Photography – Part 4 – Project 1: P. 150 Research Point

This research point asks us to make notes on John A. Walker’s essay ‘Context as a Determinant of Photographic Meaning’ (available here) along with our own thoughts on the issue.

Firstly, Walker talks about the range of contexts that photographs can be found and how this changes the meaning.

He goes on to say that a photograph is enclosed within its own frame and that ‘…it is natural for us to mentally place in brackets the context in which the photograph is viewed…’. i.e. we do not usually consider the context that we are viewing the photo in, we are generally just focused on what is depicted in the image, even though the context has a bearing on our interpretation (whether we realise it or not!).

Changing the context does not change the contents of that image, although using it as part of a photo-montage may well do so.

Different aspects of a photo may become more important when the context is changed. Adding captions, text, other pictures, or displaying it in a certain way may give what Walker refers to as ‘…a ‘third-effect’ meaning…’ which is not apparent when the items are viewed on their own.

Walker mentions how paintings and sculptures were once designed for, and/or created as part of the architecture, for instance murals and frescos painted on walls. As panel paintings and galleries became more prevalent, artwork became more mobile and was no longer permanently connected to a specific place.

Methods of reproduction furthered this mobility, peaking with the invention of photography which allowed endless copies of an image to be displayed in different locations at the same time. The ultimate effect of these advances in technology was to decrease the importance of physical location and display conditions. Photos in printed material and the media could be viewed at any time and place (the original article was written in 1980, so the internet can now be added to this) and these contexts have an effect on the meaning, just as the architectural locations once did.

Walker then illustrates the media context factor by considering the same photo being shown on the cover of a newspaper and inside an art photography journal, and how the first is looked at as a documentary image and the second as art.

The next section of the essay is about ‘circulation and currency’ and Walker talks about how a photo captures a specific moment and, therefore, its meaning is related to where it’s come from in regards to space and time. That photo, of course, will subsequently be viewed in many other spaces at many other times and by many other people. There is discussion about how, when we look at the meaning of a photograph, we often approach it by examining the social situation at the time of its original production, and how this leads to the meaning being portrayed as fixed. Walker acknowledges that the original situation does have an impact, but that the meaning is affected by new circumstances and audiences that it finds itself in.

A further example that Walker uses is the ‘Beyond the Family Album, Private Images, Public Conventions’ series of photos of Jo Spence that were displayed at an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London. Walker notes that he had also seen the images in a public library and on the cover of a feminist magazine.

The Spence photos demonstrated how context can be challenged, as the pictures are moved out of the family album and into the public eye. Walker saw the images in three different contexts and each had a different emphasis. He also notes how the photograph can influence the meaning of the context as well as the opposite.

Walker moves on to talk about the ‘mental context or set’, essentially saying that people don’t view photos with a blank mind, but they bring their own knowledge, memories and experiences to their interpretations. People have different reactions based on their position in society, their sex, race, class, age, and more.

The essay notes that it is easier to analyse a photograph than it is to analyse someone’s experience of it. There is the idea that because everyone is different and unique, they will each have a different and unique reaction to an image. Walker argues though that there are shared experiences amongst people and that they have things in common, especially if they are a part of a similar social group or class. This means we could reasonably predict the response from large groups who share similar characteristics. Walker illustrates this point by saying that mass media would be impossible were this not true.

We are bombarded by many visual images daily and it may appear that they have no effect, but they affirm our dominant understandings in a way that appears ‘natural’. Only through dramatic social contextual changes, like a revolution, do we really see the oppressiveness of representational works that serve the ruling classes. In these moments, they are destroyed by the people e.g. The Vendome column being destroyed in Paris in 1871.

We can only decode/read images according to the structure of the ‘text’, and so our freedom to do so is restricted. We can, however, make an oppositional response i.e. one that is different to the response that was originally intended.

Context is difficult for artists because it’s so often out of their control. Some groups, however, try to control it. Theatre, film and community photographer groups usually want favourable conditions for their work to be received into, and they often have a specific audience in mind.

The second part of the research point asks our own thoughts on this issue.

I think that all of Walker’s points are sound. I agree that people with similar life experiences and backgrounds will likely view a photograph in a similar way, and also that the context changes the meaning.

I found an interesting article by Terry Barrett titled Teaching About Photography: Photographs and Contexts (see it here). One of the examples he uses is a photo by Robert Doisneau called ‘At The Cafe‘ taken at Chez Fraysse, Rue de Seine, in Paris 1958. It depicts a man and a woman sitting a bar with glasses of wine in front of them. The image was used in the context Doisneau intended in an article about cafes in Paris, but was then misappropriated and used in a brochure about the dangers of alcohol abuse and in a magazine story about prostitution – both without Doisneau’s consent. The photograph was also presented in a display at the MoMA, as well as in a book where it was described as a seduction.

This is just one of so many examples where a photograph can mean many different things depending on the caption/description/article/context, whether that was the original intended message being presented or not.

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