3.25.2009,12:25 PM
Reading Photographs
Photography has in many ways always been a part of my life. My father was a free-lance photographer and I grew up with images of autopsies, vehicle accidents, stolen moments of life, and landscapes. My ex-husband was also a free-lance photographer, mostly landscapes, some abstract, even a few weddings. A few of his photographs placed well in local competitions and sold in galleries. He had an excellent artistic eye.

My technical skills and composition are self-taught. I entered the digital world only a few years ago and my current equipment is limited by finances and convenience. Yet I don't let these hinder me from trying to express myself and the world around me through the lens of my camera and my eye.

Photography like any media is a form of expression and information transmission. Like writing, photographs can be 'read'. A photograph can be a story; a series of photos, a narrative. It can have different meanings for each viewer. Most of all, photography is never passive.

I presented a perspective of photography and a challenge on a forum, which follows:

First, what is photography? It means many things to viewers, often a variety of meanings. One I present here is photography as a story or narrative.

Anyone familiar with the history of art will know that photography, like many art forms, is a means of expression. But art can also 'tell' true and fictional stories. One photograph can tell a story, a series of photos can relay a narrative, in similar fashion as a book or essay. Sometimes the story is obvious, other times ambiguous and/or vague. Interpretation is a function of pattern recognition, existing knowledge, and imagination of the viewer. And the photographer.

The challenge was to present a photograph or short series for discussion and/or critique. In this exercise, participants may learn to develop a language to discuss and think critically about photographs. We could extend this by suggestions of projects which can help clarify the technical aspects of photography while encouraging creative approaches to photographing. Most of all, it can stimulate the viewers' eye, perhaps seeing things they may not have seen, or seeing things in a different way. The participation has been somewhat hesitant, but interesting.

I discovered an online reprint of an eloquent essay by Grahame Clarke on 'reading' a photograph.

How Do We Read a Photograph?

Whenever we look at a photographic image we engage in a series of complex readings which relate as much to the expectations and assumptions that we bring to the image as to the photographic subject itself. Indeed, rather than the notion of looking, which suggests a passive act of recognition, we need to insist that we read a photograph, not as an image but as a text. That reading (any reading) involves a series of problematic, ambiguous, and often contradictory meanings and relationships between the reader and the image. The photograph achieves meaning through what has been called a 'photographic discourse': a language of codes which involves its own grammar and syntax. It is, in its own way, as complex and as rich as any written language.

The photograph both mirrors and creates a discourse with the world, and is never, despite its often passive way with things, a neutral representation. Indeed, we might argue that at every level the photograph involves a saturated ideological context. Full of meanings, it is a dense text in which is written the terms of reference by which an ideology both constructs meaning and reflects that meaning as a stamp of power and authority. Far from being a 'mirror', the photograph is one of the most complex and most problematic forms of representation. Its ordinariness belies its ambivalence and implicit difficulty as a means of representation.

To read a photograph, then, is to enter into a series of relationships which are 'hidden', so to speak, by the illusory power of the image before our eyes. We need not only to see the image, but also to read it as the active play of a visual language. In this respect two aspects are basic. First, we must always remember that the photograph is itself the product of a photographer. It is always the reflection of a specific point of view, be it aesthetic, polemical, political, or ideological. One never 'takes' a photograph in any passive sense. To 'take' is active. The photographer imposes, steals, re-creates the scene/seen according to a cultural discourse. Secondly, however, the photograph encodes the terms of reference by which we shape and understand a three-dimensional world. It thus exists within a wider body of reference and relates to a series of wider histories, at once aesthetic, cultural, and social.

Every photograph is not only surrounded by a historical, aesthetic, and cultural frame of reference but also by an entire invisible set of relationships and meanings relating to the photographer and the point at which the image was made.The image is as much a reflection of the 'I' of the photographer as it is of the 'eye' of the camera.

Thus we can read a photograph within its own terms of reference, seeing it not so much as the reflection of a 'real' world as an interpretation of that world.

Graham Clarke (1997): The Photograph. Oxford: Oxford University Press
posted by Macrobe
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