Interpreting Photographs


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This slideshow is for week 8 of MM1B03 at McMaster University

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Interpreting Photographs

  1. 1. Week 8, MM1B03, McMaster University Interpreting Photographs From Terry Barrett, Criticizing Photographs: An Introduction to Analysing Photographs.
  2. 2. Terry Barrett Terry Barrett is an artist and professor of Art Education at Ohio State University.
  3. 3. Joel-Peter Witkin’s photographs attract interpretive questions because they are dierent than our common experience but ...
  4. 4. All photographs – even simple ones, demand interpretation in order to be fully understood and appreciated.
  5. 5. Photo-journalism • Photos made in a stylistically realistic manner especially need interpretation. • They look so natural they seem to have been made by themselves - a slice of reality. • If we consider how these photos were made we may accept them as it they were made by an impartial recording machine.
  6. 6. Regarding National Geographic ... “As a result of their naturalism and apparent eortlessness, [National Geographic photos] have the capacity to lull us into believing that they are evidence of an impartial, uninflected sort. Nothing could be further from the truth.” – Andy Grundberg
  7. 7. “Nothing could be further from the truth.” • Photographs are partial and inflected (biased). • Each photograph embodies a particular way of seeing and showing the world. • We need to interpret photographs so that these inflections become explicit.
  8. 8. Is there such a thing as an “Innocent Eye?” • The camera, the photograph, and the “photographer’s eye” does not so much mirror as “take and make.” • Besides being taken and maken, then are constructed by skillful artists and deserve to be read, explained, analysed and deconstructed.
  9. 9. William van Engen’s series on Naypywidaw Burma.
  10. 10. Information to Meaning • Interpretation occurs whenever attention and discussion move beyond oering information to matters of meaning. • To interpret is to account for all the descibed aspects of a photograph and to posit meaningful relationships between aspects. • Interpretations go beyond description to decipher meaning.
  11. 11. Metaphor • Photographs can be thought of as metaphors in need of being deciphered. • Visual metaphors have two levels of meanings, what is shown and what is implied. • A photograph always shows us an aspect of something.
  12. 12. Arnold Newman’s photo of Igor Stravinsky shows him as some particular kind of person.
  13. 13. Arnold Newman’s photo of Marilyn Monroe shows her as some particular kind of person.
  14. 14. Arnold Newman’s photo of Pablo Picasso shows him as some particular kind of person.
  15. 15. Donotations/Connotations • Roland Barthes (semiotician) investigated how culture “signifies,” or expresses meaning. • He identified two signifying paractices: denotations and connotations. • Denotation is where a meaning is conveyed literally. • Connotation is when the meaning of a word is suggested or implied.
  16. 16. Donotations/Connotatins • Barthes separated this ad into linguistic message, the denoted image, and the connoted image. • This schema can be applied to all photographs not just ads. • See coursereader page 199 - 200.
  17. 17. Objects of Interpretation • Sometimes critics interpret single photographs but they often interpret whole bodies of work by a photographer or even photos in a period of history. • Following are examples of these three tactics of interpretation
  18. 18. Joseph Szarkowki interprets Josef Koudelka’s photographs of gypsies as individual photographs. See page 200.
  19. 19. Shelley Rice writes about the body of work of photographer Mary Ellen Mark as being “dizzyingly diverse.” See page 201.
  20. 20. Pamela Anderson as seen by Mary Ellen Mark.
  21. 21. Texas Rodeo as seen by Mary Ellen Mark.
  22. 22. Edward Bryant calls the “picture window” work of John Pfahl “part of the American vernacular.” See page 201.
  23. 23. “Picture window” work of John Pfahl.”
  24. 24. “Picture window” work of John Pfahl.”
  25. 25. Claims and Arguments • These opinions by Szarkowski, Rice, and Bryant provide personal interpretations. • These statements should all be considered to be interpretive “claims” to truth. • Interpretative questions that critics ask are “What do these photographs mean? What are they about? • The surface meaning is obvious and evident, the deeper means are implied.
  26. 26. Interpretive Perspectives • Critics interpret photographs from a wide range of perspectives. • These examples show how critics can vary in their intepretations and how their variations on the same image can alter our perceptions and understandings.
  27. 27. Three Interpretations • A Comparitive Interpretation • An Archetypal Interpretation • A Feminist Interpretation Pages 203-05 Eleanor, Port Huron 1954. Photo: Harry Callahan
  28. 28. Psychoanalytic Interpretation (pg 206) Pink and Green Bedroom. Photo: Laurie Simmons
  29. 29. Formalist Interpretation (pg 206) Battleground Point 4. Photo: Robert Misrach
  30. 30. Semiotic Interpretation (pg 206) Sports Illustrated, Notre Dame Football
  31. 31. Marxist Interpretation (pg 207) The Exhibition. Photo: Richard Avedon
  32. 32. Stylistic Influences Interpretation (pg 207) The Bogey Man. Photo: Dwayne Michaels
  33. 33. Biographical Interpretation (pg 207) Photo: Joel-Peter Witkin
  34. 34. Interpretation Based on Technique (pg 208) Rose. Photo: Ansel Adams
  35. 35. Intentionalist Interpretation (pg 208) Oil Sands . Photo: Edward Burtynsky
  36. 36. Artistic Statements • How does this all relate to the artists’ personal statements about their work? • For example, Edward Burtynsky at
  37. 37. More about Intentionalism • Minor White, the photographer and teacher of photography cautions against placing too much emphasis on what photographers think they have photographed. • Is intentionalism, as White and Barrett intimate, a faulty critical method by which images (or literature) is interpreted?
  38. 38. Intuition • What really happening in art criticism relies heavily on that flash or insight based on gut feelings, life experiences, and perceptual information coming together just right. • As well as being a clue toward understand and a possible starting point for interpretation, feeling is also an appropriate result.