Does a photograph have to "be about something" to be valid?

This photograph is currently without context or validity. Or even a caption. But I like the way it looks because it speaks to me of quiet isolation and melancholy. In fact, it was a quiet moment in a light hearted shoot. Context is a capricious bitch.

I recently posted an image of an older man, surrounded by other people, at the Vatican in Rome. The photograph is part of a disconnected series of images I took in and around the front of the building on a rainy day. I don't know who the man is or why he was there. I just liked the look and feel of the moment and decided to take the photograph. In retrospect I could supply all kinds of pseudo-psychological rationales for taking and printing that particular shot. But I doubt that any of the reasons that I can think up now would have been in play at the time.

I posted the image in part to thank a reader for some kind comments he made earlier on his own blog.  I didn't think anything more about the photo or the blog entry until I reviewed a comment left by Kenneth Tanaka who called into question the value of posting a photograph cast adrift from any sort of context.  Here's exactly what he asked:

This is an excellent example of a competently-captured photograph that becomes lost without context. Who is this man? Who are the faceless people greeting him? Why is the reported location significant? It's Exhibit A in the thesis that photographs, in fact, do not really tell stories in the absence of language or richer context. Eh?

While I'm fairly sure that Kenneth's question was genuine I was a bit taken aback. I don't mind a serious critique of any image but it seemed as though he was saying that a photograph must have some sort of context in order to be valid or to have a reason for its existence.  In short, that all images must be contextual, informed and substantiated in order to have any relevance whatsoever to the engaged practice of photography.

In my mind one of the traditions of photography, and especially street or documentary photography is about capturing life in the moment and sharing it. We make images of things that ping our subconscious and try to share the jolt or micro jolt of curiosity that caused us to point our lens at a stranger and make the photograph in the first place.

Ken implies, by way of his question and a later follow up comment, that without a overarching context, and perhaps the support of other faces turned toward camera that images like the one in question "do not really tell stories in the absence of language or richer context." His statement seems to imply that images without context have no value or ability to connect with viewers.

I'm still trying to process exactly what Kenneth's rhetorical intentions are and in the process I went to a site he's produced of his own photographs and read his own manifesto/statement of support for his own work.  It goes like this:

"I am most interested in the challenge of discovering and capturing the ephemeral beauty, incongruities, discontinuities, ambiguities, and humor in the everyday world. This, to me, is what the determined, observant and patient camera is uniquely able to do. "

(I added the bold type face for emphasis--Kirk)

And here is a random sample of his work from his site:

Kenneth Tanaka: One Moments

©Kenneth Tanaka

I guess what I am trying to come to grips with is just what is different, contextually, between the image I put in the original post and many of the images that Kenneth has shared.  And, in a larger sense, whether all images without written stories or journalistic captions, and without instantly recognizable celebrities are less valuable and less accessible without some context.

In many ways the history of photography as art is the history of discarded or non-existent context. The shot of your child may have relevance to you but in the ocean of images on the web it's hardly more than a disconnected document of another human.

To focus solely on the back story of the human face within the map of my entire frame dismisses the other elements of the frame which may have equal relevance to the viewer. In fact, much modern art outside of photography is concerned with tone, shape, color and even the surface topology of the art (minimalist painting?).  Why is it that photography must hew to a higher test that the other arts by making every image dependent on and wedded to its context?

What if, subconsciously, I was drawn to  make the image because I liked the out of focus rendering of the man's hat in the left hand side of the frame, or the repeating pattern of the columns.....?

This is the original image from yesterday's post.


Glenn Harris said...

With only a beautiful face to look at we can create our own context and that, to me, is what makes a great photograph. This image allows me to make the connection I want to: did she just have an argument with her significant other and is pondering her future , or did she just get the check for her coffee at that large chain?

Bold Photography said...

Interesting discussion for me, because I strive to remove the context from most of my photos... it's like listening to a symphony only to strive to hear a single violin...

lsumners said...

I do not think that a photograph needs to have context or a description to have meaning; however, context can add to or change meaning. This can help or in some cases hurt the aesthetic value of the image. Like with poetry it is up to the consumer to determine meaning.

Carlo Santin said...

