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Saturday, May 23, 2020


Further to my question on the readings of photographs.

Suppose we are shown a photograph of an open field, a few trees around the edges. In the sky is a blurry oblong blob. The person holding the photograph out to us excitedly claims that it's a picture of an alien space craft.

Most likely, we don't believe that the blob is an alien space craft, we suspect in fact that it is a pie tin being waved around a bit.

At this moment there are two of what I called personal readings in play. The first is this is a picture of an alien spacecraft and the second is this is a picture of a pie plate. The separation of these two readings appears on first consideration to depend mainly on whether one is, or is not, a lunatic. This isn't quite right. The two readings differ for very specific reasons, which have almost nothing to do with the actual existence of alien spacecraft.

If you believe in UFOs, you may well read the photo as evidence of alien spacecraft in the skies above our planet. If you do not believe in UFOs, you will see a probable pie plate. Note that this has nothing to do with alien spacecraft, it has to do with what you believe. This is about you, not about UFOs.

Again, we don't think it's a pie tin because there's no such thing as aliens, we think it's a pie plate because we don't believe in aliens.

A critical reading acknowledges both positions, and recognizes that one belief system will produce one reading, and another, another.

A forensic reading in my parlance seeks not to understand what anyone might think, but rather to work out what the hell the object actually was.

All three of these things can be as deep or as cursory as you like.


  1. All true, but you need to make allowance for the "negative capability" (Keats) of an aesthetic reading, which sets aside truth value and asks, is this a satisfying picture? (I can imagine this imaginary UFO photo turning up in a collection of "found" photos, for example, or as one of Ruth Thorne-Thomsen's pinhole constructs).

    Mayb that's your 4th category?


    1. Mike C. I think this is part of what Andrew is calling critical reading. It's the challenge of figuring out how the thing may be seen by various people, based on what we know about society and our times, and based on how we feel about photos as aesthetic things. Whew.

    2. I've never been able to make any real *sense* out of aesthetic readings. I mean, I feel it, "that's nice, that's pretty, that's not-pretty" and so on, but where that arises I don't know.

      Do we think the picture of the rose is pretty, satisfying, whatever, because we know what roses look like and we like roses? What about a abstract pattern of light? The photograph especially entangles the aesthetics of reality with the aesthetics of a made piece of visual art, and I don't know how either one of those works other than observing my own reaction.

      If I say "that's pretty" is that a personal reading? Or a statement about roses? If I say "I think other people will think it's pretty" is that a critical reading, or just the same statement about roses?

      Perhaps it's forensic "that's a pretty rose" because the ground truth of the picture is that it contains a rose, a rose that everyone would find pretty.

      It's a muddle. But, probably a good muddle.

      I suspect that being unable to sort out aesthetics places me in good company.

  2. "Reading" Mike C's comment above, I believe that my prior longish comment to "A Question" did in fact intend to address Mike's "aesthetic reading, which sets aside truth value and asks, is this a satisfying picture?" I, too, would suggest that this might well be a viable and important 4th "reading" category to consider.


  3. Maybe reading a photograph - receiving and interpreting the information it offers - is a bit like asking a question, because in order to ask a question you must already know most of the answer. Perhaps it's like that with the alien tin - all the questions about the field, trees and sky have been answered in the way you expect, they are behaving like all the fields etc you know and love. But you don't have ready-made understanding of the silvery thing. You can't project your knowledge onto it easily so it remains an anomaly, unless you've already formed a view about such objects.

    " This is about you, not about UFOs." Yes, I think every photograph is about you. Me, rather. The questions I ask of a picture are largely formed by what I already know - or think I know.

  4. As a person who knows the photo Andrew is referencing, and who as a kid literally made a “UFO” photo with a pie tin, some thread and a Vivitar 110 camera, there might yet be another category, that of the fake UFO photo that attempts to play off both sides of UFO belief one against the other. Which ends up, I realized only years later, being less about UFOs and more about photography itself.