Part 4, Project 1 (Photography – art or science?) – Research point

Read ‘Context as a Determinant of Photographic Meaning’ by John A. Walker

Notes & points of interest

  • Infinite amount of interpretations vs. consensus about connotation and denotation
  • Reception theory (ideal readers), reception history (actual readers over time)
  • ‘But if an image had so many meanings, did this not render it meaningless?’ (Introduction)
  • ‘We cannot directly share the mental experiences of others…’ (Introduction)
  • ‘With each shift of location the photograph is recontextualised and as the context changes so does the meaning.’
  • ‘…its meaning is determined by its spatia-temporal point of origin. Subsequently, the photograph is viewed in other places at other times, that is, in different socio-historical conjunctures.’
  • Jo Spence
  • ‘If display context can influence the meaning of a photograph, the photograph can influence the meaning of the context.’
  • ‘A viewer approaches an image not with a blank mind but with a mind already primed with memories, knowledge, prejudices; there is a mental set or context to be taken into account.’
  • ‘Pictorial stereotypes do not merely exist externally in the world of the mass media, they inhabit us.’
  • ‘Context is a troublesome determinant of meaning for artists because so often it lies outside their control.’


The introduction to Walker’s essay was written a few years after the essay itself and it explains why he wrote it, namely to try and explain to himself the importance of context in determining the meaning of photographs. He argues against the idea that because we are all different, there are ‘as many meanings as there are human beings’. This would mean that if I were to show an image to the human whole population, there would be 7.5 billions interpretations of it. I agree with Walker that this is quite an extreme point of view and that surely the amount of interpretations will not be infinite. Ambiguity and complexity of images is one reason for a variety of interpretations, while shared experiences is one reason for a limited amount of interpretations.

Walker explains the importance of context so well that it’s a bit of a shame to summarise it. The point is that even though we’re focusing on an image we are also subconsciously being aware of the image’s context and our environment. A change in context can arise from a change of media (digital, print), time, place, display, relationship with other elements (image, text), mobility, culture, etc.

A photograph is taken at, and represents, a particular place and time, yet can be appreciated thereafter in other places and other times. This means that even though a photograph has a specific meaning tied to its original location and ‘birth’, its meaning changes as its context changes and as it changes spatially and/or temporally.

Walker explains that there is a two-way relationship between image and context, ‘If display context can influence the meaning of a photograph, the photograph can influence the meaning of the context.’ This is a confusing, yet interesting, point to think about and I’m struggling to explain it to myself. I guess I could say that a gallery space showing photographs with a social/political criticism will absorb the photographs’ message and communicate, as a space, a similar message.

A photograph’s interpretation also depends on the viewer, as people’s past experiences, memories, knowledge, nationality, age, race, etc. will play a part in how they’ll approach and interpret it. Despite this individuality we, as social creatures, share many things in common and organise ourselves by social groups or classes. This means that people belonging to a specific group will have similar interpretations when faced with an image. Though hard to fully control, it’s possible to predict or cause a specific response in an audience.

I really enjoyed Walker’s essay and everything really did make a lot of sense. I feel that I can apply this new perspective to my own work and also when I’m looking at the work of others. Sometimes it’s easy to focus solely on the work and what it looks like and forget about the context that might accompany and influence it; Where is it placed? When? How? What does the medium communicate? Is it online or on print? Book, magazine, zine? Blog, article, social media? Is it commercial? Who’s the audience? How does the context change or support its message?


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