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Chapter 3 Interpreting Photographs: What Does it Mean


Cindy Sherman's images question 'the cultural construction of femininity' ... but rather 'plausible or implausible; reasonable or unreasonable' (Margolis 55) ... – PowerPoint PPT presentation

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Title: Chapter 3 Interpreting Photographs: What Does it Mean

Chapter 3 Interpreting Photographs What Does it
  • From Criticizing Photographs by Terry Barrett 3rd

An Exemplary Interpretation
  • Barrett begins with an interpretation of a
    photograph by Jeff Wall, Dead Troops Talk, 1992,
    written by Susan Sontag.
  • Here is a copy of the image in colour (the
    original is 7 1/2 feet high and 13 feet wide).

The image, by a Canadian photographer, is a
photograph of a staged re-enactment of a recent
historical war (Afghanistan in 1986). However, it
gruesomely depicts the dead as speaking. What
they are telling us forms the meaning of the
An Exemplary Interpretation
  • Sontags analysis is exemplary because she tells
    us no more than we need to know.
  • She states her thesis, gives brief information
    about the photographer, and describes the images
    sources as well as the image itself. She
    concludes by reinforcing her thesis about the
    photo being an antiwar image.

Goya was an artist who depicted The Disasters
of War in a series of drawings. One of wars
worst horrors is its seeming normality (41).
  • All photographseven simple onesdemand
    interpretation in order to be fully understood
    and appreciated (42).
  • Bizarre photographs attract interpretive
    questions because they are different (42).
  • Photographs made in a straightforward,
    stylistically realistic manner are in special
    need of interpretation (42).
  • Images are inflected (the meaning is bent or
    curved varied in tone altered by addition) and
    images are partial (biased laden with values)

Introduction continued
  • Photographers make choices … about what and
    how to photograph (43).
  • These choices are very sophisticated (43).
  • There is no such thing as an innocent eye
    when referring to the human eye, the camera, or
    the photograph (43).
  • Photographs are not simple mirror images (43).
  • They are made … by skillful artists and
    deserve to be read, explained, analyzed and
    deconstructed (43).

Defining Interpretation
  • Interpretation occurs whenever attention and
    discussion move beyond information to matters of
    meaning (43).
  • To interpret is to account for all the described
    aspects of a photograph and to posit meaningful
    relationships between the aspects (43).
  • Interpreting is telling about the point, the
    meaning, the sense, the tone, or the mood of the
    photograph (37).

More about Interpretation
  • We need to ask what is most important in an
    image. How does form affect subject?
  • How do light and contrast contribute to effect
    and thus to meaning?
  • Interpretations are based on what is in the work
    (internal) and external to it (its causal

Interpretation and Metaphors
  • All photographs can be understood to be metaphors
    in need of interpretation (44).
  • A metaphor is an implied comparison between
    unlike things (44).
  • Verbal metaphors as well as images have a literal
    and an implied meaning visual images or
    metaphors (photographs) also have levels of
    meaning what is shown literally and what is

Metaphoric Meanings Panzani
  • To miss the metaphoric and see only the
    literal is to misunderstand the expressive
    aspects of photographs (38).
  • Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols and
    what they mean.

Roland Barthes and Panzani
  • Barthes was a French semiotician who studied
    cultural meanings, especially in photographs
  • DENOTATION refers to the literal meaning.
  • CONNOTATION refers to the implied meaning.
  • Images also have a LINGUISTIC meaning if words
    are present that have both a denotative and
    connotative meaning (39).

Roland Barthes continued
  • Connotation in language in the Panzani ad is in
    the sound of the brand name, Panzani (which
    connotes Italianicity (45).
  • The literal meaning of a photograph shows its
    subject matterthe objects in the image.
  • The connotative meaning of the image comes from
    what these things represent, their meaning even
    the colour is suggestive (45).
  • Barthes schema (a plan or outline that applies
    to others of the same group) works for all
    photographs, not just ads (45).

