Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Outside In vs. Inside Out

I have developed what I think might be an especially pithy way to say a thing that I think matters.

The meaning of photographs is constructed from the outside in, while the meaning of things like movies is constructed from the inside out.

Nothing here is absolute, though for brevity I will write as if it were. Insert "mostly" and "as a general rule" and "rather more than the opposite" in, basically, everywhere.

The point here is that a novel, or a movie, or even a painting, is constructed as an entire system of bits of meaning. Words combine into sentences which flow one to the next to tell a story. They talk about robbing the bank, and later they rob the bank. Sentences tell us information that causes us to like one character, and dislike another.

A painting of a fellow might show him holding a pen, and the pen is a metaphor for all of France, or whatever.

There are structures of and layers of symbols and signs contained inside these things which, when we examine them, consume them, heavily direct the meaning we make of whatever it is. Meaning is constructed from what we find inside the thing. Meaning is built out of things inside, and flows out.

This isn't quite the same thing as authorial intent. Certainly the author normally tries to build structures that direct the construction of meaning along specific paths. This doesn't always work. Nevertheless, the structures do exist, and do direct meaning. The fact that we wind up liking the villain is beside the point, the point is that the edifice of words that makes up the novel directed our understanding along a path that led to us liking the villain.

It is in this context that "gaze" (for example) means something, but also ideas like "narrative." Both of these are properties of the structures of signs that generate the meaning inside-to-out.

Attempting to translate ideas from cinema, from novels, even from painting, runs afoul of this problem:

That's not how photographs work.

The photograph, taken as a naked object, has no structure of signs, no layering of nuggets of meaning that direct our construction of meaning. It just sits there, mutely testifying to what was in front of the lens.

The cinematic meaning of "gaze" gets no purchase here, there is no structure of signs to describe, not a priori. Hence, "gaze" mainly just means the photographer's gender.

We make meaning of the photograph out of the material we bring to it, out of the material that surrounds it. The meaning is constructed from the outside, and applied to the contents of the frame. Meaning is built outside, and flows inward.

You could argue that a novel, or movie, or a painting, has cultural meaning, social meaning, whether we read it, watch it, look at it, or not. A photograph doesn't. We have to look at it before it means. Something something analogy with quantum something.

A photobook, you might think, is maybe more like a novel? There is, after all, structure, right?

The trouble here is that the structure is not a structure of signs, of nuggets of meaning. It's a structure of these higher-order, or anyways different, objects. These things which are themselves mute, which each demand reading in order to mean. The photobook is an exterior supplying meaning to photographs, far far more than a novel is an exterior supplying meaning to words and sentences.

The photobook intercedes between the world, between us, and the individual pictures. It's an intermediate layer and as such is part of that outside from which we make the meaning of the pictures.

It is as if a movie's script was somehow exterior to the film itself, as if we had to pass through the script to a mute, meaning-free collection (somehow) of footage, to which we then applied meaning. It is as if the plot of the novel was outside the book itself, and told us how to make sense of each of the words on the page.

I am not convinced, in short, that the current program of making sense of photographs and photobooks in terms of things like movies is a very good one. I don't think any of this shit works like that.


  1. Not THAT Ross CameronFebruary 23, 2021 at 10:28 PM

    Wow- I like me a good pithy statement.
    I like this one a lot. There’s a fair bit to mentally ruminate over with this - will come back to it later. Brain is seized up after a full day at work - still mentally defragging on my commute home.

  2. "The photograph, taken as a naked object, has no structure of signs, no layering of nuggets of meaning that direct our construction of meaning."

    The "meaning" of a photograph is that it is a two-dimensional, optical translation of an instantaneous (more or less) slice of reality, somewhere, sometime.

    This is something everyone gifted with sight, and a modicum of intelligence, from very young children on up, comprehends as the meaning of a photograph that ... we all can agree on.

    There can be other meanings, more nuanced, subjective, and all too often completely crazy-assed, superimposed on that base, agreed-upon meaning by assorted artistic types and tail-chasing academic riff-raff (be forewarned: this will be the title of my forthcoming Photography PhD thesis, once I have sourced a dirt cheap, mail-order diploma mill).

    I think the other meanings are what you refer to as "meaning."

    Gotta say I'm more in agreement with Tony Fouhse, quoting his recent Mailchimp: "when an artist explains to me what they’ve done or are going to do, I usually tell 'em I don't need no explanations. Just show me the result. Or not."

    Yay Tony.