In the previous essay on reading photos, I looked at how things we know, mental baggage we have accumulated besides just memories, affect what we see in a photograph. Things like cultural background, political beliefs, movies we’ve seen, or books we’ve read.
We’re working our way outwards from our inner selves.
Let us turn our attention now to stuff that is entirely outside ourselves, stuff that comes with the photograph. Let’s think about captions, surrounding text, surrounding photographs, things people tell us about a photograph. Let’s think about who shot the photo, and how.
We imagine that we’re entering the world of the photograph, and building a version of the real world to contain the photograph, a world that we imagine fits it. Surely we bring all these things along with us? The captions, text, surrounding photos, the photographer’s name; they all give us clues to fill out this world of imagination that we’re inhabiting for a moment.
We gather up some or all of this material and plunge into the picture. We begin to make meaning from the picture, and from everything we have brought: from our own memories, opinions, knowledge, cultural background, and knowledge of the photo itself.
Perhaps the photograph of the old lady at the party, with the birthday cake, is actually the fourth or fifth photo in a series. The first few showed the old lady and evidence of some sort of gathering. Flipping through the first few pictures, we found ourselves “present” in that photographic way at some sort of ambiguous gathering, a little like a dream in which we don’t quite know what’s going on.
The meaning of the gathering as “the old lady’s birthday party” is only made clear by this fifth picture, the picture with the cake. The first picture may have set a mood, introduced some people, set the scene. The third picture had some presents in it, and so we guessed that it was a birthday party, but only until this picture do we know whose birthday it is.
But perhaps we’ve been handed this series of photographs one by one, and the party is being narrated for us as we look at them, filling in details for us. “And then Bill said… and everyone laughed.” The story of the party takes shape in our minds. It is built out of the narration, the photos, and our own memories and knowledge of the people we see in the photos. Each photograph takes its place as it is handed to us, sometimes shifting the others around, altering their meaning as the story completes itself.
Or, maybe, we see the photo by itself in an aged album. Scrawled underneath it in spidery handwriting is “Great-gran Betty at her last birthday party.” The word “last” sticks out to us. The party picture takes on a meaning that blends joy and pathos in equal parts. In an attenuated way, we are at the party, but we know also that she will die soon.
Imagine now the picture of the seated man. You are seeing it in a newspaper, or online at some news site. You’ve never heard of the man, nor of the incident mentioned in the story accompanying the photograph.
The man is accused of a crime, the photograph is identified as having been taken during the time of his alleged criminal activity. It is implied, maybe, that his expensive watch was bought with embezzled money, or that the photo was taken shortly after he buried a corpse in his back yard. Knowing, or thinking we know, these facts colors how we see the man. Maybe we see his expression as shifty. He seems to us cunning, or cruel. Are we projecting these things onto a perfectly neutral expression? Would he seem kind in another context?
To bring our own politics back into it: we might choose to disbelieve the allegations. Perhaps we distrust this news source. The captions might induce an opposing reaction: we might consider the man innocent largely on the basis of being told by this particular media outlet that he is accused.
Just as things around a photograph can influence how we make sense of a photograph, so can other knowledge about a photo.
Knowing who made the picture matters. A photograph of a nude woman may change meaning depending on who we believe took it.
If a man took it, we might see it as exploitive, especially if the man’s reputation is known, and known to be unsavory and exploitive. If a woman took it, we might not see the picture as exploitation. Perhaps we’d see it as empowering.
If the model herself took the picture, we’re probably more likely to see it as empowering. Alternatively, we might see it as attention-seeking, depending on where we saw it, and what the picture looks like: a nude selfie on a Tumblr blog is quite different from a nude selfie in an expensively made photo book from a well-known publisher.
This is true even if the photograph on Tumblr is pixel-identical to the photograph in the book, or to the photograph attributed to the exploitive male photographer.
Though the pictures are identical, when we are “present” at the moment of their making, we see differences. Is the photographer abusive to the model, who responds with a well-acted pose (while inwardly worrying about her fee?) Or is the model also the photographer, absolutely comfortable in her own skin, making a bold statement to the camera? The photos might be identical, but the scene in the studio, the scene the photo leads us into, is quite different. The world we build around the photo is different, though the photos themselves are not.
You can’t tell from the pictures, but the circumstances (and therefore the meaning of the pictures) would have been clear if you’d been there in the studio. So, when you see the picture, and in that metaphorical way enter the studio, you recreate the scene and discover that meaning.
The scene you recreate depends, of course, on what you believe. You might have the scene all wrong. If someone has misattributed the photograph, you could have it completely backward. You could make one meaning of the photograph based on a false belief about the authorship, or a false caption. You might make quite another meaning tomorrow based on a corrected, or new, belief.
At this point, I trust, I’ve shed some light on the specific ways in which we make meaning of a photograph. When we “enter” the world of the photograph, we enter as a complex being who knows and believes a whole bunch of things. Because the photograph looks real, we react to it a little as if it were real, and we make sense of it a little as if we, in all our complexity, had truly been transported to that moment and place.
If we awoke suddenly to find ourselves in an unfamiliar place, situation, we would rapidly form theories about our surroundings, we would make guesses, we would fill in detail. It’s a basic somatic/cognitive response. This is, I maintain, essentially what occurs when we look at a photograph, albeit in an attenuated way.
We only do it a little bit, but it is the basis of the way we understand photographs and things that look like photographs.
This is the fifth in a series of essays on photographs, on the ways we as viewers construct meaning from them, and on what it all means.
About the author: Andrew Molitor writes software by day and takes pictures by night. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Molitor is based in Norfolk, Virginia, and does his best to obsess over gear, specs, or sharpness. You can find more of his writing on his blog.