The Handwritten Word

Graffiti Salisbury Cathedral - Steve MIddlehurst 2015

Graffiti Salisbury Cathedral – Steve MIddlehurst 2015

The image and text come together in many different forms and so frequently that we usually view photographs in the context of accompanying text. Most commonly the text is external to the frame, a caption, title or a longer piece of writing but occasionally the most important text is internal, inside the frame, part of the subject. Printed signs are so much part of everyday life that street photography includes advertising hoardings, shop signage and traffic signs nearly as matter of course; but because we are conditioned from an early age to read signs their presence in a photograph will always have some impact on its meaning even when their inclusion is coincidental. However when the included text has been handwritten it is always highly influential regardless of the author, the viewer can be certain that its inclusion is wholly intentional, it becomes the subject.

The handwritten word links us to the author in an unique way. Whether it is ancient graffiti, a signature, an original manuscript or a hand written sign it is an intimate connection, the record of a physical act by the writer that has left a simple and mundane mark on stone, parchment, paper or inside a photograph.

Gillian Wearing

I have been certified as mildly insane! from Signs - Gillian Wearing 1992 -3

I have been certified as mildly insane! from Signs – Gillian Wearing 1992 -3

In her 1992 – 1993 series Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say Gillian Wearing allowed her subjects to insert their own statements into their portraits. Positioning herself in busy London streets she asked strangers to write something on a blank piece of paper before being photographed.

The results combine anthropological documentary and street photography alluding  to a street documentary television programme, interviews without specific questions.

Wearing describes her intent as:

“Initially I wanted to find out what makes people tick. A great deal of my work is about questioning handed-down truths.” (1: p130)

The results range from philosophical thoughts to political commentary, humour, banality and personal statements that are occasionally confessional. By inserting the subject’s thoughts into the portrait Wearing and the subject collaborate to reveal something of the subject’s inner being, an objective of portraiture that is rarely realised.

The series raises questions about our need to communicate and the challenges of so doing. We are left wondering why a subject decides to reveal their sexual preferences to a stranger, or the policemen says “help” and question whether they are normally so open or whether the photographer has opened a much needed communication channel.

The viewer sees not just the subjects’ appearance but some tiny corner of their minds and by using the subjects’ own handwritten words the portraits take on an intimacy that a caption could never have achieved. Wearing has adopted an anthropological approach but has prevented her subjects becoming examples by the simple device of including their written statement.

Keith Arnatt

Keith Arnatt completed two series that are wholly dependant on hand written text.

Notes from Jo 1991 – 94 is a record of eighteen notes left for him by his wife when he returned from his nightly list to the local pub; they are often instructions  “Let the dogs out before you go to bed” but they often allude to intimate details of the couple’s relationship “Where are my wellingtons you stupid fart?”

There is great poignancy to this series as soon after the series was made Jo Arnatt developed a brain tumour and died in 1996. These circumstances brought to mind Barthes’ thoughts on photography initiated by the death of his mother and his frustration that photographs failed to represent his memories of her. (2) By isolating and recording this detail of their relationship Arnatt has preserved an aspect of his wife’s personality that a portrait of the woman is unlikely to have achieved.

He told David Hurn that he wanted to record the notes so they didn’t disappear:

“Every couple has their own way of expressing their relationship” (3: p.12)

The handwritten word has the same effect here as we saw with Wearing’s signs, it is intimate, personal, believable and factual. The surface meaning is crisp and certain, the insight into the Arnatt’s relationship ambiguous.

He returned to handwritten notes in 2001 with his series Notices. In this series he has forensically photographed found market-stall signs. “Maggots in Stock”, “Pigs Ears 42p each”. Detached from the seen subject, as in Wearing’s Signs, or the known subject, as in Notes from Jo, these notices are freed from their context but their status as vernacular advertising remains clear.

Martin Parr points out that Arnatt’s motivations were more conceptual than documentary and both these series should be considered in that light, their documentary nature is coincidental rather than being their main purpose. Parr said:

“Arnatt’s strength as a photographer: he understood how the smallest detail or observation could be transformed by the act of isolation.” (4)

Anna Fox

Cockroach Diary - Anna Fox

Cockroach Diary – Anna Fox

Both Wearing and Arnatt were recording someone else’s written words; in Cockroach Diary Anna Fox records her own. Fox is interested in the interrelationships of images and words; Workstations juxtaposed photographs of office workers with text appropriated from business magazines and other corporate texts; My Mother’s Cupboards contrasted her mother’s neatly organised and normally hidden storage spaces with her father’s, often wicked, descriptions of their relationship, a concept that has some similarity with Arnatt’s Notes From Jo and speaks to his view that long term partnerships have unique ways of communicating that are often shocking to outsiders.

I have previously reviewed some of Fox’s work (here) and whenever I return to her website I am always surprised by the wide scope and varying styles on show. There is a quirkiness in her view of the world that references Martin Parr or Tony Ray-Jones but her photographs are gentle, non-judgemental observations of ordinary people often behaving strangely. Her willingness to explore such a wide gamut of approaches results in a freshness in each of her projects that not all photographers achieve.

