Exercise 5.6 Context as a Determinant of Photographic Meaning. 

This exercise asks the student to read, consider and makes notes of John Walkers essay “Context as a Determinant of Photographic Meaning. 

Walker opens his essay by asking the reader to consider a wedding photograph and the many differing contexts in which the image could be displayed; for example, within a photo album or as a framed picture on a mantlepiece. The photograph can be contextually read as a precious image which has personal value to the owner or if the image is displayed in the window of a commercial photographer, the photograph can be read as an example of their skill and competence. Although the image itself has not changed, the context in which it is displayed changes the context and its meaning to the viewer. 

I agree with Walker in making this assertion, for even if the framing of the image is exactly the same, the image is limited in context to what is seen within the frame. The viewer asked to consider only what is within the frame and not what was captured outside of the frame at the time. The context in which the image is presented, architecturally and socially, changes the reading of the image. 

The essay then examines the process of the resulting change of context by presenting additional information. This can be done either textually, presenting the image as part of a sequence, or presenting the image within the wider context of an exhibition. This provides the viewer with the opportunity to analyse the image with a wider view of the “reality” of the image.  

Once again I agree with this concept. Placing an image within an exhibition of images allows the content to build upon itself to provide a greater context within which to read the image. This allows a greater understanding of what is presented whereas titles are displayed, further detail is given as notes and the viewer can read each image as part of the greater whole. 

Walkers essay moves on to consider the effect of mobility of images. He does this by concentrating on the mechanical process of the photograph and the many differing contexts that an image can hold at the same time. Photographs – due to their ease of repeated production – allow a single image to be presented in differing contexts easily due to the way that they are presented. Two copies of the same image can have different contextual readings depending on how they are presented. Walker uses an image presented in a newspaper and the same image presented within the “white walls” of a photographic journal as his example to demonstrate this. Both are publications, but the image is presented differently creating two different readings of the image. 

He then goes on to present the idea of an image as a lifespan, not only considering the birth of the image, but the life of the image, and how and when it is presented. Walker borrows the terms ‘circulation’ and ‘currency’ from John Tagg. Tagg originated the idea of an image as money and how the image will move from context to context as it is presented in differing situations before the image finally disappears either due to destruction or being “banked” and forgotten in an archive. 

This is an interesting idea which I had come across but never conceptualised. Walker and Tagg both present the idea that not only will an image change hands over the years, but the reading of the image will change too. For example, Eddie Adams ‘Execution of Nguyễn Văn Lém’ when it was first published depicted what was happening in Vietnam during the conflict from a reportage point of viewWithin a fairly short period of time, the photograph took on the context of being an anti-war image,  having been used by the protesters to show the cruelty and meaningless of the Vietnam war. This use of Adams’ image has been surpassed with anti-war protesters using newer and more recent images from the internet; inside Abu Ghraib prison for example. However, these new images have already been replaced in the wider human consciousness due to the rapid evolution of the situation and of the news cycle. Adams. image continues to be printed in publications and shown in academic circumstances, however, it is still presented in an anti-war context rather than the original reportage use. 

Walker essay goes on to examine the work of Jo Spence and her exhibition ‘Beyond the Family Album’. walker posits that the reading of the image changes when the context of the exhibition changes. Quite simply the images can be read differently depending on when and where they are presented. Walker invites the essay reader to examine their perception and understanding of people who visit art galleries, What are the visitors expectations, why are they there, and what is the main driver for them attending a gallery or a specific exhibition within a  gallery? Research and analysis via survey of visitors can help to give an understanding on this abstract idea and provide an understanding on why the visitors are there and how they understand the context of the exhibition. 

Walker closes his essay by presenting the fact that a viewer of an image, no matter the context, will have their own preset concept of the context, mainly created through human memory. That viewer will first use this to read an image when they encounter it. Being aware of these preset contexts can assist the photographer when creating the context in which they wish to present the final set of images. Walker reminds the reader that pictorial stereotypes are everywhere, even within our own conscious and unconscious minds. As to the ideology that all individuals are different, therefore all individuals will read an image differently; I concur with Walker’s opinion that individuals are in fact part of a set or subset and therefore, due to commonality, will read an image within the same context due to a shared lowest common denominator, especially when you regard the concepts put forth by Barthes on Semiotics.   

The exercise then asks the student to design a draft for an exhibition of work which is being produced for Assignment 5.

I have designed the exhibition so that the images are displayed on a curved wall. The images will be displayed in 3 columns, the middle row should be easily accessible by a wheelchair user. The images which will be framed A4 prints will have no glass in them, to allow the braille dots to be read.

2D overhead layout of gallery display for exercise 5-6

Exhibition design for exercise.




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Anon, 2019. Iraq Prison Abuse Scandal Fast Facts. CNN. Available at: https://edition.cnn.com/2013/10/30/world/meast/iraq-prison-abuse-scandal-fast-facts/index.html [Accessed October 3, 2019].
Anon, John Tagg. PhotoPedagogy. Available at: https://www.photopedagogy.com/john-tagg.html [Accessed October 3, 2019].
Ruane, M., 2019. A grisly photo of a Saigon execution 50 years ago shocked the world and helped end the war. The Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2018/02/01/a-grisly-photo-of-a-saigon-execution-50-years-ago-shocked-the-world-and-helped-end-the-war/ [Accessed October 3, 2019].
Anon, Saigon Execution | 100 Photographs | The Most Influential Images of All Time. Time. Available at: http://100photos.time.com/photos/eddie-adams-saigon-execution [Accessed October 3, 2019].
Walker, J.A., Context as a determinant of photographic meaning. Academia.edu. Available at: https://www.academia.edu/11911020/Context_as_a_determinant_of_photographic_meaning [Accessed September 21, 2019].

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