This week’s material was principally to do with the effects context had on the interpretations, and perceptions of the significance, of a photograph. Where and in what form a photograph is published, and who is viewing it can affect its meaning dramatically. Even the same photograph published in different contexts can convey entirely different meanings as in the example of the spectrum of meaning attributable to the wedding photograph described in the Walker article in this week’s readings.
In the Liz Wells book, Photography, A Critical Introduction, she references Sontag’s view that “referential nature of the photographic image both in terms of its iconic properties and indexical nature…testifies to the actuality of how something, someone or somewhere once appeared.” While in response, Kozloff argues “for a view of the photograph as a ‘witness’ with all the possibilities of misunderstanding, partial information or false testament that the term ‘witness’ may be taken to imply.” Further Kozloff states “The presence of the photograph reveals how circumscribed we are in the throes of sensing. We perceive and interpret the world through a set of incredibly fine internal receptors. But we are incapable, by ourselves, of grasping or tweezing out any permanent, sharable figment of it.” Wells a few pages later refers to Roland Barthes conclusion “that it is reference, rather than art or communication, which is fundamental to photography.” To Barthes, “The photograph is always about looking, and seeing.”
So how does this inform the discussion of context? I think the perceptions of the meaning of a photograph can be influenced by where it is seen and how it is presented, but in the end, absent any semiotic clues as to it purpose, the resulting interpretation is utterly and entirely up to the viewer. With all the fallibilities of witnesses, those interpretations are subject being very superficial, or of reading much more into the image the author intended, or to being so influenced by the life experiences, political motivations, likes, fears, etc. as to result in a complete misunderstanding of the author’s intent. And indeed, it most probable the person standing next in the queue will come away with other than an identical conclusion than that of the first viewer.
How much control over context and meaning do we as photographers really have? To what extent can we control a narrative with our work? Is it even possible with a photograph alone, or are words always necessary?
I am inclined to believe the answers to the first two questions are relatively little and the third, that words are necessary.
The task for the week was to begin constructing our Work in Process portfolio website galleries. We were to explore various platforms to evaluate their attributes. I built galleries on my existing photography website hosted on my owned domain and a second one in this WordPress CRJ. I also began experimenting with Exposure, SquareSpace, and took a stab at building a website from the beginning using Adobe Muse. I looked too at Adobe Portfolio, but quickly determined the coding requirements were beyond my skill level and frankly outside my level of interest. On the other hand, none of the other sites were perfect. Each had advantages and disadvantages either in the way photos could be displayed, to the ease of adding text, to variety and flexibility in themes and the ability to customize. Some were more intuitive than others.
I have yet to conclude which solution suits me best and intend to experiment some more over the coming weeks as time permits. I will likely make my 4 May submission using Exposure.
The peer and tutor reviews of the portfolio were interesting and I initially found a few of the comments quite puzzling with respect to my practice. Upon reflection though, it occurred to me the comments were in part a reflection of the their practice. For example, one comment had to do with the fact that it looked as though I was cropping significantly and that the resulting different sizes of photos was detracting from the aesthetic of my page. I also realized it came from someone who primarily works in film and does portraiture where the distance to the subject and the composition are easily controlled. I on the other hand am photographing much smaller subjects, often moving and at great distances meaning I have much less control over composition in the camera and have to make adjustments in post processing. As I thought about the comment I could see how it impacted the web presentation, and that being said, I began to try setting my crop sizes to a more standard aspect ratio to see what impact it might have of the results and what compromises it would require. There is little impact to the landscape and environmental portraits in general, but there may be some in the tight portraits of birds in particular due to their size and distance from the lens.
WALKER, J.A., 1997. The Camerawork essays: context and meaning in photography In: J. EVANS, ed, London: Rivers Oram, pp. 52-63.
WELLS, L., 2015. Photography: a critical introduction. Fifth edn. London ; New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.