The essay by Terry Barrett discusses the context within which we view images and how this is important to understanding them. He posits three types of context.
- The Internal Context: where you look at the actual image and the information given there. This can be considered by the denotations – what is actually there, for example, a car or a bicycle, and the connotations – what is implied – in this case travel or movement. When looking at the internal context you also need to be mindful of the fact that the photographer has chosen that exact framing, and taken the image at that exact time.
- The Original Context: where you need to know the history of the image, what has happened before, is the image a copy, has it been taken in homage, what was happening in the world at the time. Barrett talks about the Nick Ut press photo of Vietnamese girl and another example would be the Capa photo of soldiers landing in Normandy. The more that is known or researched about the time, place, historical context and theories of art about that particular period the more that can be understood from any image. It is also helpful to know what was in the photographer’s mind when the image was taken (diary notes, interviews) although memory and distance in time will affect the accuracy of this data.
- The External Context: This is where and how the image is shown, together with what information is given alongside it. Barrett describes the fascinating story of the use of the image of people in a café by Doisneau. The same image can illustrate very different stories depending on the attached words or where it is shown, magazine, press article, book, gallery wall. Any accompanying text can give a series of very different meaning to it, so it it imperative to know the text source, the photographer themselves, a curator who is interpreting the image, possibly in a historical context or someone who is using the image in a different context to make a point – possibly political.
When all the contexts are considered it may well change ones understanding of the image itself.
Barrett, T. (1986). Teaching about Photography: Photographs and Contexts. Available at: http://terrybarrettosu.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/B_PhotAndCont_97.pdf