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.