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The Art of Seeing  #02


Terry Barrett’s approach on photography criticism - Part 2:

The Meaning of Interpretation

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In ‘The art of seeing #01’, we outlined briefly certain primary principles of photography’s critical approach, in particular the principles of description. As mentioned before, description contains, in most cases, judgments and evaluative statements, a positive or negative view upon the photographic work. However, description alone, does not constitute a complete critique. The essence of critique emerges from what we call ‘interpretation’, meaning those statements that lead to a better understanding of the artwork. In this second part we will discuss about interpretation based on Barrett’s (2000) theoretical approach.


The Meaning of Interpretation

Photographs, as depictions of reality, possess the power to mislead our perception and to convince us that they are carriers of objective and uninflected evidence; and that is far from the truth. Even the most simple and direct photographs require interpretation: an interpretation capable of giving “voice to signs that don’t speak on their own”, an interpretation that will surpass the mere information and description, will point out important relationships between the image’s elements and will guide us through reason to a better understanding of the artwork’s meaning. As Barrett argues:


«…When one is acting as a critic, to interpret a photograph is to tell someone else, in speech or in writing, what one understands about a photograph, especially what one thinks a photograph is about. Interpreting is telling about the point, the meaning, the sense, the tone, or the mood of the photograph...»


Therefore, in order to achieve the above, a photograph’s interpretation usually relies on two things: firstly, on what a photograph shows us, and secondly, on its causal environment, meaning the relative information about the work. Another way to approach interpretation is to treat all photographs as visual metaphors that need to be decoded. To succeed this, the study of a photographic work has to be divided into two correlated levels of understanding: what a photograph shows and what it implies. Nelson Goodman (1981), while exploring imitation as a capacity of realistic depiction through the use of image, comments:


«…the object before me is a man, a swarm of atoms, a complex of cells, a fiddler, a friend, a fool, and much more …»


If we overlook the metaphoric meaning, then we deny photography’s expressive aspects. To rely solely on the superficial and the literal is to deny photography’s poetic dimension. Let us see an example of interpretation of a Man Ray’s photograph, seen as a visual metaphor:


Man Ray, ‘Tears’, Paris, 1930-1932

«Judging from his inclusion of this image in other photographic compositions, Man Ray must have considered Tears one of his most successful photographs. A cropped version of it with a single eye also appears as the first plate in a 1934 book of his photographs. The picture is a metaphor for the artificiality of art making, a scene that is staged for its truthfulness. Like a silent-screen star, the woman plaintively gazes upward to indicate her distress. However, the large, glistening teardrops are melodramatic, an exaggerated sign of sadness that makes a mockery of the sentiment, suggesting a connection with Man Ray’s abandonment by his lover Lee Miller in 1932. To Surrealists like Man Ray, the eye was an important symbol of inner vision, a concept central to their philosophy. For the artist, it seems to have had a more personal identification as well, appearing in his assemblages, films, and photographs.»

(Extracted from J. Paul Getty Museum)

Consequently, if one wants to answer to questions of interpretive nature, such as ‘what does this photograph imply?’ or ‘what does it mean?’ and so on, it is necessary to agree upon the fundamental assumption that photography encapsulates multiple meanings, deeper than those depicted on the surface. On this basis, critics can implement a variety of analytical tools depending on the different perspectives under which a photographic work can be approached and which will be discussed in the next “The Art of Seeing” article.

(To be continued)


References


Barrett, T. (2000). Criticizing Photographs: An Introduction to Understanding Images. California: Mayfield Publishing Company.


Goodman N. (1981). Lanuages of art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols. Harvester.


J. Paul Getty Museum (n.d.). Exploring Photographs. 'Tears', Man Ray. Retrieved from http://www.getty.edu/education/teachers/classroom_resources/curricula/exploring_photographs/ib.html


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