Research notes – Photographs and context

The following are my thoughts from reading the essay “Photograph and Contexts” by Terry Barrett, published in Aesthetics: A Reader in Philosophy of the Arts, David Goldblatt & Lee Brown, editors. Prentice-Hall 1997 (1)

Barrett commences his essay by talking about how the same photograph – in this case Doisneau’s “At the Café Chez Fraysse, Rue de Seine, Paris, 1958”, link – could be interpreted in different ways depending on its channel of transmission. Some generic examples are given – a magazine, a leaflet, a sensationalist newspaper, a museum and a book on photographs – and the point is made that the context surrounding the photograph (eg the expectations of what each channel of transmission is about) determines how the viewer understands the picture. I wonder myself at this point if the channel of transmission itself is just sufficient to explain the differences of interpretation, and how much of that interpretation could also be attributable, at least in part, to our own prejudices and the ability or predisposition of the viewer to be critical about what he sees.

Another interesting point made by Barrett is to do with the de-contextualisation of the photograph.  Doisneau originally took the picture as part of a photo essay on Paris’ cafes for the magazine Le Point, the original context, but the picture has since been used for a number of other purposes – some of which were not authorised by the photographer – and also to be shown as part of an exhibit on the artist himself. It is perhaps the latter use, in which the photograph is shown in isolation, where it is further away from its original context and becomes more difficult to understand and appreciate. Barrett argues, quoting Martha Rosler, that the photograph then becomes about the photographer.  It is inevitable that a photograph is always somehow a reflection of the photographer (eg in her way of seeing), but one always hope that there is an ulterior motive in taking a photograph, something else that should come together from the process of reflecting upon the images and how they were taken. It is this process that is lost by de-contextualisation (what Barrett calls “displacement”). Is probably fair for a photographer to re-imagine a picture into a different context, and then present it differently, but the moment somebody else interferes with that contextualisation process (eg a museum curator, a book editor), part of the most precious process of photography would be lost.

The above point is particularly relevant in view of Barrett’s observation that photographs “are relatively indeterminate in meeting”.  Sometimes is not even evident to a photographer why he took a particular picture, let alone what it means. It is only through the process of looking again at the images, perhaps even recollecting the process of taking them, that the photographer can start to form a view on what it is all about, and then provide an adequate context. The photograph itself would not provide meaning or purpose , beyond its own aesthetic clues which are not always evident.

Barrett concludes the article discussing the issue of adjudication, or how to discern between different interpretations of a photograph in view of its changing context to find the one could be the “…most plausible, enlightening, accurate…”. In this respect, he mentions three sources of information that are available to the viewer: information internal to the picture (eg the picture itself and its title), information surrounding  the picture (ie where the picture is shown) and information about how the picture came to happen (ie the picture-taking process, the environment in which the picture was taken). These are in turn called the “Internal context”, the “External context” and the “Original context”. It is of course, open to each person to interpret these contexts, and come to her own conclusions in terms of adjudication. And in that respect, there is no way in which we can ignore the issue of our own prejudices, beyond any contextual details, and how these play in the issue of adjudication. For example, Barrett towards the end of his article mentions about the dangers of  the “cultural tendency” of taking photographs as “mechanical transcriptions” of reality, disregarding the fact that when the photographer took a particular shot, he sliced reality in accordance with the angle that best suited her, and perhaps even worse, altered it before or after committing to take the photograph.  In the absence, or wilful ignorance, of sufficient context, we may end up believing something that may be there to trick us.


(1) Barrett, T. (1997). [online] Available at: [Accessed 8 Apr. 2017].


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