I really liked that photograph for a variety of reasons. It spoke to me on a couple of different levels, but I didn't post a response to it because I didn't feel the need. The photo reminds me of something, a memory that I have, so I bring my own context to it. I also liked the aesthetic of it, the tones and so forth.

In fact, what we are talking about here is that all art is an interactive process. What the viewer/reader brings to the piece is going to create context. A good piece of art allows for that exchange to happen. The notion that a photograph, or a painting, or a song, must be infused with all sorts of context established by the creator is a silly one. The artist creates with something in mind, something within him/her that needs to be expressed, and the viewer experiences the piece also with elements within him/herself, creating a unique and malleable relationship. What the artist intends is not always what the consumer takes away from it. Art lives a life of its own once the creator is done with it. It exists in the world as a unique living thing, a real tangible force in the world, that has the ability to interact and impact other living things. When a piece of art speaks to me, it is because it is plucking certain strings within me that need to be plucked, that are ready and waiting to be plucked. A good piece of art simply makes that exchange possible.

I don't need to be instructed as to what the context is, certainly not by the artist or in this case, photographer. I can figure that out for myself.

Steve J said...


Since you have the facility to post any photo YOU want to back up your point, I think it is extremely poor form to take a picture at random from his site to support his. It's like putting words in his mouth, something I don't propose to do. I suggest you let him pick his own.

I love portraits, but without context they are mostly just that. Pictures of people. There is nothing other than the subject to engage with, and to me that means the subject themself must be outstanding or they just blend in to all the other faces I see every day. It's just a technical exercise (nice lighting, nice composition). The photo you took could have been taken almost anywhere - Greece, Spain, Rome - why go to Rome to take it?

It's a perfectly valid artform of course, but to engage ME there has to be something other than "nice shot" for me to want to look at it again. Sometimes, this happens when the background is allowed to creep in to the frame. You do those as well, and honestly I find them more interesting, like your friend the restaurant owner.

Reviewing entries for the annual Taylor Wessing Portrait prize shows that in many cases, context is a key element of the shot, either in the story that accompanies the shot or because the person is significant or because of the background. I think possibly this illustrates the concept of context in portraiture (something that existed for centuries) well enough from a neutral source.


I am not going to persue this further because it is really not that important at the end of the day, but I think Ken should be allowed to illustrate his own point if he chooses to do so.

Anonymous said...

Oh for god's sake Kenneth, sometimes a great image is its own justification.

I saw the photo of the man at the Vatican and made my own interpretations about the situation/mood/motivation, which were a lot richer than they may have been if there was a context I needed to understand.

It may be a dumb comparison, but sometimes you can see a person (male or female)in the street who is gorgeous, but you know you might not be able to have an intelligent conversation with them. Doesn't change the pretty sight of them and I don't really care whether they are the world's preeminent brain surgeon or the village idiot. I don't need their story, just the sight to make me feel good.

Kirk, your photo stood on its own strength. I had a whole lot of fun with my version of the story - thanks.

Brad C said...

I think that what makes a good photograph really great is when some of the context is lacking - to the point that you are curious, keep looking further into the image to try to find the context, and create your own story about what is happening in the image. When the image grabs you enough that you start trying to figure out what is going on, what the people are thinking, etc., I think you have a good image on your hands. In today's photo, you can't help but wonder what the subject is thinking about. I say the images are well done, not 'lost' !

A lack of context may be the very thing that marks the point where an image goes from being a simple record of an event to becoming Art.

Anonymous said...

A photograph that requires a caption is an illustration.

Anonymous said...

I don't think there was anything unfair about picking that image from Tanaka's site. I like it. I like the geometry, the care with which he has aligned the different elements so that the three dimensional scene collapses neatly into two dimensions. I like the references to light, construction, and transmission. It's an excellent example of how an image can work on its own, without explicit context. There's nothing unfair about that. Touché.

I won't try to comment on the full argument, because I don't have time to do it justice. I will say, Kirk, following your blog is like following a canny and perceptive shopper around an enormous flea market. "Hey! Look at this!", you say. "Oh yeah", I say. "Cool". Please keep it up.

Gene Trent said...