Objects of Interpretation
  • Critics can interpret 1) single photographs, 2)
    a body of work or bodies of work by a single
    photographer, 3) the photography of a country, or
    4) the photography of a time period (45).
  • Sometimes such interpretations transcend subject
    matter and form to consider larger implications
    of the work done by an artist or photographer.

Josef Koudelkas Gypsies
  • John Sarkowski, a curator and photo critic,
    writes about how Koudelkas study of Gypsies is
    more about human values than about conveying
    historical or cultural data, ie. anthropology.
    See 45-46.
  • You know his pictures are real life--not
    posed, not faked." Contemporary Photographer

Straight Photography
  • Straight photography, as a style, changed from
    the 1960s from documentary photos of unusual
    people to the American landscape as subject
    matter in the 1970s, a change that is considered
    a return to the past by critic Jonathan Green
    (46). This interpretation is based on external
    knowledge about art and photography over the last
    two centuries.
  • Interpretive statements about photographs are
    not limited to photographs (47) these
    statements teach us about our cultural
    environment (Dworkin qtd in Barrett 41).

Interpretive Claims and Arguments
  • Interpretive claims are usually stated as truths,
    but are understood to be opinions (47).
  • Interpretive claims need evidence or proof,
    usually descriptive proof and analysis.
  • Sometimes evaluations or judgments are mixed in
    with interpretive claims.

Interpretive Claims continued
  • All interpretations share a fundamental
    principle photographs have meanings deeper than
    what appears on their surfaces (48).
  • The surface meaning is obvious (48).
  • Deeper meanings are implied by what is
    pictured and how it is pictured (48).
  • Cindy Shermans images question the cultural
    construction of femininity (Heartney qtd in
    Barrett 48).

Interpretive Perspectives
  • Harry Callahan (1912 99) shot various images of
    his wife Eleanor over several decades.
  • Barrett profiles three comparative analyses of
    Callahans work (48 51).
  • The image on the left is from the Eastman House
    Web gallery.

Types of Interpretations Preview
  • Comparative
  • Archetypal
  • Feminist
  • Psychoanalytic
  • Formalist
  • Semiotic
  • Marxist
  • Stylistic
  • Biographic
  • Intentionalist
  • Technical
  • Combination

Types of Interpretation
  • Comparative looks at other art forms,
    photographs, or photographers work and
    compares/contrasts them to the image.
  • Archetypal (archaios ancient tupos mold,
    model) sees an image in broadly significant
    human and cultural terms as mythic, symbolic,
    universal and impersonal (50).
  • For the best analysis of archetypes see Joseph
    Campbells work.

Types of Interpretation Feminist Criticism
  • Interprets an image according to a range of
    feminist ideologies
  • 1) liberal mainly white, middle-class,
    benign, focused on job and gender equality
  • 2) radical advocates more freedom from male
    domination for marginalized groups

Feminist Interpretations continued
  • Post-structuralist examines the language of
    patriarchy (L. Patri father) or societies
    dominated by male power structures (in the home,
    workplace, and government).
  • Ecological values the goddess mythologies and
    examines the role of women in male societies as
    care givers and nurturers, but also as women of
    power who have been suppressed.

The Mens Movement
  • Most often associated with Robert Bly who wrote
    Iron John (1990) about his coming to terms with
    an alcoholic father.
  • Wrote The Sibling Society (1996) about lack of
    respect and increasing violence.
  • Associated with mens groups who are into poetry,
    running naked in the woods, and drumming to
    reclaim their lost expressiveness and lost
    father-son relationships however, not seen as
    legitimate in many academic and critical circles.
  • Male violence as derived from popular cultural is
    explored in Tough Guise, a film made in 1999 with
    Jackson Katz about the aggressive male persona
    and its causes.

Other Interpretive Strategies
  • Psychoanalytic uses theories like Freudian and
    Jungian analysis.
  • Formalist emphasizes compositional elements
    without going further.
  • Semiotic looks at how an image means through
    linguistic and pictorial signs and symbols.

Semiotic Interpretation
  • Bill Nichols has done an analysis of a Sports
    Illustrated Cover that depicted a large photo of
    a football player (brawn) looking at his coach
    on the sidelines with a small insert of Dan
    Devine (the brains)not a flattering semiotic
    analysis (52) of football players!

