Terry Barrett: A Theoretical Construct for Interpreting Photographs

Following is a short review of Terry Barrett’s article published in 1986.  It’s a  little long in the tooth now, but I thought it worth a look in preparation for receiving my copy of the 1999 edition of Criticizing photographs: an introduction to understanding images.

The beginning of the article looks at previous ways of categorising and describing photos based on labels such as “pictorialist” or subject matter such as “nature”, “landscape”, “the nude”, “war” etc. Then we move onto the core of the article which introduces a way of looking at photographs “based on an analogy of visual images and verbal statements”. Barrett introduces six categories which are “logically discreet and conceptually distinct”, but he also points out that “photographs will often overlap them”.


This category is the surface of the image – what is denoted. Barrett states that “all photographs may be said to describe the surface of objects in greater or lesser detail and clarity, within the constraints of various cameras, lenses, films, and other technical variables, and within the constraints chosen by the photographer”. He goes onto to say that certain photographs don’t attempt to go beyond – this is the whole purpose of the image.  Examples include identification photos, medical images etc. He states that “these photographs are analogous to statements of fact in verbal language, are visual recordings of empirical qualities and quantities, and are meant to be interpretively and evaluatively (sic) neutral”. Barrett points out that there is a important question here: whether a photo can be interpretively and evaluatively neutral; however the point is that some photos are meant to be descriptive only.


Barrett states that “though many descriptive photographs are made to be used as the basis of future explanations, some photographs are expressly made to explain, or are made to function as visual explanations. Often they are descriptive answers to questions which seek explanations”. He quotes Edweard Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion series as a good example of this category – certainly they describe, but they go beyond in that they seek to explain something that wasn’t known before. Other examples include photos of bullets in flight, the impact of a drop into liquid – things are are not possible to see normally. He says that “most press photographs would also fall into this category, as would the work of some photographer artists who do ‘street work’ and ‘documentary’ photographs”.

The point of photos in this category is that they attempt to be objective in order to explain how things are. He goes on to say that photographs in this category “are falsifiable in that potentially they could be empirically demonstrated to be true or false, accurate or inaccurate”. The sense of the word “falsifiable” was briefly confusing to me, but in this case the meaning is taken to be “prove to be false”:  that is it would be (potentially) possible using empirical means to verify the photo or to prove it to be inaccurate or misleading in some way. Because we could potentially use empirical means, they are different from the next category: interpretative photos.


This category is more complex than the previous two. Barrett explains it as follows: “interpretive photographs are non-falsifiable explanations which are analogous to metaphysical claims in language in that their makers use them to make assertions about the world independently of empirically verifiable evidence”. He cites many of the photos of Jerry Uelsmann as being good examples of this category. Within this category is a great deal of “art” photography and Barrett claims that most are historically grounded in Pictorialism. Because this images are subjective in nature “they are non-falsifiable since in cases of dispute they cannot be confirmed or denied empirically”.

Ethical Evaluations

In this category are photos who aim to deliver a certain ethical message. Barrett states that “photographs which function as ethical evaluations always describe, often attempt to explain, but also and most importantly imply moral judgments, generally depicting how things ought or ought not to be”. He gives the example of advertising images which aim to show us “the good” life, or what we should desire or aspire to be like. He cites the book by W. Eugene Smith, Minamata as “a paradigm example of work in this category”. He also includes the social criticism of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine as other examples.

Aesthetic Evaluations

Barrett claims that all photographs can be appreciated for their aesthetic qualities, even those which are primarily made to be explanatory or to be a social commentary. But there are certain images which are made primarily for aesthetic appreciation. He states that they act as a “visual notification” that the photographer deems certain subjects to be aesthetically pleasing or even that a photographic representation of those same subjects is pleasing. I’m reminded strongly of the well-known Gary Winogrand quote: “I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed”.

Theoretical Photographs

The final category includes photographs which “are not about people, places, objects, or events in the world but are about art or photography”. Barrett goes on to explain: “they generally are made to address issues about photography, or issues about photographs, functioning as visual commentary or as visual art criticism. More simply, they are art about art or photographs about photography”.

This is plainly a more difficult category to clearly identify (or perhaps it’s just by elimination – if a photo doesn’t fit the other five categories, it must be this one). Here, a postmodern approach is probably more common – for example, including text which delivers the real message.

In this category, Barrett includes Sherrie Levine’s copying and re-purposing photographs made by Walker Evans and the paintings of Mondrian. He also includes Vikky Alexander and Richard Prince in this category but also points out that “some work which would be placed in this category has been labeled ‘conceptual'”.

Using the Categories

Barrett says that the purpose of the categories is not to encourage a pigeon-holing exercise, but to stimulate discussion of images. In particular, “placing any photograph in a category or combination of categories, even those paradigm examples cited here, requires decisions which need to be backed with evidence drawn from the picture or from external contextual information”. He adds that “in considering a photograph for placement, it is necessary to sort out its content and expression, its denotations and connotations, its rhetoric about its subject”. 


It seems to me that the point of the categories and in particular the thought processes around placing an image in a category is to better understand the photo. This reminds me of Barthes’s Rhetoric of the Image, in the sense that thinking about potential categories causes us to dig into “its rhetoric about its subject” and not necessarily take things at face value.

As a potential approach for assignment four, this is useful thinking material, and gives a hint at a framework via the checklist: “content and expression, its denotations and connotations”.


Barrett, T. (1986) A Theoretical Construct for Interpreting Photographs. Studies in Art Education 27, no.2 (Winter 1986), pp.52-60.

Barrett, T.M. (1999) Criticizing photographs: an introduction to understanding images. 4th edn. New York: McGraw-Hill.


1 thought on “Terry Barrett: A Theoretical Construct for Interpreting Photographs

  1. Pingback: Terry Barrett: Criticizing Photographs | Darryl's Context & Narrative Learning Log

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