Home » Art » Part 1: Looking at Photographs—Context

Part 1: Looking at Photographs—Context

What I want to start with here is the idea about how “context” is so important to our understanding of any photograph, or piece of visual art. Being aware of the circumstances surrounding the creation of the work and the concerns and ideas the creator of the work is dealing with can help us a great deal in our understanding of the work as well as in our ability to fully appreciate what has been presented.

The reality is that in every case, when we look at any image—well, everything in our life really—we do so, or at least start, from our own very specific contextual reference, or worldview, which we have developed throughout our lives. This worldview is the result of how we process our experiences and the knowledge we have gained and those things that are important to us.

But let’s back up a bit and consider a point that I made in the series of blog posts on how an “idea” is the genesis of every photograph we make.  We might also refer to this as the intent of an image but the point here is that when we make our images, we are drawing on our “worldview”. We choose subjects and situations to photograph that are interesting to us and we interpret what we photograph based on our current knowledge and understanding of our world and how we feel about things—our biases. Of course, we also incorporate what we know about creating a successful photograph as well. What we are doing when we create that image is giving it a CONTEXT, which then imparts a certain meaning to the image. The fact is that while each of us will have a unique worldview, we will often find that we share much of that with others with whom we normally associate and interact. In most cases, the meaning/intent of our image will be easily recognized, but not always. There may be some fact about what you have photographed that is not easily discerned or understood just by viewing it but which can easily affect how others might view it.

Let’s take the image here: AMTRAK 45032Location: about 1.5 miles west of Tioga, North Dakota on 6/19/05


If you have never seen this before and don’t know the context in which it was made, I think most would at least consider this a nicely done landscape image. On the other hand, if you saw this in the context of the series it belongs to, while you may or may not have noticed the train tracks in the background, you would then be sure that this image had to do with the railroad and if you then read the artist statement, that it is relevant to one of the historic routes between Chicago and the west coast of the US. How the knowledge of these things affect your reading of the image will vary depending on how you feel about such things, but it certainly will add to the meaning of the image on some level. These give the image context which may not have been easily known from just looking. The link to the series, and image, Click here or on the image.

On the other hand, and these ARE NOT the case, how would your opinion change if you found out that instead this was a photograph of a site where some gruesome mass murder of school children took place or maybe, less sensational, that the sky had been changed to create a more dramatic image?   My guess is that such things would change how you regarded or think about the image. Again, neither is the case! But knowing additional context will certainly change how we view an image and its meaning.

In a similar way, I recently was viewing a painting by William Turner. It was a very attractive work, however, as I read about the concerns Turner was dealing with, the events of the time and the specific scene and why he presented it as he did, my appreciation of the work became so much more rich. I was okay with just enjoying it visually but I would have missed so much not knowing the context of its making.

When we are on photo sharing sites, join a camera club or associate with other photographers in person, we will again generally find that, on the whole, we share a lot of common values and views. Our worldviews will be somewhat aligned, at least in the area that has brought us together. While we might not always agree on a photograph presented and what works or doesn’t, we will generally find that we all have a similar understanding of what a photograph is about.

Because we generally operate within such “familiar” circles— we get a confidence that we understand what we are seeing and if we like it or we don’t, we are pretty much correct in our assessment as “the photograph must stand on its own and it either works or it doesn’t”.

But to get some perspective on our confidence in these matters, maybe consider how we viewed such things before we learned about making photographs and acquired the skills we have developed to date in looking at photographs. I know that not only do I look at some of my early photographs and wonder: “what was I thinking” but that many of those “artworks” I bought to “decorate” my house early on have found their way into the trash bin. My surety as to a quality visual in the past is not the same as it is today!

Like most things in life—music, food, politics or whatever–the more we learn and discover about a subject the more sophisticated our understanding and more discerning we become with regards to it. While we may still enjoy some of those same things from earlier times, many are left behind and many new things we may have been uninterested in before are now among our favorite things. And, generally, there is always more to learn, experience and absorb!

In fact, I think it is just harder for us when it comes to visual art because we have been seeing and making “valid” judgments all our life–or we wouldn’t have survived–to realize that there may be limitations to that process. That things can, in fact, exist outside of our awareness when we confront something visual—it just often doesn’t make sense with the experiences we have had over our lives.

So once we get out of our more familiar circles, we can end up with some conflict regarding this process. We go to a museum or gallery and see work that might seem ridiculous to us. Because visual understanding seems so innate to us, we can easily move to a position that there must be something wrong with those who see value in those things we can’t. We often see this expressed that it is a case of the Emperor’s clothes. We just aren’t used to being wrong or unable to draw on our own visual references and “worldview” to make sense of things in a way that those others seem to be able to do. We don’t even have a reference point to admit that maybe we just don’t get it because it isn’t something we have experience with. That artworks can be created by someone with a worldview that is so different than our own.

I might suggest this would be like, for me, to find myself in a Chinese restaurant where no one spoke English and all the writing was in Chinese Characters. I would not have any idea what I was eating or ordering nor would I be able to easily find the restrooms. I would be in a “different world” or, as I prefer to call it, “not on the same playing field”. In fact, this actually happened to me in Hong Kong and I never did get the water I so desperately needed due to the heat and humidity. And I have no idea what I actually ate!

Whether we choose to spend the time and effort to gain the information we need to help us get a better sense of the context in which any work was created is certainly a decision we can make on a case-by-case basis. But when it comes to something we don’t understand or relate to, I know I generally consider that I just don’t have the contextual references to understand it right now.

In fact, although I have an extensive library on artists/photographers I do like and understand, I have spent most of the last 20 years acquiring books (as cheaply as possible!) about those I haven’t been able to understand or relate to. That doesn’t mean I will ever end up being able to completely relate to the work—let alone “like it”, which isn’t my goal—but I know that I will learn a great deal in my quest to do so. Those things learned have certainly influenced me in a variety of ways and have helped me solve visual problems in ways I may have never understood without having taken the time to learn. My own philosophy about this, and I think one shared by many, is that I can learn more by researching things I don’t understand than I can if I only pay attention to those things I like and understand. There is just so much to learn outside of our awareness.

In the next 2 parts I will explore some techniques that can help us expand our abilities when looking at art/photography. These techniques, when practiced while looking, will also allow us to grow in the ability to create our own images as well.

2 thoughts on “Part 1: Looking at Photographs—Context

  1. Some immediate half baked thoughts: this write up is a conundrum very nicely written up and illustrated – conundrum for me because the issue then comes down to having to choose which of the zillions possible contexts are worth considering, meaning which will have enough co-appreciators to justify my investing any context with my time, attention and value. Is going with the established artists enough, or is it then abnegating my own discriminating power? I suppose Kant would have something to say about all this.

    • Andre, like I said above, we can decide when we want to look further and when we don’t want to spend the time doing so. And it isn’t a matter of the subrogation of our own thoughts but about becoming aware of ideas and considerations beyond what we may have otherwise looked at. It is about critical thinking and study.

      In the end, I find that when I don’t agree or can’t see the point of some work, that I just own it and either move on or decide to study it further.

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