Photography And Context
Like all visual media and art works, we rely heavily on context to understand and appreciate photographs. Without context, we risk misinterpreting what we are looking at; we may under (or over) estimate its value - or misunderstand the intentions of the photographer that produced the image.
All photographic images contain contextual information that may be immediately obvious or may require interpretation. Context may also be provided from the situation in which a photograph is presented or found – ie, printed media, a gallery, TV etc.
We can look at context in three different forms: internal, original and external…
Internal context refers to the subject matter of the image and what is immediately obvious from looking at it. For example, a close-up, ‘still life’ picture of an apple on a table requires no interpretation on behalf of the viewer (assuming he or she knows what an apple is) and carries no meaning beyond what is obvious in the photograph.
But as is pointed out in Criticising Photographs, even a more complex and emotionally involving image such as an accident involving the death of a small child carries its own internal context and is largely self-explanatory – providing the viewer knows something about road traffic accidents and the significance of a blanket covering a body in the street.
Original context refers to information (which may or may not be known) on the background of an image and/or the intentions of the photographer that produced it. This may require an understanding of the mindset of the photographer and familiarity with their other work - for example, knowing that photography was one of several mediums in which Andy Warhol worked and that he often manipulated photographs for artistic effect.
Understanding original context in some images may also require a wider understanding of art or photography. Criticising Photography uses the example of Sherrie Levine’s copies of Walker Evans’ photographs...
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