Project and Exercise 5.6: Context and Meaning

Project – Beyond the gallery: site as context

There is a YouTube video –  ‘Artist’s insight: Jorma Puranen|Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present |National Gallery ‘ (3 Dec 2012). where Puranen gives his perspective on Franciso de Goy’s portrait, ‘The Duke of Wellington’. He says his work is based on thinking of past and present and somehow the juxtaposition of past and present concerns. He has photographed paintings in Museums for many years. He tries to create some kind of living context to reconsider the lives of the people in the portraits. And also considers the biography of the painting (like the cracks in the paint).  In effect he approaches the painted portrait as if the living person was in front of him. You have to remember what the lighting would have been like in their day , e.g. no electricity in the living room so you have to learn to look at the paintings when it’s dim, and when there is almost no light – they speak to you in a different way in the darkness and that’s the way the people come alive to you. He hopes that in his photographs of the paintings the people ‘somehow hover between beyond and behind the material layers of the very painting itself.

In his work Imaginary Homecoming (1999), Puranen takes this approach steps further with Lapp portraits photographed on glass negatives by G. Roche when he was employed as photographer on an expedition to Lapland in 1884. Puranen came across these photographs in the archives of the Musee de l”homme in Paris.  Puranen found that he new people whose ancestors appeared in those photographs and he decided to create an imaginary homecoming of the portraits and return them to their original landscape.  He re-photographed the portraits, printed them on film; attached these transparencies to acrylic sheets and transformed them into a fell landscape photographic installation.

I think this work is wonderful and a perfect way to exhibit such portraits.

Exercise 5.6 Context and meaning

 In the past I have ‘installed’ photographs for a day in the place where I took them –  see here  .  So far as my current Assignment 5 is concerned, though I’m not entirely sure that the Sandpit would be good place to exhibit them.  Depending on the weather conditions they could be strung between the trees that border the Sandpit or maybe somewhere in the car park.  The Wetlands area of Horsell Common now has a café with outdoor seating if the weather was good there could possibly be room for a display stand.  I’m trying to think now of the wall space inside the café.  To complete this exercise properly I’ll have to go back and look at the spaces again before I draw a diagram.

John Walker (2009) Context as a Determinant of Photographic Meaning

Notes (my reflections in blue)

Reading the first paragraph reminded me of the discussion we had at the January OCA Thames Valley Group meeting see here  where we did discuss how the context of a print – whether framed or not – will also be changed by where and how it’s placed and this also links with the previous exercises looking at differences between exhibiting in a gallery and in an online Exhibition.  Jorma Puranen’s siting of the Lapp photographs in their original landscape also changed their meaning from that of interesting photographs in an archive to ‘these are the people who used to live here; think about them and their lives”.  (A montage relationship)

‘No figure can be perceived except in relation to a ground’ (Gestalt)

The actual context needs to be made clear – a different gestalt is created according to this and relative aspects of the photograph. I like the example of commuters crowding and sheep crowding.  Also reminded me of Mark Tansey’s ‘The Innocent Eye Test” (1981).

Movement of paintings and sculptures from original location lost their connection with it.  Effect of mechanical reproducibility of photographs appearing all over the place. Does this lessen the importance of architectural or physical display context?  Walker thinks it does but I’m not so sure. Changing the meaning is different from changing the importance of something. It depends on the context.

There is a need to examine the life of an image as well as its birth; consideration too of circulation and currency (term borrowed from John Tagg). Example of Jo Spence and series of photographs depicting her from age of eight-and-a-half months to her forties exhibited at the Hayward Gallery. Already seen by Walker previously in two different contexts – public library and femininist magazine. Shock value for different reasons in both contexts. Spence also talked of the effect on her family. By including conventionally unflattering photographs of herself in the family album, Spence undermined the norms of perception induced by such albums. Also enabled her to make visible the stereotyping of women within various photography genres, particularly in representations of women according to a work/leisure division and also the use of private images used by advertisers. (see here)

Different aspects highlighted according to the context – public library private/public; Hayward Gallery critical work upon photography.  NB display context only one amongst many, plus Spence’s work was self-reflexive and had a didactic aim. To judge how this worked we need to know more about motivations of visitors to art galleries and a survey of visitors would hep to establish a typology of responses. NB two-way influence though between meaning of a photograph and meaning of context  (I’m thinking here of Anna Goodchild’s Exhibition last year in Plymouth – her work was about redemption whereas the Exhibition space was in what used to be the cells in Devonport Guildhall, which were about punishment and containment, see here 

Mental context or set:-  the ‘beholder’s share’ (Ernst Gombrich).  A viewer is not a blank slate. Examples given. (very interesting point in terms of documentary and how the photographer can stress different aspects of people – touch/weak,pathetic.)  Stress how?  Posture, clothes, stance. However, a lot of experience is shared within social groupings, ‘pictorial stereotypes do not merely exist externally in the world of the mass media, they inhabit us.’

One image amongst many – how to judge its effect? Can affirm/reinforce existing dominant conceptions until social context changes dramatically as in a revolution, e.g. smashing of icons and power in Paris during 1871 Commune and, more recently, guerrilla campaign of the women’s movement against sexist advertising – ‘this example reminds us that although our freedom to decode or read images is highly restricted – the structure of the ‘text’ structures the way we experience it – we can still make an oppositional response. Example from 1933 statue in Poland. Context so often lies outside control of artists, e.g. re mental context, work is usually produced with specific audiences in mind or adapted to suit local circumstances.

NB original article 1980? Reprinted in The Camerawork Essays: Context and Meaning in Photography, ed Jessica Evans (London:Rivers Oram Press, 1997) pp. 52-63. Prefaced by an introduction: notes as follows.

Re argument that because an image can have so many meanings it must be meaningless – denies the fact that consensuses are reached regarding the denotation and implied/intended meanings of images; also undermines the educational process by making the lecturer’s efforts to discuss photography and meaning vacuous. (reminded me here of ‘the man in the street’).

Re ‘mental effect’ (taking into account variability of viewers) expanding branch of criticism and history-writing ‘reception aesthetics/history/theory’. – emphasis from cultural production to cultural consumption, from ‘authors’ to ‘readers’ (Roland Barthes and 1968 ‘the Death of the author’ had been translated to English in 1977). Reception theory   – ideal reader implied by a text or work of art, while reception history tends to be concerned with actual readers and readings that have taken place over time.

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3 thoughts on “Project and Exercise 5.6: Context and Meaning

  1. Judy Bach

    Puranen’s work is just wonderful, again another artist I’ve never seen before.
    Re ‘the life of an image’ I find it fascinating to consider just how many contexts a single photograph can have over time & certainly where they are exhibited or displayed informs our understanding of them.

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  2. Pingback: Exercise 5.7 – Project: Artist’s Statement | Portraying Landscape

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