Context and photographs

I read Terry Barrett’s essay Photographs and Context as suggested in the course notes. The concepts were familiar to me as my Foundations tutor had explained them to me as part of my A4 feedback.

Using Taryn Simon’s Contraband series as an example, internal context is limited to what we can see in the photograph. So in her work we might see a plain background and a forensic, highly objective photograph of an object.

So far, so bird corpse on an airmail envelope on a plain background. We might guess that it’s an inside environment rather than a bird on a forest floor, but we can’t tell any more for sure. This is where the external context comes in. We can read captions, wall text, or the catalogue if we’re at an exhibition, or the accompanying text if it’s in printed material.  We learn that these photographs were made during a period of five days when Taryn was embedded at JFK Airport photographing objects that were confiscated from incoming passengers and incoming mail. We’re dependent on this external context to give us more information, and we’re dependent on the viewpoint and perspective of this context.  Terry Bartlett illustrates this very well when he documents Gisele Freund’s discussion of the multiple and often contradictory views that a Doisneau image of a couple drinking together was used to illustrate. We already know that we can neither control nor direct how a viewer will interpret our work, so the importance of external context becomes clear in ensuring that the work can be understood.  For me, this will likely take the form of captions where needed.

The third layer of context is not immediately apparent. It’s to do with the background of the photographer, their perspective, the world in which they live. For example, if we look at the Biography page on Taryn Simon’s website we learn that “Taryn Simon (b. 1975) is a multidisciplinary artist working in photography, text, sculpture and performance. Guided by an interest in systems of categorization and classification, her practice involves extensive research into the power and structure of secrecy and the precarious nature of survival.” This tells us much more about why she has chosen to make this work, how she has labelled and presented it, and how it fits into her broader work. We can also “zoom out” from this airport work and apply the broader context of the security constraints of our world, and the prevalence of smuggling and illegal trade in plants and animal parts.

So we can see that these three layers of context all add to our understanding of an artist’s work and that a work’s meaning cannot be fully understood in isolation from these contexts.



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