Page 27 of the course notes references ‘Another way of telling’ by John Berger and Jean Mohr and specifically the concept of discontinuity – the idea that a photograph cannot convey the experience of the event depicted and that this makes the photograph inherently ambiguous:
“Every photograph presents us with two messages: a message concerning the event photographed and another concerning the shock of discontinuity.” (Berger and Mohr, 1982: 89)
Discontinuity is the abyss between the moment recorded and the moment of looking.
Ambiguity is not an inherent feature of a photograph, for example, photographic evidence is less ambiguous than an eye witness account. Ambiguity arises from discontinuity.
The difference between photographs and memories is that memories are residues of continuous experience whereas photographs isolate the appearances of a disconnected instant.
Arriving at meaning is not instantaneous (as also in life) but a response to both the known and unknown – facts do not equal meaning, and giving meaning to an event is a response to both the known and unknown:
“Certainty may be instantaneous; doubt requires duration; meaning is born of the two.” (Berger and Mohr, 1982: 91)
Because photographs are weak in intentionality, a dramatic photograph can be as ambiguous as an undramatic one, a caption is required to understand the significance. The effect of discontinuity is not always obvious – combined with words photographs can produce an effect of certainty:
“In the relation between a photograph and words the photograph begs for an interpretation, and the words usually supply it….The photograph, irrefutable as evidence but weak in meaning is given meaning by the words” (Berger and Mohr, 1982: 94)
Words are also given authenticity by the irrefutability of the photograph – together they are a powerful, an “open message that appears to have been answered.” (Berger and Mohr, 1982: 94) Despite this, it is ambiguity that makes photography a unique means of expression.
Notes on captions and the relationship between images and text:
Discussing the relationship between photographs and text, Short (2011: 144) posits the question: if a photograph needs text to explain it, is it communicating effectively? This proposition, which on a basic level seems a reasonable assumption, is immediately thrown into doubt with an example from advertising – it can often take months or years to reach the point where an audience can recognise a brand through image alone. Slogans, captions and titles are all used to support the application of context to a picture. If we accept this as true, it follows that a photograph’s power can be increased rather than diminished by the use of text.
Hall (2011: 114) argues that images on their own are often so open to interpretation that they fail to provide a stable meaning for the reader to grasp. The addition of words helps reduce the number of possible readings and aid us in anchoring images.
In ‘Image, Music, Text’ (1977), Barthes sets out a system for reading text/image combinations comprising of three messages:
1. The linguistic message:
This is usually a slogan or caption and requires knowledge of the language employed to be understood. The linguistic message can carry a second order signifier by implication, for example, a brand name can have certain connotations.
2. The coded iconic message:
This is a symbolic message which works on the level of connotation and requires the reader to apply their knowledge of the systematic coding of the image. For example, a bowl of fruit can imply still life, freshness or market stalls.
3. The non-coded iconic message:
For example, a photograph, which Barthes (1977: 36) describes as a “message without a code” meaning we read the medium as itself: a photograph. This works on the level of denotation.
Barthes describes text on an image as a parasitic message that is designed to quicken the reading with additional signifieds and can be a powerful way of altering or fixing the meaning of an image. There are two possible functions: anchorage or relay. Anchorage directs the reader through a number of possible readings of an image using a floating chain of signifiers which the reader can choose to ignore or apply. On a connoted image (the coded iconic message) this helps the reader interpret the signifiers they are presented with. On a denoted image (the non-coded iconic message) text aids recognition – the reader is ‘remote controlled’ to a meaning, often ideological in purpose, that has been chosen in advance. Relay is much less common and works in a complimentary way, advancing meanings that are not found in the images themselves. For example, dialogue in a film. (Crow, 2010: 73-4)
Make a selection of up to five photographs from your personal or family collection. They can be as recent or old as you wish. The only requirement is that they depict events that are relevant to you on a personal level and couldn’t belong to anyone else.
Using the OCA forums, ask the learning communities to provide short captions or explanations for your photographs.
Arriving at this exercise coincided with my Dad’s 60th birthday and as part of the planning for his surprise party, I collated some old photographs to print to decorate the room. I am not aware of seeing any of these photographs before and decided to use them for this exercise as I was interested in how these snapshots would be read by fellow students unaware of this context. The only criteria I placed on myself was to choose a selection of time frames, my choices were made by instinct and based on something catching my attention and interest in each of the pictures. I posted to the OCA documentary study group and sent an email to students I kept in contact with from my previous course UVC, responses are detailed next to the images followed by my own thoughts:
Doug: Fun Together
Melinda: A predictable male pose
Maurice: Having fun with a dino.
Janice: Holiday snap 70s? Sitting on a dinosaur usual boy’s penis humour with girlfriend in the background holding head in OMG typical man type expression.
Christopher: A ‘date’ in a theme park.
Bryn: New exercise. The Tri(ceratops) press.
Anne: Whatever will he do next. This is obviously a fairground attraction, either that or an early go of merging images, crossing an elephant with a rhino.
Madalina: Perspective points.
Me: I think this may be a picture of my parents on their honeymoon, but I am not sure. Interesting that all of the ladies pick up on the school boy humour suggested by the pose as this was my reason for choosing.
