Research – ‘Photographs and Context’

Barrett’s essay describes the possibilities of photography as a communicative medium of art. He asserts in his essay that there are however, contexts within which a photograph can be seen which may strongly affect the communication.

To demonstrate the possible realities of communication of a photograph in more then one contextual setting, Barrett cites the incidence of Robert Doisneau’s photograph of a couple drinking wine outside of a Parisian Café in terms of the original appearing as part of a photo essay in Le Point.  He then describes that the photograph was re-used in breach of copyright law by a temperance league and later also in breach of copyright law in a ‘scandal sheet’ with the caption “Prostitution in the Champs Elysées”. Clearly these are three very different contexts for the same photograph in very different publications.

Barrett cites Barthes definition of the context formed around a photograph – the “channel of transmission”.

Barthes states that the channel of transmission is, “a complex of concurrent messages with the photograph as the center and surrounds constituted by the text, the caption, the layout” giving meaning to the photograph that may not have been the author’s intention.

A further example given by Barrett is the security footage of Patty Hearst as described by Allan Sekula. Sekula asks us what we might be able to form as inference from the images of Hearst. Is she, “a fugitive heiress. A kidnap victim. An urban guerrilla. A willing participant. A case of brainwashing. A case of rebellion. A case of schizophrenia.” (p. 112, Sekula, A, cited by Barret, T, (1997), Aesthetics: A Reader in Philosophy of the Arts)

The cases described by the authors Barrett cites do describe the possible extreme shifts of meaning derived from context, from specific frame selection from the security footage and from the contextualisation brought by the reader of the image.

Barret further cites Sontag describing the photographs of W. Eugene Smith and Lewis Hine. Sontag comments as to the emotional impact of photographs and appears to caution the author and reader of photographs that the, “camera(s) miniaturize experience, transform history into a spectacle. As much as they create sympathy, photographs cut sympathy, distance the emotions”. (P. 113, Sontag, S, cited by Barret T, (1997), Aesthetics: A Reader in Philosophy of the Arts).

Barret states that, “when interpreting even the most straightforward and simple photographs on the basis of internal context alone, a working knowledge of codes is presumed” (P. 115, Barret T, (1997), Aesthetics: A Reader in Philosophy of the Arts) that we might see what the photographer’s intention is, what the, “photographer has done to the original situation by his or her excision in order to posit what the photograph is about” (P.116 Barret T, (1997), Aesthetics: A Reader in Philosophy of the Arts). This ability to read the codified communication, the semiology, the photographer’s statement to the visual reader without being swayed by the ‘channel of transmission’ is the difference between seeing an image and misreading what is effectively propaganda or persuasive media and the difference between seeing and projecting our individual psyche onto an image.



Barret, T (and authors cited by Barrett) (1997), Aesthetics: Reader in Philosophy of the Arts), David Goldblatt & Lee Brown, editors. Prentice-Hall 1997.