Chapter 5 Research Point (pp106)

Terry Barrett on Photographs and Contexts

This research point asks students to consider how images, photographs can and are interpreted. Terry Barrett’s helpful articles encourage some very specific considerations to be made.

Firstly the importance of understanding the difference between a photograph and the reality from which it has been taken. He uses the term ‘segments excised’ to describe the moment in time that the photograph is taken.

He makes the point that it is important that students of photography understand the difference between the photograph and the reality from which it has been taken, urging viewers to consider and appreciate, the photographers intent, he suggests:

appreciation of photographs is dependent on recognsizing and understanding a transformation the photographers has made in excising the segment and instant to make it aesthetically noteworthy rather than routine and mundane.”

He is asking us to consider the photographers intent it the image they have made. Not taking this position and simply seeing the photograph as a record of a moment in time he suggests makes the photograph ‘transparent’ and the viewer is left considering the only photograph itself and not the photographers work in making the image.

To assist in this analysis he describes in detail three types of context that assist in understanding an image.

The first is the Internal Context, that which is contained within the frame, the elements that are evident within the picture. This can include the elements of the image, the composition, exposure, angle of view, all the choices the photographer made (or didn’t make) as part of the image making process. Barrett suggests in some images this is enough to interpret the intent. Advertising photographs for example seek to provide enough ton guide the viewer to a conclusion based upon what is contained within the frame.

Additionally Barrett describes the Original Context, the information that informs how the photograph is interpreted. He suggests that some photographs are ‘inscrutable’, that is impossible to understand or interpret without some additional sources of information for outside the photograph itself. Other photographs because of the nature of their content, what is within the frame.

Original Context therefore broadly refers to that which was physically and psychological present at the time the photograph was made. Bloomfield describes this in the EYV course notes as the information about how the picture was made. In an earlier Blog post I refer to this principle when considering the image below by Robert Capa. It becomes much more meaningful when we know that Capa was aboard one of the early lading barges on the beaches ate Normandy on D-Day. I didn’t realise it at the time but my blog post here was describing Barrett’s concept of Original context.


Copyright Cornell Capa

Finally Barrett describes the External Context, referring to the presentational context of the photograph. This creates furthers layers of interpretation. In his extended article on this context in Goldblatt and Brown (1997), he describes how a single image can be widely interpreted and misinterpreted based upon its presentation. Like the earlier 1986 article from Art Education he makes reference to the work of Freund (1980) (pp178) and her commentary and analysis of the image below made by Robert Doisneau.


Copyright Doisneau Estate

The picture of a man and women drinking wine in a cafe, the image appeared in: Le Point, devoted to cafe’s as an exemplary scene of cafe life, but it also, without Doisneau’s permission appeared in a pamphlet about the evils of alcohol. Even later it appeared in a scandal sheet magazine with the caption “Prostitution on the champs elysee”. This was again used without the photographers consent and led to the man in the photograph suing not only the magazine but Doisneau too. The court awarded the man compensation from the magazine and the photo agency but acquitted Doisneau. Barrett (1997) describes this as Category Displacement, that is where new text creates a new meaning and interpretation of an image.

This research point raises huge questions about photographs as information, as works of art and how context can define narrative with or without the consent of the photographer. It challenges the early views that photography offers a truth! I suspect I will explore these themes further if I make it to the OCA Context and Narrative module!


Barrett, T. (1986) Teaching about Photography: Photographs and Contexts, Art Education July 1986 Vol. 39, No. 4, pp33-36

Barrett, T. (1997) Photographs and Contexts in Goldblatt,D. & Brown, L (Eds) (1997) Op CitBurgin, V. (1982) Thinking Photography, Macmillan London

Sekula, A. (1982) On the Invention of Photographic Meaning in Burgin, V. (1982) Op Cit

Goldblatt,D. & Brown, L (Eds) (1997) Aesthetics: A reader in Philosophy of Arts, Prentice Hall, New York

Fruend, G. (1980) Photography and Society, David R. Godine, Boston, Mass.


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