Context and meaning

Walker, J.A. (s.d.) ‘Context as a determinant of photographic meaning’ At: (Accessed on 28 October 2019)

John A Walker’s essay is concerned with how the presentation of a photograph can affect the way it is interpreted. The presentation space can add context to the photograph above and beyond the original intention. He provides a good example in how he has viewed the work of Jo Spence in different locations (magazine, public library and gallery) and noted a different emphasis provided by the same pictures. He makes the point that although we are all individuals, there will be various factors to which we are all susceptible – culture, gender, age for example – that can affect the way we ‘read’ a photograph. Together with a specific means of presentation, these factors will affect our response to photographs. He makes the point that Jo Spence herself had utilised this knowledge in the Hayward Gallery presentation to accentuate the way her photographs would be interpreted.

Gallery presentation is perhaps a relatively easy way to get across a particular interpretation; by their nature anyone viewing the works will already have wanted to be there for the purpose of seeing the photographs. A public library will get a different response as people visit the library to borrow books – they may wish to view photographs at the same time but will be unprepared, so will not have the same predispositions that a gallery viewing might provide. In a nearby hospital there is a long corridor leading from a car park to the hospital itself. There used to be nothing in this corridor but in recent years has featured photographic exhibitions on one wall. I don’t know how many of the thousands of people using that corridor stop to look at the works; some will but people visiting hospitals generally have their concentration elsewhere.

For those who do stop to look, the nature of the corridor means that they will generally view the work in one of two fixed sequences, depending on whether they are coming in or going out. Since there are two equally likely sequences, how should the photographs be placed? Any specific sequencing of the works cannot work in this environment. In many public displays we are encouraged to view the work in a specific order. There may be arrows pointing the way we should move through the works. For the Diane Arbus “In The Beginning” exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, the works were largely placed on pillars in the exhibition space with specific instructions for us to view in any order we choose. This randomness removed the idea that the works should be treated as a whole, and emphasised the fact that other than being by the same photographer the works did not have much of a relation to each other.

Photographic books come with a built-in context in that the order of the pages defines the way we view the photographs. In the same way that visitors to a gallery will go along already predisposed to at least give the work consideration (especially if an entrance fee is involved), and photographic books insist on the same predisposition. Why pay thirty, forty, fifty pounds for a book unless we already know we will at least appreciate the contents?

For my assignment 3 submission I took photographs of the site of the former MG car factory in Abingdon. I haven’t looked into the idea of exhibiting these, if I were then I would look into the idea of displaying them in a public space in the town. As a means of presentation I think this would work better than simple set of printed images.

I have been working on my assignment 5 project, with images taken from travelling fairs in locations around Oxfordshire. I wanted to see if changing the way the images were presented would affect my own thoughts on the set so I had them printed up as a book of postcards. I wasn’t totally happy with the results – some of the images became cropped in ways I didn’t want – but am now thinking of actually using them as postcards to send to friends. I may pursue this idea with the intention of gathering their responses

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