CG Exercise 2.1(2): Image deconstruction


Choose a suitable image for each of the four genres. Make your analysis of your chosen images, including both the denotation and connotations of your selected images.


Tom Hunter. ‘Death of Cortelli’. 2009

The internal context of this photograph denotes a semi-naked woman, perhaps 35 years old, kneeling beside a bed, arms stretched out, with an expression of contemplative sadness. The old-fashioned bed with its wooden headboard and frame looks to have seen better days – and it seems small compared to the woman. The mattress is covered by a lilac-pink sheet coated with unpleasant-looking stains. Three old pillows sit on the bed; the woman grips one. Where is the fourth one? It might be on the floor on the far side of the bed. The room is covered by torn, stained, aged flock wallpaper, a style reminiscent of that favoured by our grandparents’ generation. The room is littered with old religious iconography, the picture of Christ hanging over the bed and Mary on the mantelpiece. Who is the old woman pictured on the mantelpiece, and what relationship does she have with the woman on the bed? The door remains open.

What is the original context of this work? We know the photograph is by Tom Hunter. And we know it is called the ‘Death of Cortelli’. But who is Cortelli, and what death is depicted?

In a talk to the RPS, Hunter (1) tells us that he has long admired ‘Death of Sardanapalus’ by Eugène Delacroix. It depicts the slaughter of women and animals on the deathbed of the Sardanapalus.

‘Death of Sardanapalus’. Eugène Delacroix. 1827

‘Death of Cortelli’ forms part of a project called ‘Unheralded Stories’ series (2008-2009) in which Hunter celebrates the contribution made by Hackney’s diverse immigrant population. Mrs Cortelli ran a cafe in Graham Road, Hackney. It started as an Italian restaurant serving ice creams and pasta but morphed into a typical British cafe selling ‘eggs, chips and beans’. Mrs Cortelli died on this bed, and the stains were of her bodily fluid when she died. Over the years, the family apparently allowed the room to become a shrine to her catholic identity.

The woman featured in the image is Mrs Cortelli’s granddaughter. When read in the context of the ‘Death of Sardanapalus’, with the arms posed for crucifixion, the left hand gripping the pillow, and the right hand caressing the stained sheets, the photograph’ Death of Cortelli’ to me connotes grief. The door is open, the grandmother has left.

When a loved one dies, part of us dies with them.


Dorothea Lange. ‘Migrant Mother’. 1936.

The internal context of this famous photograph denotes a woman sitting and holding her newborn baby. Two other children cling to her. The family appear dishevelled, they wear dirty, torn clothes. Their skin bruised and filthy. The baby sleeps but just look at its face. It’s quite shocking. The two older children hide behind their mother as if scared or shy of the photographer in front of them. Holding her hand to her face, staring passed the photographer, the mother looks thoughtful, worried, proud, strong and defiant. They sit at what looks like the opening of a canvas tent, not on the porch of a proper house. No domestic trappings are shown.

The original context of this image is itself a fascinating story. Due to the fame of this photograph, we know the woman to be a migrant pea picker, Florence Owens Thompson. The photograph was taken on the edge of a pea field in Nipomo, California when Lange worked for the United States Resettlement Administration (later to become the Farm Security Administration). Lange’s job was to document the lives and conditions of ‘migratory farm labour’. The purpose was to support Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Migrant Mother proved to be a success in this regard. On March 1936 the image was printed in the San Francisco News together with an article highlighting the workers’ plight. In response, 20,000lbs of food was dispatched from Los Angeles.

Certain connotations are clear: the woman looks desperate, homeless and living in poverty with her children. She is hopeless and in need of help. These migrant workers move from temporary shelter to temporary shelter, and this image was intended to garner support for their cause.


Bill Brandt. A Snicket, Halifax. 1937

The internal context of this photograph denotes a cobbled alleyway (or snicket as known in northern England). The image has a surreal foreboding quality. The angle seems impossible, but it leads to a railway bridge behind the wall on the right, which has been darkened in this print, thereby adding to the mysterious aesthetic. Handrails on each side lead to the top, but we can’t see what is beyond there. The cobbled stones are wet, uneven, precarious, and even dangerous. What is the small square object at the top of the Snicket? The wall on the left almost gives the impression of ice or the remnants of snow, but in any event, makes the scene seem cold and uninviting. The side view of the mill gives little clue as to the size of the building adding to the mystery of the image.

This photograph, to me, connotes struggle. Life between the wars in a northern English industrial town like Halifax would have been an uphill struggle full of uncertainty. People would have had to tread carefully whilst travelling over the uneven cobblestones of life.

Still Life

Penny Klepuszewska. Living Arrangements No. 1. 2006

This image denotes a beautiful woollen blanket draped over an old fashion chair. The high-quality photographic treatment and luxuriant colours against a black background highlight the importance the blanket presumably has to its owner. Blankets such as these would quite likely be owned by an older person.

To illustrate the connoted meaning, I would like to quote a wonderful phrase from Tina Campt (2). She says, ‘Attending to the infra-ordinary and the quotidian reveals why the trivial, the mundane, or the banal are in fact essential to the lives of the dispossessed’.


(1) Hunter, T. (2022) Awards talks… Tom Hunter Hon FRPS with Zelda Cheatle Hon FRPS, YouTube. YouTube. Available at: (Accessed: February 12, 2023).

(2) Campt, T., 2017. Listening To Images. 1st ed. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, p.4.

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