Saturday, April 3, 2021

The Polysemy of Photographs

I've been continuing to putter around reading Barthes and "polysemic" is my new favorite word.

When we look at a painting, or other constructed art, we see it as a fiction. Perhaps a fiction based on a true story, but a fiction. Because we accept it as a fiction, we accept that it has many meanings. A fiction is unmoored, subject to interpretation. When we look at a photograph, we see it as a truth. Not the whole truth, not every truth, but as a truth. We know, everyone knows, that there was a true thing there, a singular ground truth which the camera partially recorded.

When we attempt to understand a photograph, in the end we are basing our efforts on an attempt to read the ground truth, the singular ground truth. We seek to fill in, to guess, to extrapolate, the single truth that was actually present at the moment of exposure. We might do more, but this is where we start, because we know there was a truth, and we know that the photograph is moored on that truth, and that truth is therefore what we start with.

Paradoxically, this increases rather than decreases the actual polysemy of a photograph. Because we are seeking to flesh out a truthful scene around the slender visual information of the photograph, we bring our own experiences, our own lives, our own prejudices to bear. Looking at a painting, we attempt to work out what the painter meant, and we probably read the blurb on the wall, or in the catalog, or we remember what someone said about the painter. These things we share with everyone around us. We bring little of ourselves to bear on the problem of "what is this painting about? What does it mean?" and yet we bring almost nothing but ourselves to bear on the same problem for a photograph.

At the same time, though a sophisticate denies it, we believe implicitly in only a single meaning for a photograph while we allow a painting to have many.

We have, after all, constructed a ground truth for the photo. We know that a truth exists, existed, and we have developed a theory of that singular truth, and this is all there is to it.

It takes an effort of will to allow that other readings, other understandings, of the picture might also exist, and might have equal force to our own. We know the truth, we see it with out own eyes, it is right there, obvious to all.

What we feel so definitely about photographs is precisely the opposite of what in fact obtains.

In reality, a photograph is more generous, admits more breadth of reading, of meaning, than does a painting; yet at the same time, we cling more tenaciously to our singular reading of it.


  1. Only a really, really good painting can hold 'many' meanings. The dumber the art, the fewer the meanings, all the way down to 'none.' This also applies to photos.

    1. It's possible you've got a higher-brow notion of "meaning" here. I just intend something roughly like what a bloke takes away from the thing after looking at it for a bit.

      A really bad painting where you can't tell if it's a sheep or a lion might offer up multiple meanings in this sense purely on whether you fall in the "sheep" camp or the "lion" camp.

      But what I really intend here is more like this:

      Confronted with a portrait of Napoleon, people will generally think "well, the painter was trying to make him look grand, wasn't he?" and then maybe some thoughts about how well that worked out. Most everyone's going to go "painter was trying for grand" straight off, though.

      Confronted with a photo of Trump, we don't even think of the photographer, but we drop instantly into two camps "Trump is such a shit" or "Trump is muh hero" and then we'll circle back around to "... and you can see it in the photo" and then we'll die on whichever hill we picked.

    2. 'Meaning' in art (and photography, in some use cases) can operate on several levels, depending on the viewer:

      At its most literal, it is subject-driven, the 'thing' (art object, photograph) represents a chair, a cat, a plant pot. That was clearly the intention of the artist/photographer: to represent the subject as more or less recognizable to everyone.

      Although 'everyone' (many/most viewers, the average bloke) may find this agreeable, and their prefered form of 'art' -- an art with a rock-bottom, bare minimum of 'meaning.' Art that wouldn't look out of place in a motel or board room.

      The artist/maker may have added this or that bit of styling and design to the presentation, well within the accepted canon, that may be brushed-off as pandering to fashion, with little to no added meaning or at least, originality, the kind that makes us think.

      So what, for example, is the intention when the subject is unclear? That introduces viewer speculation, another kind of meaning. At least the viewer is thinking about it.

      Many/most viewers, the average bloke, turn away from this intolerable imposition.

      For this type of art to succeed, it must engage the interest of the viewer on another, non-literal, subliminal level.

      It has secrets in a secret code. The viewer will have to return to it for several viewings (at least), to begin to unlock its secrets as they relate to the viewer's own world-view, that may/not include any comprehension whatever of the artist's world-view (though that would be a good starting point).

      Here the whole conceptual edifice depends on the artist's ability to communicate *meaning(s)* on some human-relatable level. A great many meanings may be folded in: religious, political, aesthetic (beauty/ugliness).

      This is one way really good art may be defined, and what it must do.

      Boring art and stupid art, no matter the sale-at-auction price, or the number of letters trailing the artist's name, can get by without just fine, thank you very much.

  2. "'The Things You Find in the Forest' is a half-formed collection of images that's not got any real direction." -- A.D.

    Sounds promising!

    1. Any came out of an MFA program the purpose of which (as with so much of the Academic Art World) appears to be to qualify you as a mark who's probably good for another touch.

      The graduates are not an impressive group.