CRITICISM – 8. INTERPRETING PHOTOGRAPHS

As a culture we are perhaps more accustomed to thinking of interpreting poems and paintings than photographs. But all photographs-even simple ones-demand interpretation in order to be fully understood and appreciated. They need to be recognized as pictures about something and for some communicative and expressive purpose. Joel-Peter Witkin’s bizarre photographs attract interpretive questions and thoughts because they are different from our common experiences, but many photographs look natural and are sometimes no more cause of notice than tables and trees. We accept photographs in newspapers and on newscasts as facts about the world and as facts that, once seen, require no scrutiny.

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Joel Peter Witkin

Joel Peter Witkin

Joel Peter Witkin

Joel Peter Witkin

Joel Peter Witkin

Joel Peter Witkin

Joel Peter Witkin 1

Joel Peter Witkin 1

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Photographs made in a straightforward, stylistically realistic manner are in special need of interpretation. They look so natural that they seem to have been made by themselves, as if there had been no photographer. If we consider how these photographs were made, we may accept them as if they were made by an objective, impartial, recording machine. Andy Grundberg, reviewing an exhibition of National Geographic photographs, makes this point about these kinds of photographs: “As a result of their naturalism and apparent effortlessness (*), they have the capacity to lull us into believing that they are evidence of an impartial, uninflected sort. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
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Joel Sartore

Joel Sartore

Michael Melford

Michael Melford

Pascal Maitre

Pascal Maitre

Joel Sartore

Joel Sartore

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Nothing could be further from the truth because photographs are partial and are inflected. People´s knowledge, beliefs, values, and attitudes-heavily influenced by their culture- are reflected in the photographs they take. Each photograph embodies a particular way of seeing and showing the world. Photographers make choices not only about what to photograph but also about how to capture an image, and often these choices are very sophisticated. We need to interpret photographs in order to make it clear just what these inflections are. When looking at photographs, we tend to think of them as “innocent”-that is, as bare facts, as direct surrogates of reality, as substitutes for real things, as direct reflections. But there is no such thing as an innocent eye.

We cannot see the world and at the same time ignore our prior experience in and knowledge of the world. Philosopher Nelson Goodman puts it like this: as Ernst Gombrich insists, there is no innocent eye. The eye comes always ancient to its work, obsessed by its past and by old and new insinuations of the ear, nose, tongue, fingers, heart, and brain. It functions not as an instrument self-powered and alone, but as a dutiful member of a complex and capricious organism. Not only how but what it sees is regulated by need and prejudice.

If there is no such thing as the innocent eye, there certainly isn’t an innocent camera. What Goodman says of the eye is true of the camera, the photograph, and the “photographer’s eye” as well: It selects, rejects, organizes, discriminates, associates, classifies, analyzes and constructs. It does not so much mirror as take and make; and what it takes and makes it sees not bare, as items without attributes, but as things, as food, as people, as enemies, as stars, as weapons.

Thus, all photographs, even very straightforward, direct, and realistic-looking ones, need to be interpreted. They are not innocent, free of insinuations and devoid of prejudices, nor are they simple mirror images. They are made, taken, and constructed by skillful artists and deserve to be read, explained, analyzed, and deconstructed.

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(*) Effortlessness, here, should be understood as the impression of photographs. However, a candid, photojournalist or documentary photograph has at least a minimum effort embedded in it. Before taking photographs, making some research, collecting information through resources such as books, internet and people, and then preparing a plan or configuring how to photograph, all other conscious actions and activities conducted to get a purposeful photograph can be regarded as an effort. Photographers’ all studies, readings, interactions etc., to improve his technique, his intellectual knowledge and his art is an integral part of continuous efforts either in long or short term. Effortlessness may be directly associated with the unconscious act of triggering shutter. So we can say that, in an effortless motion, a photographer is not doing more than  just taking a meaningless photograph or enjoying to hear the sound of the shutter [Vedat Konyali].

Related Articles:

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Works Cited:

Barrett, Terry (2006). Criticizing photographs: an introduction to understanding images. Mayfield Publishing Company, California, U.S.A.

Other Resources:

Artwork: http://www.artnet.com/

National Geographic :

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