Cockroach Diary is an early series where the diary meets photo book and, whilst non fiction, has similarity with Redlands (here) where the written narrative is illustrated by garish flash photographs of a cockroach invasion.

Elina Brotherus

Le Sommaire - Elina Brotherus 1999

Le Sommaire – Elina Brotherus 1999

I looked in some detail at Elina Brotherus’ work very recently (here) so will say very little about her 1999 series in which post-it notes label items around her flat as part of a process to quickly learn French. Like most of Brotherus’ work this series is autobiographical and as her command of the language improves the notes evolve from simple labels to more expressive documents of her feelings.

Wang Qingsong

Follow Me - Wang Qingsong 1966

Follow Me – Wang Qingsong 1966

Wang Qinsong is a Chines artist who has used many different mediums to explore the contradictions of contemporary China. Follow Me was an English Language TV programme made for Chinese schools that according to Antigoni Memou “opened a window to Western life and culture for millions of Chinese including Wang”. (5: p.552) The computer manipulated image depicts a backboard covered in English and Mandarin phrases, the Great wall of China, the Macdonald’s logo, the Olympic rings and a wealth of other detail. Wang’s work often juxtaposes traditional Chinese culture with the commercial icons of Western retail culture to create parodies of contemporary Chinese life.

Like all the pieces reviewed here and despite its cinematic scale the use of  handwritten brings an intimacy to wang’s arguments that could be not be achieved with the printed word. The allusions to the school room which is underlined by Wang posing as the teacher might also connote the, seemingly, obsessive desire for learning that is seen in mainland China and other Chinese communities, a sense of the vast amount of information that has to be learnt by Chinese students.

Helen Levitt

Vintage Chalk Drawing - Helen Levitt 1938 to 1948

Vintage Chalk Drawing – Helen Levitt 1938 to 1948

Between 1938 and 1948 Helen Levitt, best known for her photographs of children in the streets of New York, photographed chalk messages, pictures and graffiti on buildings and pavements. Partly because the original markings were often drawn by children but mostly because they were made in chalk, that most temporary of writing materials, these photographs hold a special place in the world of the photographed word. They reflect the creative powers and limitless imagination of the child and the burning desire of humans to express themselves, to communicate their message to an audience.

They are often humorous, playful in the childish meaning of the word, direct and uncomplicated. Robert Coles said Levitt:

“has had the uncanny ability to offer us those brief, revealing moments in everyday life that give our time here meaning” (6)

Her photographs of chalk graffiti are indeed brief moments, sentiments published in public view that could be wiped clean any at any moment but that record a piece of chalk a blank canvass and a child with a desire to tell. Like all the written word examples discussed here these simple scrawls offer a very direct connection to, in this case, an unknown author.

Lee Friedlander

Letters from the People - Lee Friedlander

Letters from the People – Lee Friedlander

I am including Lee Friedlander’s Letters from the People partly because it acts as a bridge to my next subject of Self Labelling (here). As one of America’s preeminent street photographers Friedlander has an eye for detail, the trivial and the banal that expresses his view of the world. The full series is much wider in scope that the handwritten word; the two hundred photographs exhibited at the MoMA in 1994 (7) begin with single letters isolated from signs, progresses to numbers then phrases. The series is typical of Friedlander’s established style often including his shadow as a form of signature (see here), perhaps the equivalent of the fine art concept of the hand of the artist (see here).

His selective view of graffiti speaks to fundamental subjects; freedom of expression, the democratic publication of ideas, the many statements that mean no more nor less than “I am here”. Once more the inclusion of the handwritten word brings personality to text and opens the meaning of the photograph.


The embedded handwritten word has a unique effect on the meaning of a photograph. The link to the physical act of writing provides a connection to the author that the printed word can never achieve, it suggests that the words are direct reflections of the author’s thoughts and as such provide clues to identity. The signs, post-it notes or diaries become artefacts that prove the existence of the author and in an era when the electronically-transmitted, printed-word, dominates communication they represent a personal and intimate message that embodies some of the author’s character.



(1) Wearing, Gillian (1999) Gillian Wearing (2011 edition). London: Phaidon Press

(2) Barthes, Roland. (1980) Camera Lucida. London: Vintage Books

(3) Arnatt, Keith (2007) I’m a Real Photographer. London: Chris Boot in association with thee Photographers’ Gallery

(5) Memou, Antigoni (2012) Follow Me 2003, an essay in Photography the Whole Story. London: Thames and Hudson


(4) Parr, Martin (2007) Small Things Writ Large (accessed at the Guardian 26.6.16) –

(6) Cole, Robert (2011) Helen Levitt Photographs (accessed at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts 27.6.16) –

(7) Galassi, Peter (1994) lee Friedlander: Letters from the People (accessed at MoMA 29.6.16) –

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