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Tuesday, May 19, 2020

A Question

In this longer form thing I am allegedly working on, a question has arisen. I have devised three general notions of "reading" a photograph, three scenarios as it were in which one might look at a photograph to assign some sort of meaning to it. The question is: Do these things already have names? And, related, are there similar categories (perhaps with names) that are more worked out, or better in some way?

They are:
1. What a single person sees in the picture. The normal "reading."
2. An attempt to work out what was actually there, the ground truth.
3. An attempt to work out what the breadth of possibility for the first sort of reading is.

The first one is just what happens when a normal person walks to a picture, or is handed a picture, and without thinking much about it looks at the photo. The second one is allied to the first, but focuses on the real things in front of the lens, without much attention to "what it all means" and more attention paid to literal truth. The last one is what a serious person, like, say, me, might do, trying to work out what different perfectly normal people might make of the thing, and trying to assemble something like a coherent idea of what the possibilities are.

The last one is as much about people as it is about the photo.

I call the first one personal, the second one forensic, and the third critical, which I suppose might clarify what I mean?


  1. What about analyzing the emotion or feeling the picture evokes? Could that be number four? The other three ara rather ”analytic”.

  2. Understanding how written documents get read has a long history of thoughtful reflection and speculation. Reading, as this process is called, is also a powerful metaphor for more general forms perception and cognition. Thus we speak, for example, of reading the weather, reading the market trends, or, indeed, reading photographs.

    All forms of reading are processes that happen over an extended period of time. How these processes actually evolve over time. How they work is, I believe, the key issue to understand.

    In this context, the way you've phrased your three "scenarios" bothers me a bit.

    I have little trouble with the first and third of these three, save for calling the first one "normal" rather than, say, "cursory." The first and third are strongly linked together, since the third is the study of the first.

    The second one bothers me more, especially if these are the only three meanings of "reading" that you plan to consider. Just as "normal" in the first one worried me, "the ground truth" in the second one particularly caught my eye.

    When a viewer of my photographs asks me "what is actually there," I often answer that it's a photograph, a flat piece of paper with colored ink on it (or, equivalently, colored spots on a flat screen.) That IS what he is looking at! THAT is the ground truth! The referential question is his to examine and then evaluate (or not, if he so chooses.)

    "Serious people" may well be those who invest their time merely to study ("read") the photograph themselves and take away from it whatever THEY got from it. They may not be interested in the "critical" effectiveness of the image on other "different perfectly normal people." That's the work of scholars, and they need not be such to simple benefit from reading the photograph.

    Enough for now. I'll be interested to read your further thoughts on this.

    1. Your remark about "Serious People" looking closely to see what they themselves take from the picture is interesting to me, because I count that a "personal" reading. Serious people like that would be interested in what the photograph means to them, not to someone else.

      These "personal" readings can be cursory or deep, the thing that makes them personal is that you're not making any special effort to walk in another person's shoes.

      I break out the "forensic" case because it often gets muddled up with a critical read. "Criticism" often seems to come out to a "personal" read with a half hearted feint at a "forensic" read to give a kind of gloss of serious study.

      Or, to think of it differently, "forensic" is a way to de-personalize a read, to render it larger then "what I see here" but without stepping in to another's shoes. You can muck about pointing out details, or working how how far those two people are apart, and what he's holding in his hand, and what time of day it was.

      I do a lot of this kind of thing too.

      But, I am myself largely interested in what other people might think of a photo, which is probably why I elevate that kind of study to "critical" and leave everything else as some sort of lesser hacking around. Which is thoroughly unfair of me, I suppose.