Response to Terry Barrett’s “Teaching About Photography: Photographs and Context”

The disparity between reality and representation needs to be distinguished in order to understand the nature of the photographic image.  A photograph’s meaning is rooted in its context.  Terry Barrett begs the question of how the context of an image determines it signification.  In an effort to deconstruct the complicity of the discourse, Barrett makes the claim that there are three contexts in which a photograph can fall: the “internal,” the “original,” and the “external.”

The “internal” context refers to the intercourse of the descriptive and informative elements of a work.  To illustrate, Barrett draws upon Roland Barthes critique of a Panzani ad, wherein signification and semiotics saturate fresh vegetables to deliver a convincing advertisement.  Another example provided was that of the Pulitzer Prize winner Bill Seaman whose photograph of boy run over conveys a narrative without the aid of text.  One can extrapolate the aforementioned to the question of selectivity.  Ultimately it is the photographer who dictates what remains within the frame and what is to be left out- rendering a bias representation of reality.

On the other end of the spectrum lie photographs that are taken within an “original” context.  Work of this nature necessitates outside knowledge.  Oftentimes, these photographs serve as symbolic critiques, visual metaphors or forms of social satire.  Appreciation of the image is thus reliant on the intellect of the onlooker.  As an example, Barrett uses Sherrie Levine’s exposition “After Walker Evans,” a series wherein the artist appropriates Evans body of work.  If the interpreter is unfamiliar with the role Walker Evans played in art history, the meaning of Levine’s work is lost.

The last form of contextualization is that of the “external” wherein the photographs meaning is derived from its environment.  The question of where and why arise in tandem to how it’s received and where does it stand in relation to history?   To exemplify the complicity of this discourse, lets look at Gisele Freund study of Doisneau’s photograph depicting a man and woman sharing a drink at a Parisian Café.  When first taken, it appeared as a promotional image in La Point, yet its meaning shifted when used in a brochure shunning alcohol abuse and then again when found in a newspaper reporting on prostitution.  As one can see, an image out of context becomes a chameleon that can take on any given meaning.

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