How to Read a Photograph

Michael Jennings, '76MA (Yale), (PhD, University of Virginia), Class of 1900 Professor of Modern Languages and Professor of German, Princeton University

Thursdays, March 24 - April 28, 7:00 - 8:30 pm

Location:  "The D&R Greenway," Johnson Education Center

1 Preservation Place, off of Rosedale Road, Princeton, NJ 08540 

Click here to register

Course Description:

I take photographs to see what the world looks like photographed.” Garry Winogrand

This seminar aims to introduce participants to the interpretation of photographs —and to provide them with an  introduction to the history of twentieth-century photography. We will begin by examining a series of critical concepts and possible approaches to the reading of photographs; with this toolkit in hand, we will then examine the work of a number of leading American and European photographers, including Bernd and Hilla Becher, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Andre Kertesz, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Albert Renger-Patzsch, August Sander, Michael Schmidt, Charles Sheeler, Paul Strand, and Garry Winogrand. We will consider such issues as photography’s “reality effect;” the differing “frames” for reading suggested by photographs on museum walls, in photobooks, and in the hand; the “evidentiary” character of photography as applied in law and journalism; and the “divide” between emulsion-based and digital photography. The seminar will conclude with a weekend trip to New York City, where we will tour a number of photographic galleries in Chelsea, have lunch, and visit a major photography exhibit at a museum.


Michael Jennings, '76MA (Yale), (PhD, University of Virginia)

Class of 1900 Professor of Modern Languages in the Department of German; Associated Professor in the Department of Art and Archaeology and the School of Architecture

Professor Jennings focuses his teaching and research on European culture in the twentieth century. In addition to literature, he teaches on topics in cultural theory and the visual arts, with special emphasis on photography. He approaches cultural material from a perspective informed by historicist interpretive strategies and the critical theory of the Frankfurt School.

Jennings is an Associated Faculty Member of the Department of Art and Archaeology, the Department of French and Italian, and the School of Architecture; he is a Faculty Associate of the Center for the Study of Religion. He sits on the Executive Committee of the Program in European Cultural Studies and the Ph.D. Program in Humanistic Studies.

He is the author of two books on Walter Benjamin: Dialectical Images: Walter Benjamin’s Theory of Literary Criticism (Cornell University Press, 1987) and, with Howard Eiland, Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life (Harvard University Press, 2014). He also serves as the general editor of the standard English-language edition of Benjamin’s works, Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings (Harvard University Press, four volumes, 1996ff.) and the editor of a series of collections of Benjamin’s texts intended for classroom use, including The Writer of Modern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire (2007);  The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility and other Writings on Media (2008) ; and many others His new translation of Walter Benjamin's Origin of German Trauerspiel (with Howard Eiland) will appear in 2016.

His published work includes articles on the theory of art history (Alois Riegl, Wihelm Worringer), modernism in its relationship to capitalist modernity (Robert Musil, Franz Kafka, Uwe Johnson), Weimar culture (Berlin Dada, Alfred Döblin, Thomas Mann, forms of literary criticism), eighteenth-century aesthetics (Sturm und Drang, J.M.R. Lenz, Friedrich Hölderlin),  modern media (print culture and modernism), and German photography (Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, August Sander, Albert Renger-Patzsch, Michael Schmidt). He is the editor, with Detlef Mertins, of a facsimile edition of the avantgarde journal G: Journal of Elemental Form-Creation, (Getty Research Institute, 2010); with Tobias Wilke, of a special issue of Grey Room on Walter Benjamin and the Theory of Media; and with Stanley Corngold, of a special issue of Monatshefte on Kafka's Late Style.

He is currently at work on two book projects: a critical biography of Bertolt Brecht and a study of the German photo-essay in the twentieth century.

Jennings serves as Director of the Alexander Kluge Research Collection at Princeton University along with too many other prestigious boards and committees to detail here.