‘Context as a Determinant of Photographic Meaning’
Thoughts on the essay by John A Walker
Photographs in context and the place of presentation – this is a fascinating and thought-provoking topic. The photograph draws attention in different ways, for example if it is in a celebrity magazine it is about the subjects whereas if it is in a commercial photographer’s shop window it is presenting the skill. If it is in an exhibition it may be offering an artistic emphasis or it may be telling a story. Some of the contexts mentioned in John Walker’s article which I’d like to keep in mind : architectural, media, socio – historical and of course the individual mental contexts of the viewer . As with paintings, the viewer looks at the photograph through his own personal lens . There is the mental context of knowledge or lack there-of, prejudice, conditioning, memories and preferences which affect the way the image is perceived and experienced .
Another consideration is the possible third impact, for example, when placed beside another photograph or when a caption is added, what then does that convey . Walker’s example of the image of a herd of sheep being moved into a pen, and the image of a crowd of people getting onto an underground train is very telling. Each image in its own right could be powerful, but juxtaposing them would create a third response, perhaps much more powerful that the individual images.
The fact that photographs can be reproduced and appear in many different contexts makes the image available in many different ways . The original idea behind the photograph can be lost as a result. Does this matter? This idea of context with photographs is an extraordinary paradox. A fixed image, a moment set in time, and yet it has such potential to change its meaning. Is this part of the attraction of photography?
Why do people go to galleries to view photographic exhibitions ? Why do they look at books of photographs ? When it is proactive rather than being faced with billboards or images in the newspaper etc, what is the motivation ? For me in the past it has been more about entertainment and yet now it is more about education . At different times there might be different requirements from people viewing exhibitions . If I am studying photography I might be looking at another photographer’s work with a completely different agenda than if I were interested in the topic being presented .
I notice that I held my own unconscious prejudice that photography on a serious level ( yes, there are even levels of criticism) is more about commission . For example serious photographers are commissioned to illustrate books , to show wildlife or botanicals for learning , or to create photographic portraiture . Art books rely on photographers to take the most skilled and accurate representation. It is as if I viewed” serious” photography in similar ways that early art was created and patron – led.
Having read the John Walker document this prejudice becomes conscious and I can see how it may have affected my viewing of photographic exhibitions , which have been limited , no doubt as a result . I surprise myself by this as I do enjoy photography as an art form. I also very much enjoy Victorian photography for its staged and artistic merit.
Observing my own varied approaches to viewing photographs is a reminder of how very differently others view and respond.