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The Art of Seeing  #03

Terry Barrett’s approach on photography criticism - Part 3:

Different perspectives in interpretation

(για ελληνικά πατήστε εδώ)

As we have already mentioned in a previous article, a work of art, in particular a photograph, is not subject to one interpretation only. Critics interpret works of art through many different perspectives. As a result, fοr the same work of art one might adopt a comparative analysis, a feminist, Marxist, archetypal, psychoanalytical, formalistic, semantic, etc, using the analytical tools and principles of the particular approach.

To make the aforementioned distinction clearer, we shall mention the example of some interpretations which Barrett uses regarding a series of photographs by Harry Callahan, the main subject of which is his wife Eleanor.

From a comparative analysis viewpoint, Szarkowski (1973) observes that Callahan differentiates himself from other photographers in the way he works through personal experience. He maintains that while most photographers attempt to reach universal truths and statements starting from the individual and the specific, Callahan:

Harry Callahan, ‘Eleanor, Port Huron', 1954

Harry Callahan, ‘Eleanor, Port Huron', 1954 (MoΜΑ collection)

“…draws us ever more insistently inward toward the center of Callahan's private sensibility. This sensibility is expressed in his perception of subject matter that is remarkably personal and restricted in its range… …The point is not merely that Callahan has responded faithfully as a photographer to the quality of his own life, or merely, even, that photography has been his method of focusing the meaning of that life. The point is that for Harry Callahan photography has been a way of living - his way of meeting and making peace with the day…”

On the other hand, Jonathan Green (1984) tries to establish an archetypal basis for his interpretation. In the light of the above, in Eleanor’s depictions he recognizes the elevation of the female nature to an impersonal, global, mythical, and archetypal οrder of things. More specifically, prompted by one of Eleanor’s photos, in which she is emerging from water, he notes in a most characteristic way:

Harry Callahan, ‘Eleanor, Chicago’, 1949

Harry Callahan, ‘Eleanor, Chicago’, 1949 (MoΜΑ collection)

“…We experience the fons et origo of all the possibilities of existence. Eleanor becomes the Heliopolitan goddess rising from the primordial ocean and the Terra Mater emerging from the sea: the embodiment and vehicle of all births and creations. Over and over again, Callahan sees Eleanor in the context of creation: she has become for him the elemental condition of existence, she is essential womanhood, a force rather than an embodiment, an energy rather than a substance. As such she appears cold and inaccessible, beyond the human passions of lust or grief. She is the word made flesh*....”

At this point, we could observe that the two different interpretations of Callahan’s photographs may be using different perspectives, but at the same time substantiate and establish their analysis on different bases. Szarkowski’s justification is based on information from the causal environment of the photograph, (on the fact that Callahan he photographed his wife with devotion for years) while Green is based on evidence from the photographic work itself, focusing on his conclusion concerning the optical metaphors of the depictions.

In another example of Barret we can taste a formalistic approach of interpretation. In this example Kathleen McCarthy Gauss (1985) comments on the photograph of Richard Misrach, ‘Santa Fe’ :

Richard Misrach, Santa Fe

Richard Misrach, ‘Santa Fe’, 1982

“…a unique configuration of space, light, and events… A highly formalized balance is established between the nubby ground and smooth, blue sky, both neatly cordoned off along the horizon by red and white boxcars. The most reductive, minimal composition is captured. The train rolls along just perceptibly below the horizon, bisecting the frame into two horizontal registers. Yet, this is another illusion, for the train is in fact standing…”

In a similar way, we can observe the different perspectives through which an interpreter can approach the same photograph, depending on the analytical tool he chooses. But if there are many different interpretations for the same work of art, then which is the most suitable to convey its meaning? We will continue upon these last thoughts in the next ‘The Art of Seeing’ article…

(To be continued)

Gerasimos Lountzis


* Reference to the divine nature of Christ. (John 1:14, «...The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us...»)

** Translated from greek by Adamantia Zafiropoulou


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

Green, J. (1984). American photography: a critical history 1945 to the present. New York: H.N. Abrams

McCarthy-Gauss, K. (1985). New American photography. Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Naef, W. J. (1978). The Art of Seeing: Photographs from the Alfred Stieglitz Collection. (W. J. Naef, Ed.) (1st ed.). Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Szarkowski, J. (1973). Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art. New York: MoMA.


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