Positions & Practice – Weeks 8 & 9

The theme set for these two weeks of studies was ‘Contexts and Audience’ and in this post I will reflect on the popular view that holds that a photograph accrues meaning through its interaction with an audience and via its embedding within that matrix that is so frequently invoked, yet is still shrouded in so much mystery, and that goes by the name of context.

Reminiscing about his years employed as lecturer in two art colleges, John Walker states that “so many students subscribed to the ideology of individualism […] that prompted views of this kind: ‘Individuals are unique therefore everyone is different, therefore everyone interprets images differently, therefore one cannot speak about the meaning of an image; there are as many meanings as there are human beings’” (cited in EVANS 1997: 52). Walker argues that “taken to an extreme, this argument seemed to imply that every photo had, potentially, billions of meanings. But if an image had so many meanings, did this not render it meaningless?” (Ibid. 52 emphasis added). We could easily counter this argument based on the ideology of individualism by invoking the sole arbitrator as the signifier of meaning; and let us assume this sole arbitrator to be either the original artist, or the populace, or time.   

Walker states: “As we all know, a photograph captures the visual appearance of a particular place at a specific moment. Apparently, therefore, its meaning is determined by its spatial-temporal point of origin. Subsequently the photograph is viewed in other places at other times, that is, in different socio-historical conjunctures. Consideration of a photograph’s meaning generally involves a ‘blacking-out’ of the contemporary situation (as in a lecture) in order to focus attention on the image and to recover (by means of a historical search) the original social circumstances in which the photograph was taken. Unfortunately, as a result, a photograph’s meaning tends to be regarded as eternally fixed. Obviously, meaning is crucially influenced by moment of production, but it is also subject to changes as the photograph enters into relationships with new circumstances and publics” (cited in EVANS 1997: 57). Let us for now ignore the very last part of this argument which holds that meaning is “subject to changes as the photograph enters into relationships with new circumstances and publics” and focus our attention on the sole arbitrator as the singular voice imparting meaning to the work. 

Sure enough it is easy to see that if the original artist is long-dead we have no direct way of accessing the meaning of the work as intended by the artist. Sure enough there are documents, books, letters, recordings, etc., that might bring us close to recuperating this intended meaning, but, let’s be frank, there is no true substitute to the living voice and presence – and these and these alone, voice and presence, can effectively guide, direct and correct misshapen ideas about one’s work. If we had to base our knowledge of the work through secondary sources such as books and letters, well, then, we are in the same quandary: there will be as many meanings as there are interpreters and this would essentially render the work meaningless.

Now let’s get to the itchy part: what if the artist is still alive? Can’t we just ask him/her what his/her photo means? If you are an aggrandising egocentric fool in want of earning the title of supreme monologist this will surely quell most of the distress your audience feels while looking at your work; no need for complex cognitive analysis, a phone call is all it takes: “Sir, I’ve just been to your latest exhibition and was wondering what meaning you wanted to impart through that sublime photo of yourself parading in front of a mirror in a thong…” or “I read in the exhibition catalogue that all the exhibits were exclusively shot on an iPhone. Was this actually intentional?” And then the sire’s voice echoes down the telephone line, uttering some half-sensical gibberish.

In reality, the true artist knows that his/her understanding of his/her own work does not, and can not, cover all the possibilities of meaning the work can, and will, generate.

If we take the sole arbitrator spoken of previously to be the populace or time… this one’s relatively easy: all we need is to unmask the impostor, chiefly the original artist, cleverly hiding behind these two with the hope of using one or both to strut his/her ever-weakening grip on the market.  

Now let us return to Walker’s argument about context and audiences, specifically when he says that “meaning is […] subject to changes as the photograph enters into relationships with new circumstances and publics ” (cited in EVANS 1997: 57). I will attempt to show that this argument suggested by Walker potentially follows the same circular thinking evinced in Walker’s critique of the ideology of individualism.

Through the ideology of individualism we have seen that the photograph, having been denied an eternally fixed meaning, becomes essentially meaningless since this ideology holds that there are as many meanings to the photograph as there are individuals. Now if we introduce context, and assume that a photograph’s meaning is affected by the context in which it is embedded, then it is easy to see that yet again the photograph is rendered meaningless as it will have as many meanings as there are contexts in which it can be embedded… and presumably there are innumerable contexts in which the photograph might find itself situated in. And if we rely on the work’s audience to capture the meaning of the work… well, the photo will have as many meanings as there are people ready to share their opinion of the work. Once again the photograph has been stripped of meaning. Surely enough in this analysis we are overlooking “what millions of individuals have in common (e.g. a language), how much experience is shared, especially the fact that individuals belong to social groupings – above all social classes – within a particular social formation and therefore it is possible to describe responses to images which are similar for large numbers of the populace” (cited in EVANS 1997: 60). But in reality these congruencies or shared experiences are as subject to arbitrary contingencies as one choosing the colour of one’s skin.

I am of the opinion that the photograph is transparent, not in the sense that it gives us direct knowledge of the thing out there, but that it is a hollowed out space, a niche, the observer is immersed into and in which he/she wonders at the subject of the photo with his/her very own eyes. The space of the observer collides and is absorbed by the space within the photographed image. It is all about ‘being there’ – the photographer, through his/her craft, brings us into the space he/she inhabited when taking the photograph. And this space, this niche as we have also called it, is nothing but the photographer’s mind. Looking at (into) the photograph involves entering through the gates of the picture plane and feasting one’s eyes on the lush gardens therein.

Photography can be thought of as being representational only if we obstinately stand outside this glittering gate and insist on ogling the view inside from this most disadvantaged point of view.  


WALKER, John A. 1997. ‘Context as a Determinant of Photographic Meaning’. In EVANS, Jessica (ed.). 1997. The Camerawork Essays: Context and Meaning in Photography. London: Rivers Oram, 52-63.

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