Reflection on Part Four–reading, meaning and intention

No pictures to take for this section, just research and writing. Approached in the sense of the ‘reading’ of photographs, this topic has generous scope for investigation.

To read a picture – photograph, painting, drawing – requires an exchange, between the viewer and the image.  Although the image remains immutable, the viewer is infinitely varied.  That’s a complicated way of saying that different pictures mean different things to different people.  At different times.  Under different circumstances.  That’s a lot of difference, which accounts for what I have come to understand as the polysemous nature of pictures.

The artists intent (I’ll refer to the originator as artist) may be known by the viewer, it may not.  Intentionalism  has its problems.  But for a significant segment of imagery in circulation today there is a fundamental intent.  I’m thinking of advertising and social media.  Ads have a singular purpose despite the fact that fifty per cent of all advertising is a complete waste of money (ah, but which fifty per cent?)…  buy me, use me I’ll change your life.  In the social media setting, photographs mainly serve as witness;  we were here, we did this, we ate that, along with the unavoidable corollary – you weren’t, and you didn’t.

I have been thinking about the impression I get from reading about other student’s work, online tutor comments and observations – which is that the more malleable  the photographs are the better they are received.  A picture which appears to be able to sustain the weight of multiple interpretations, however fanciful, seems to be deemed in some way more meretricious (I’ll desist from using the g**d word and its tawdry cousin be**er having been warned off them).  But I tend toward the opinion that the more meanings garlanded round a picture the less meaningful it becomes. Multiple interpretation diffuses a picture, I think.

That’s not to say that a photograph can’t be intriguing by virtue of its contents (contents? Content? still not sure).  My choice for the essay, Bravo’s “Good Reputation” invites speculation but defies certainty because the elements are so obscure.  Also its a very fine picture (I think I can say that out loud, without substantiating it, in this section!)

So back to intention and meaning:  Bravo intended to make a compelling picture and he made it from ideas he had already absorbed, almost by osmosis,  from his earlier life experience and photographic endeavours.  The photograph has no meaning.  It is pretty much impossible to see the picture and not wonder what the meaning is, but that’s the wonder of the work.

Here’s an ironic twist.  “On Photography” isn’t actually about photography.  That’s what Sontag said, rumbled as she was,  in 1978.  That wasn’t her intention in writing the book.  Okay, she called it On Photography, wrote about and argued around photography and was happy to have the book cited as a photographic reference innumerable times, without ‘fessing up. But it was really about something else:

“[On Photography] is not about photography! [Emphasis in the original.] … Now you’ve got me. I said it, and I didn’t mean to say it. It’s not about photography, it’s about the consumer society, it’s about advanced industrial society … [and] about photography as the exemplary activity of this society. I don’t want to say it’s not about photography, but it’s true, and I guess this is the interview where that will finally come out. … It’s not, as some people have already said, against photography, it’s not an attack on photography. … It’s about what the implications of photography are. I don’t want to be a photography critic. I’m not a photography critic. I don’t know how to be one.”

These statements appear in Victor Bockris’s interview, “Susan Sontag: The Dark Lady of Pop Philosophy,” High Times, March 1978, p. 36.

But here the intentionalist fallacy emerges.  Despite her assertions the work is a de facto photography text by virtue of its near universal approbation.