Context

ph4can-coverAt this stage of starting Context & Narrative (C&N), I thought it might be useful to reflect on what context is and how important it is to understanding a photo or any artwork.

My starting point before Expressing your Vision (EYV – blog here) was that an artwork should be understandable standalone. For example, I was attracted to the sculpture of Henry Moore long before I knew anything about him. Likewise, I could appreciate many paintings, music and yes, even photographs, without knowing anything about the artist or the context in which the artwork was created. Perhaps this was because I felt that the works were beautiful and therefore didn’t need any explaining (I wrote a blog article about Robert Adams’s book Beauty in Photography which touches on this point). During EYV, my ideas started to change …

The C&N course notes provide a reasonable working definition of what we mean by the word context in an artistic sense:

The context of a photograph and its surroundings (i.e. what’s outside the frame as opposed to what’s inside the frame) are fundamental to how it comes to exist and how it is consumed. No photograph exists without a purpose, background or context. Whether on a billboard, on a gallery wall, or in a family album, the meaning of a photograph is influenced by what surrounds it – and not just its physical location.

Clearly context is not just about the creation of the artwork, but also about the presentation.

The Creative Context

During EYV I tripped over the quote by Robert Adams (1996:14) about geography, autobiography and metaphor:

Landscape photography can offer us, I think, three verities – geography, autobiography and metaphor. Geography is, if taken alone, sometimes boring, autobiography is frequently trivial, and metaphor can be dubious. But taken together, as in the best work of people like Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston, the three kinds of information strengthen each other and reinforce what we all work to keep intact – an affection for life.

The context (no pun intended) was Jesse Alexander’s excellent book Perspectives on Place (2014), in which the quote was applied to Dewald Botha’s Ring Road project.

Frankly, I was not greatly impressed by the series of photos. The subject matter looked beyond banal. It struck me at the time as being a little bizarre that I had to understand at least a little about the photographer and about how he, as a South African living in China, felt isolated and that the physical barrier of the ring roads were a representation of the cultural barrier that he felt. [On starting C&N, it didn’t escape my notice that one of Botha’s photos is on the cover of the course notes.]

From an Adams perspective, this is firmly in the “autobiographical” area. Without knowing something about Botha’s situation, it’s very hard to appreciate that there is a depth in his Ring Road series which is not obvious – it’s not just that he has a fascination for reinforced concrete!

This is of course one of the constant risks of photography. Many people feel that it’s too easy to just push the button and the camera does the rest. Compare a photo of an underpass (which “anyone” can do) with a painting of the same subject. Most people would feel that there is considerably more effort in the painting, therefore the artist must want to say something meaningful. A painting doesn’t have the instant, disposable nature of a photograph, particularly a digital image. I suggest that people might spend a little more effort in searching for the meaning of the painting, while they might not bother with a photo. I have no data to support this statement, but it’s worth reflecting on because it brings to mind certain questions which are presented in the conclusions section.

The Presentational Context

The physical context of how the work is presented was touched on in part 5 of EYV in the research point concerning Terry Barrett’s Photographs and Contexts (1997).

I think this is a point that for me is much easier to understand. I can see a big difference between a photo being used in an advertising campaign compared with being on a gallery wall. The gallery implies importance, somehow. In this era of instant and easy sharing of images, a change of context does imply a risk of stepping outside of the photographer’s wishes – this the purpose referred-to in the course notes definition of context.

Conclusions

From initially being resistant to the idea, I gradually came to accept that maybe there is some point in understanding the fuller context of the artwork in order to appreciate it in greater depth. It doesn’t preclude us from instantly appreciating something that we know nothing about, but it does open the door to a greater level of appreciation once we know the context.

Of course, all of this brings up some important questions if we are to move beyond the conventionally beautiful in order to attract an audience for our work:

  • Who are our audience or audiences and why do they appreciate our work?
  • How do we give our audiences sufficient context to help them appreciate what we’re doing? This becomes more important the more we move away from generally accepted definitions of beauty.
  • How do we do it in a way which doesn’t bore them senseless? i.e. why should they care? Is a clever title sufficient, or do we need to develop a complex artist’s statement? Does anyone read these anyway? Does anyone understand them?

References

Adams, Robert (1996) Beauty in Photography. New York: Aperture

Alexander, Jesse (2014) Perspectives on Place: Theory and Practice in Landscape Photography [Kindle Edition] From: Amazon.com (Accessed on 29.09.15)

Barrett, Terry (1997) Photographs and Contexts. At: www.terrybarrettosu.com/pdfs/B_PhotAndCont_97.pdf (Accessed on 9th August 2016)

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