Doug: Beach outing
Melinda: Before health and safety
Maurice: Boy on a swing on a beach
Janice: family seaside break…usual jumper day at the beach and smiling for the camera.
Christopher: Playing on the swings at the beach.
Bryn: Pre-risk assessment playgrounds.
Anne: Fun at the seaside – typical British summer holiday weather with everyone in sweaters and coats.
Madalina: How high are your thoughts?
Me: Janice and Anne both hit on my reason for inclusion – the typical ‘British Beach’ holiday snap – woolly jumpers and all. The swing in the background that is going impossibly (and dangerously) high is what caught my imagination along with the way it seems to be coming out of my dad’s head. Melinda and Bryn both note the danger involved that would not be allowed today.
Doug: Brother and sister
Melinda: Flat cap smokers, cowboy and parrot.
Maurice: Boy holding a parrot poses with his sister.
Janice: Again family snapshot – a day out and typical pose with an animal prop…1960s?
Christopher: Another family day out. I suspect the parrot may be real, as it looks like someone outside the frame is holding the boy’s arm to keep his arm steady.
Bryn: John’s Parrott.
Anne: This one had me wondering. It looks like a train in the background and lots of people milling around, maybe going somewhere. Are they really taking Polly along for the ride?
Madalina: Fragments of a conversation.
Me: This is my dad and aunt, as identified by Doug. Everyone else notes the parrot – I remember posing myself with exotic animals as a young child – something that commonly happened on day trips, and now does not due to changing attitudes toward animal welfare. The smoking man with the flat cap in the background also caught my attention as this has become a clichéd symbol of North-East working class culture.
Melinda: Toblerone carnage
Maurice: Falling asleep after a drink and eating chocolates (a lullaby on the headphones?)
Janice: Stuffed and maybe too much to drink after the Christmas dinner, enjoying latest present.
Christopher: This looks like the obligatory Christmas day afternoon; tired after a big dinner, and munching on the obligatory Toblerone, listening to his new music player. Christmas cards adorn the back wall.
Bryn: Young Jim Royale.
Anne: Too much Toblerone, Christmas dinner and wine and I don’t support he is trying to catch the Queen’s speech on the radio!
Madalina: There is something magic in the air.
Me: I had many similar pictures of Christmas day to choose from, crashed out after the festivities and indulgences of the day is something that I am sure is typical of many homes. I particularly like Melinda’s ‘Toblerone carnage’!
Doug: Happy 60th
Melinda: My explanation for this one is less Tag line/ click bait as I like the action in this. the two people on the right-hand side are smiling at each other so a connection between two people has been captured and is noticeable. The two people on the left are in a relationship of sorts where one is explaining something for all to hear while the other is standing in support showing everyone that he is listening. The image is of something that is kept secret from us, the viewer is left to imagine what is going on at this event other than the generalizing term of 6oth party.
Maurice: Announcement of the band at someone’s 60th birthday.
Janice: Family/friend 60th birthday, band taking a break whilst the birthday boy is wished a happy day?
Christopher: The banner at the bottom of the frame suggests a 60th birthday party. The band looks professional and well equipped, so it was likely an expensive bash!
Anne: Happy birthday to …..
Madalina: Silent night.
Me: This was the party itself with my dad thanking everyone for coming which everyone identifies in one way or another.
The different approaches here are interesting in themselves with some respondents taking the approach of describing what they see and speculating on what is happening and others taking the more direct approach of trying to come up with punchy captions. (When I have completed this exercise for other students I am firmly in the short caption category.) I was surprised that at least one respondent hit on my reasons for choosing the image in their comments but also that no one mentioned this was my dad in each picture. Although I can see he looks quite different in each shot (particularly the early photographs) to me they are obviously the same person. Clearly, it is the added context that allows me to identify my dad in each image, despite this, I am surprised no one managed to make the connection.
I approached this exercise with scepticism about the reasons we are asked to complete it – having answered requests from other students myself (and having struggled) I knew the lack of context would make reading the images difficult of not impossible. Clearly, the point was to show how text can alter how an image is read and how difficult it can be to make an accurate reading of photographs with no background information to go on. In practice however, I found myself considering the relationship between image and text more fully which led to revisiting some of Barthes thoughts about the subject. When I began studying photography I was firmly in the belief that pictures should stand on their own merits and no rely on text to be understood. As my knowledge has progressed however this has changed and there are many instances where words and images have enriched photographs. This is a subject in itself for further study – an immediate brainstorm of photographers that have deliberately played on notions of how the reading of photographs can be both reinforced and challenged through text that inspire me: Lorna Simpson, Five day forecast (1991), Jim Goldberg, Tom Hunter, Gillian Wearing.
Barthes, R. (1977) Image, Music, Text, London: Fontana Press.
Berger, J. and Mohr, J. (1982). Another way of telling. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Crow, D. (2010) Visible signs: An introduction to semiotics in the visual arts (2nd edition) Lausanne: AVA Publishing SA.
Hall, S (2011) This Means This This Means That: A User’s Guide to Semiotics (Second Edition) London: Lawrence King
Short, M. (2011) Basics creative photography 02: Context and narrative. Lausanne, Switzerland: AVA Publishing SA.