David (2010) ‘Photography and Narrative: What is involved in telling a story?’ In david-campbell.org 18.11.10 [online] At: https://www.david-campbell.org/2010/11/18/photography-and-narrative/ (Accessed 07.04.15) 

Cotton, Charlotte (2009) The Photography as Contemporay Art (New Edition). London: Thames and Hudson Ltd. 

Warner Marien, Mary (1997) Photography and its Critics, A Cultural History, 1839-1900. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. 

Warner Marien, Mary (2006) Photography: A Cultural History (2nd Edition). London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd. 

Wells, Liz (2009) Photography: A Critical Introduction (4th Edition). Oxon: Routledge. 


Figure 1. Manet, Édouard (1863) [Painting] At: http://www.jssgallery.org/Other_Artists/Manet/Olympia.htm (Accessed 22.03.15)

Figure 2. Hunter, Tom (2006) [Photograph; ‘Rat in Bed’ from the series ‘Living in Hell and Other Stories’] At: http://mylondonyourlondon.com/?p=43 (Accessed 24.03.15)

Figure 3. Wall, Jeff (1988) [Photograph] At: http://www.levinartgroup.com/visuals-detail-67.php (Accessed 22.03.15)

Figure 4. Crewdson, Gregory (2005) [Photograph: chromogenic print] At: http://www.artnet.com/artists/gregory-crewdson/untitled-winter-bed-of-roses-V7-6zze3EIQCN08HDXDMRQ2 (Accessed 24.03.15)