BA Phot

Photographs and Contexts

Goldblatt  & Brown
A reader in philosophy of the arts
Goldblatt & Brown

Terry Barrett

see also, Criticizing Photographs

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An essay published in Goldblatt, A. & Brown, L. (eds.) (1997) A reader in philosophy of the arts. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

This is cited in Part 5 of EyV when discussing the fourth assessment criterion, Context. It is probably the most sensible and useful piece of writing I have encountered so far in the course. I summarise the essay in my course notes and this is expanded upon here.

Robert Doisneau
Robert Doisneau
The Kiss (Le baiser de l'hôtel de ville),
1950 © Doisneau's estate

The main work considered is Robert Doisneau's The Kiss (Le baiser de l'hôtel de ville), 1950. Originally published as part of a Paris photo-essay in a French magazine (Le Point), it was subsequently used (without Doisneau's consent) in a temperance pamphlet and an article on prostitution and a print was later acquired by MoMA and appeared in Szarkowski's book, Looking at Photographs where Szarkowski referred to 'secret venial sins'. Barrett observes that in the first three (more or less) documentary uses, the nature of Barthes what referred to to as the 'channel of transmission' influences the way in which The Kiss is interpreted and that would be enhanced by the titling, surrounding text and accompanying images. At MoMA, an "austere" gallery, the Doisneau is leant legitimacy and dignity by the works of the "masters" (presumably Barrett has in mind Ansel Adams and other gallery photographers).

Barrett gives the hypothetical example of a photograph of a hunter next to a dead deer and the "different readings" if it appeared on the cover of (to Anglicise the context) Hare & Hound and Vegan Living magazines.

Patty Hearst at the Hibernia Bank
Patty Hearst at the Hibernia Bank,
San Francisco April 15, 1974.
San Francisco Chronicle

Barrett then moves on to Allan Sekula's discussion of security camera images of Patty Hearst (American heiress, kidnapped by and then acting with US terrorists in the 1970s). Taken by automatic cameras, they have no intentional aesthetic, but they have an inherent documentary quality. Here the (updated) examples for contextual contrast is an anti-capitalist pamphlet and an FBI wanted poster.

© Lennart Nilsson

He considers other images that have been used for purposes other than that for which they were originally shot: a NASA picture of the Earth from the Moon, used by Mobil Corp to enhance their petroleum products; medical diagnostic images turned into coffee table art by Lennart Nilsson; photographs of executed prisoners, taken for documentary purposes and shown as art in an Ohio gallery. Barrett refers to these as category displacements: News can become a moral judgment; science can become commercial art.
Lewis W. Hine
Lewis Hine
Addie Card, 12 years.
Spinner in … Cotton Mill
, 1910
But some such transformations, or in this case, perhaps the bridging of categories, were criticised by Susan Sontag. She objected to W. Eugene Smith's photographs of Japanese children with birth deformities caused by pollution because, being a skilled photographer, he made beautiful photographs depicting suffering. She objected on the same grounds to Lewis Hine's photographs of children working in textile mills,

Cameras miniaturize experience, transform history into spectacle. As much as they create sympathy, photographs cut sympathy, distance the emotions. Susan Sontag, quoted by Terry Barrett

Barrett quotes Douglas Crimp who noted that as photography became increasingly regarded as art and increasingly valuable, New York libraries reclassified and moved some books from their previous subject categories (such as Egypt or the American Civil War) to be shelved with photography (as Antonio Beato and Alexander Gardner). Barrett notes that Crimp exaggerates the effect.

Returning to the Doisneau, Barrett observes that,

photographs, despite their usually great specificity of information, are relatively indeterminate in meaning Terry Barrett, Photographs and Contexts

August Sander, speaking in the 1930s, sought to establish photography as a "universal language" overcoming language and cultural differences, but Barrett states that such ideas are now discredited because,

[as] with words, the meanings of photographs rest to a large extent on the uses to which they are put. Doisneau's single photograph has been put to five different uses which resulted in different meanings. Terry Barrett, Photographs and Contexts

Barrett asks, rather prettily, whether there is a means of evaluating numerous interpretations,

Are any of these wrong? Are all of these fair? Which of these are the most plausible, enlightening, accurate? Terry Barrett, Photographs and Contexts

Barrett defines three aspects of evaluation:
internal context — picture, title, date and maker
external context — the presentational environment
original context — the causal environment: the location, circumstances and intention of the maker.

He notes that while there is an inclination (perhaps because of the documentary newspaper heritage) to accept photographs as objective records of a past reality, they are in fact the result of a series of choices by the photographer, compounded by further choices within the delivery channel. The viewer should be aware that these choices have been made but can rarely know what prompted those choices or what alternatives were available.

Note that Barrett regards the contextual analysis as input to the categorisation of photographs by type, as described in Criticizing Photographs.

Once again, this makes a great deal of sense. BUT There is no mention of the viewer and their opinions, circumstances, environment, experience, mood and general baggage. The same photograph with the same internal, external and original contexts can be viewed by five separate people within five minutes and they can have five entirely different reactions to and interpretations of it.


Page created 27-May-2019 | Page updated 04-Aug-2019