‘Photography and Context’ – Terry Barrett

In preparation for assignment 5, a suggested reading for research is the article ‘Photographs and Context’ by Terry Barrett, the article in full can be found at


In this article Terry Barrett discusses how the ‘meaning’ and interpretation of a photograph is highly reliant on the presentation if said image.

An example presented by the author is an image of a couple in a Paris cafe enjoying wine together.

The image, presented above, captured by Robert Doisneau, reflected his own fondness of cafe culture in general but, with time came to represent all of cafe culture in Paris, alcohol abuse and even prostitution, all through the various types of publications the image was used in.

This image further went on to be displayed in The Museum of Modern Art and again in the book ‘100 pictures from the collection of The Museum of Modern Art’ authored by the Museum’s own curator of photography John Szarkowski. These latter two presentations further changed the contact of the image going on to both represent the artist, rather than the artists vision, and also the curator own personal interpretation of what the image represents.

This misappropriation of context can be seen across all forms of art and photography, as highlight by Terry Barrett, we take medical, criminal, investigative, scientific amongst many others educational images and repurpose them as advertising, artworks and records or monuments of history. We place our own stories on to these images, changing history itself depending on our own outlook, shaping the context to fit the purpose of the new use. What was once a document of forensic or journalistic importance, such as recording evidence, living conditions, illness, injury, injustice or poverty now becomes examples of photographic compositional theory praised for the technique of the photographer, a self portrait in a way, rather than being recognised for the initial intent.

Worryingly, August Sander, a German photographer from the 1930’s, is quoted in this article stating, through a lecture of his titled “Photography as a Universal Language”, that “Today with photography we can cummincate our thoughts, conceptions and realities, to all people on earth; if we add the date of the year we have the power to fix all the history of the world”
A statement which I find eerily foreshadowing of what we now know would come in the following years.

Terry follows this with positing how photographs can be ‘understood’ post inception. It is suggested the three sources be used to contextualise an image.
First, the ‘internal context’, that which we see in the image, the date of the image, the title and the photographer themselves.

Secondly the ‘external context’ this being the presentational environment of where the image was originally displayed or used ie. the article attached to the image
Finally, the ‘original context’ for example what type of environment or circumstances was the original image taken under.

Terry ends this article with a final point on transparency and credibility. Highlighting how we generally take images at their face value, of the moment or as ‘true’. He writes about considering the ‘photographer’s eye’, that conscious or unconscious choice the original artist makes deciding what to include and what to exclude from the frame.

Personally, I have always been intrigues with these of photography within propaganda. Even today the simplicity of a single image is used to promote views, easily controlled and manipulated whilst being quickly digested. The issues raised here by Terry Barrett are in essence good logical rules to follow when interpreting art and photography but also any information we digest. Yet, he rightly points out, we rarely look beyond the perceived face value of an image, whether that is an artwork hanging in a gallery in which we revere the artist or if it is the front page of a tabloid newspaper catering to their investors and the optical agenda in which we rely solely on the article to provide us with the internal, external and original context.

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