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Photographs & context – Terry Barnett

[Recreated from pdf following blog crash]



Terry Barnett (1945) is an American art critic and professor of art. His short essay, Photographs and context, gives an introduction to the importance of context to photographic images.

Barnett describes several examples of how photographs placed in different contexts, or accompanied by di!erent textual narrative take on different meanings. Insightfully and expertly done, but almost to the point of being tautological.

Most referenced is the story of a photograph by Robert Doisneau of a romantic couple in a café that Doisneau had asked
permission to photograph as part of a project of cafés in Paris. In various contexts this same image had been portrayed as a romantic meeting, an indication of alcohol abuse in Paris, and evidence of prostitution.

Barnet explains that is not just the narrative that can alter the meaning of a photograph. He uses examples of placement in di!erent magazines that represent different points of view (and therefore the message we anticipate), and the placement of documentary photographs in art galleries (images that were intended to provide information on poverty, become images to be viewed as art).

He summarises, saying:

” In interpreting [photographs]….. there three sources of information are available for examination: information evident in the picture, information surrounding the picture in its presentation, and information about the pictures making.

He calls these the internal context, the external context and the original context. Each of these aspects requires thought to avoid reaching the incorrect reading of a photograph. And the information available will frequently be imperfect.

I conclude that while photographs contain information, they contain no inherent meaning. They cannot argue, or complain about being unfairly represented. Perhaps it is only literature amongst the arts that can possess inherent meaning.


Barnett T (nd), extract from essay. Photographs and
context. Available
from: http://www.terrybarrettosu.com/pdfs/B_PhotAndCont_97.pdf [accessed 23.8.15]

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