Walker, J. A. ‘Context as a Determinant of Photographic Meaning’ (2009)
In his essay John A. Walker argues that the meaning of a photograph changes according to the context in which it is located and seen: a change in location determines a change of context and so of meaning; for example a wedding photograph is viewed as a memento of a social ritual in a family album, but becomes a demonstration of a photographer’s work in a photographic shop window.
Context always influences the viewer’s perception of a photograph even if his or her attention is mainly drawn to the internal space and content of the image since as viewers we cannot but maintain an awareness of our environment. And in this sense the ‘context’ is seen as a determinant of photographic meaning.
The word ‘context’ is a generic term that can be further specified as being architectural, socio-historical and so on, and in most cases a recontextualisation of an image produces a partial or complete transformation of its depicted content or denotation: parts or the whole picture are given a shifted or new meaning in different contexts.
If in the distant past artworks like oil paintings or sculptures were often produced for a specific location or as part of architectural structures as in the case of frescoes, in time they became geographically dispersed until with the advent of photography they lost any connection with their original location, being ever since easily reproduced. As a consequence the importance of the architectural or physical display context has diminished while that of media contexts like newspapers, books, magazines has risen.
Also the socio-historical context is important and if the meaning of a photograph is certainly heavily influenced by the moment of its production, it changes however when it is viewed within different cultures and in different times. This means that it is crucial to examine an image not only at its birth, but also to consider its ‘circulation’ – that is the distribution/transmission of an image – and its ‘currency’ – that is its meaning, use and value for a particular community.
After examining the influence of display and media contexts, Walker takes into account a third important context: the beholder’s mental set. People enter in relation with the image according to their different position in society which is determined by factors like gender, race, nationality, age, education and so forth. The mental context of an image can be partially influenced by artists with an appropriate choice of the conditions of display according to the specific audiences they have in mind, but very often it lies outside their control.
Side notes on this text
This essay deals with the relevance of context for photographs and how a change in context involves a change of meaning, but the same observations can be applied to all the other areas of creative arts as I have been studying them so far, from contemporary artworks, to writing, to visual communications.
Context in its different forms – architectural, socio-historical and mental as Walker calls them – determines an interpretative shift of meaning and so new connotations: different cultures and times, and also different people appropriate what they see, read, listen to or participate in, in new ways and from changing vantage points and in so doing alter every time its meaning. At the same time and conversely, a piece of work has a different impact on people depending on their historical, cultural and sociological condition.
This generates a double flow of meaning towards and from the piece of work, a reciprocal action and impact from the work to the audience and vice versa. If I interpret it correctly, the essay can also be usefully read in the light of the critical theories of reception aesthetics/history and of the reader response which concentrates on how the reader responds to the text, and of the seminal essay by Roland Barthes, ‘The Death of the Author’ (1967), and the corresponding ‘birth’ or the reader.
Walker, J. A. ‘Context as a Determinant of Photographic Meaning’ (2009) [online] At: https://www.academia.edu/11911020/Context_as_a_determinant_of_photographic_meaning?auto=download (Accessed 13/04/2017)
Kemp, Wolfang (1998) ‘The Work of Art and Its Beholder The Methodology of the Aesthetic of Reception’ in Cheetham, Mark A. (ed.): The subjects of art history : historical objects in contemporary perspectives, Cambridge 1998, pages 180-196 [online] At: http://archiv.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/artdok/1916/1/Kemp_The_work_of_art_and_its_beholder_1998.pdf (Accessed 27/03/2017)
Barthes, R. (1967) The Death of the Author. Translated by Richard Howard. In: tbook.constantvzw.org [online] At: http://www.tbook.constantvzw.org/wp-content/death_authorbarthes.pdf (Accessed 21.12.2016)