Marxist Interpretations
  • Ask ideological questions about class and social
    systems and whether or not an image promotes or
    critiques assumptions about class positioning
    eg. whether the middle class and corporate power
    dominates the working class (with consent called
  • Marxism asks what role certain photos play in
    maintaining class structures.

Stylistic and Biographical
  • A Stylistic analysis compares the style of one
    artists work to the style of other artists
    works and suggests implicitly … that all art
    comes … from other art (52).
  • A Biographical analysis uses biographical
    materials to assist interpretation, assuming
    there is a cause-effect relationship (53).

Intentional Interpretation
  • Seeks the artists own intended meaning by
    reading her/his own interpretation
  • Not the only meaning to be considered!
  • Not the only standard by which all other meanings
    ought to be measured!
  • Can become the intentional fallacyinterpreting
    a work based only on artist intention.

Technical Interpretations
  • Technical analyses consider how images are made
    the photographic process, choice of subject,
    medium, printing methods (these are descriptive).
  • Adds how the making affects the meaning of the
    image (form is content).

  • Uses several approaches as listed before.
  • May also incorporate conflicting analyses.
  • Calls into question whether one analysis is
    right or better than others.
  • Combination approaches apply the type of method
    best suited to a particular image.

Right Interpretations
  • Some people understand artworks better than
    others do and therefore, some interpretations
    are better than others (Beardsley about
    literature 54).
  • Interpretations are not true or false but rather
    plausible or implausible reasonable or
    unreasonable (Margolis 55).
  • There is no one true interpretation.
  • Good interpretations are convincing and weak
    ones are not (55).

Right Interpretations continued
  • Good plausible, enlightening, insightful,
    revealing, meaningful, original, well supported.
  • Poor unreasonable, unlikely, inappropriate,
    absurd, far-fetched, strained, unsubstantiated.
    (Barrett 55)

Two False Assumptions About Art Criticism
  • 1. Thats just your opinion the idea that
    everyones opinion holds the same weight, so
    interpretation doesnt matter.
  • 2. It doesnt matter what you say about art
    since its all subjective anyway the idea that
    art interpretation is futile and meaningless.

Two Criteria to Assess Interpretations
  • 1. Correspondence making sure all claims are
    grounded in observations of the image all facts
    or items about the image must be accounted for
  • 2. Coherence making sure that all claims are
    logically consistent and backed by evidence an
    interpretation should make sense in and of itself

Interpretations and Artist Intent
  • A simple way to approach intentionalism would be
    to find out what the photographer intended and
    decide whether he or she was successful.
  • The interpretive task is for the viewer, not the
  • Many photographers work intuitively.
  • A photographers interpretation is only one of
    many possible interpretations.

Interpretations and Feelings
  • Interpretations must include feelings.
  • Analyse how images make you feel and then relate
    those feelings back to the image.
  • Feelings help us to identify the connotations of
  • After critical analysis, our feelings may change
    profoundly about an image (58).

Meaning and Significance
  • Significance refers to what the photograph means
    to us and may fall into the realm of conjecture,
    therapy, reminiscence or nostalgia which are all
    subjective factors (personal, private).
  • Meaning refers to what the image is about in
    itself or what can be observed and said to any
    informed viewer and is therefore more objective.

Community of Interpreters
  • Viable interpretations are held by a group of
    people who include critics, artists, historians,
    dealers, collectors, and viewers (59).
  • Interpretation is a collective endeavour (59).
  • All discuss the image because they see the same
    details and can help each other understand
    meaning (59).
  • A corrective community that will not tolerate
    inflexible interpretations (59).
  • Interpretations may shift over time, sometimes
    dramatically (59).

Valued for her beauty …an educational image
(according to the photographer) now in the
Rudolph Eickenmeyer Jr.s Tired Butterfly
(Evelyn Nesbit)
  • An example of an image (1901-02) whose
    interpretation can change over time.
  • At age 16, Evelyn Nesbit became a photo model and
    a showgirl. Her image was linked to a sex
    scandal and murderher husband shot her former