Project 1: Research point, John A.Walker’s essay ‘Context as a Determinant of Photographic Meaning’


John A.Walker’s essay ‘Context as a Determinant of Photographic Meaning’

Notes on essay:

The different contexts we see photographs in, do not change its denotation (its actual elements), the shifting context can alter our perception or understanding of the meaning (connotation) of the photograph.

Idea of a ‘third effect’ when a photograph enters into a ‘montage relationship’ with text, caption, or another image. A ‘third effect’ or different meaning can then be drawn from the juxtaposition of these things, which was not visible when viewing the photograph alone.

Need to consider the whole ‘life’ or cycle of a photograph not just it’s point of ‘birth’ or original moment of capture. He used the phrase ‘circulation/currency’ – coined by John Tagg. Circulation meaning the distribution of an image through various communication networks, social media, institutions etc. It has a particular meaning or use for each community it passes through – think Facebook blue/gold dress image. ‘currency’ referring to the idea that whilst an image circulates it has a ‘meaning, use or value for a particular community’. Can also have an ‘after life’ if reused or re-circulated or by re-appearing in art books, text books, publications.

Just as a display context alters of affects the meaning of the photograph does the photograph alter the meaning of the place it’s displayed in. His example is that by displaying a radical piece of art in  an ‘high brow art institute’, the institute itself has  de-radicalized the art piece. I can understand this theory but wonder where does he suggest the art be displayed as an alternative? And surely radical art needs to be placed in such a context in order to confront established norms?

The final notion of context explored is that of the ‘mental set’, he quotes a phrase by Ernst Gombrich, ‘the beholders stare’ which rather poetically sums this up. He continues to expand on this, saying each viewer approaches understanding the image with a mind already filled with memories, experiences, prejudices, social status etc. He counters this by also making clear the danger of falling into an ‘ideology of individualism’. That people do exist within societal structures, social classes or groups. Essentially mass media communication is effective because it draws upon that which we have in common, common desires, experiences or values. Again I have no cause to argue with these arguments!

One final point that he makes which is particularly apt today is that it ‘is problematic to judge the impact of a single image when we are exposed to a veritable flood tide of visual imagery daily’. If we bring our own experiences and upbringing with us when we ‘read’ a photograph, surely we must also bring a visual bank of memories/and imagery too. I wonder if as this ‘flood’ increases whether we will reach a point of over saturation. Then, as if nauseous from over eating  we will despise the next photo we see for reminding us our over consumption.


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