Well stated Kirk, well stated. If Kenneth is correct then I might as well throw my gear in the garbage can. I am not a pro and never will be. For the last 40+ years taking pictures of scenes that catch my eye has been one of the simple pleasures of my life. Just walking and shooting. Plain and simple. No deep context 95% of the time, just a picture I enjoyed making. Just as simple as that.

Kenneth Tanaka said...

Dear Kirk,
My goodness, I wonder if you're a bit too sensitive. My remarks on that earlier photo were not criticisms of your photo. It's a lovely image. They were -observations- on the nature of it. Nor were they intended or crafted as categorical statements about the billions of anonymous photos taken each day. ("All" photographs? "Validity"?! C'mon, really?)

My remarks were observations on how the construction of a photograph -the relationships of the subjects, the scene, the apparent momentary relationship to the photographer- establish an impression to viewers. That, by the way, is not simply my opinion; it's fundamental to the basis for photography, painting, drawing,... nearly any visually descriptive undetaking.

My final comment in reply to that earlier thread concisely says everything I could, or would ever want to, say on the subject:

"Indeed, photographs are ALWAYS just photographs, Kirk! But photographs that appear to be such personal snaps as this beg questions that other genres do not. This man's position of sole prominence in your photo suggest that he's important, someone you think we should know, perhaps a Nobel Prize winner. If we saw the other people's faces or posed in a more conversational composition such questions would be more muted. Such is the power of constructing the photo."

Indeed, I do search for creating scenes of "ambiguity, incongruity, and humor" with my photographs -precisely- by using these same tools and principles...as you've so nicely observed above!

It's too bad you misinterpreted my comments into criticism and put up such a defensive shield, Kirk. Sorry about that. Perhaps my fault. Lesson learned here.

- Ken -

Robin Wong said...

Kirk, I like that "a gathering in the Vatican" photograph very much.

As a street photograph, the scene was unpolluted by your presence, yet you were being close enough to capture that man's facial expression, and him engaging in some sort of conversation with that lady on the right. I believe those two (man and lady in focus) were the main subjects, but everything else in the frame just came together very nicely, the man with hat in the foreground and as you have put it, I am sure you were drawn to the repetitive columns in the background as well.

To me, it was a very well documented moment that happened there and then. It does not matter if there was no "important story to tell" or having the "absence of context". As I looked further into the photograph, that expression on the man's face (so well captured) is enough to create drama for the photograph.

Maybe I am being simple minded since most of my shooting approach was being direct. Honestly, it was the simplicity in the photo that stood out, why create a story or context if they were never there in the first place? Something in that photograph drew your attention, strong enough to click that shutter button. That "something" does not have to explained, or quantified. To answer your question (the title of your post), the validity of the photo should not be questioned in the first place !!

Kevin Hanson said...

its not a competition here... and imho that is what the point is trying to be made by Kirk. (correct me Kirk when I'm wrong) and anyhow I also can put myself in the eye of the camera when it was taken, like the picture Kirk took... both do the same, stimulate my mind to consider days past, situations, emotions... etc. that is what I take from Kirk in this post. no more no less.

Dave said...

I feel that your comment is valid and I dont feel Kirk was being defensive, so much as, trying to see why your images would be different from his images, when in the same ambiguous context.

For example, in the image he posted above from your site, I feel that the person on the bottom right is the focus. He is prominently displayed as a dark spot on a neutral background, so the eye is led to him. Because of that, I feel he must be important, without context though, I dont know if he's a surveyor working on an electrical plant, or a tourist who happened to come along. I feel like he should be a family member, due to the importance placed on him when compared to the muted and un-interested background. Your image feels like a "personal snap", as you mentioned earlier when talking of the image on this blog. Could your family member be a spy from the cold war, snapping images for reporting back home... unlikely, but would make a great story.

So similarly, your image has been constructed in a way that begs questions, that you do not answer. But I feel his placement, the way the image is constructed, must mean they are important.

I believe kirk was just pointing out that, his image, is similar to many other images without context, and the context is up to the viewer. I feel your image would be more ambiguous with perhaps no person in it, or on the opposite spectrum, a large group of people there, no one standing out.

Bruce Rubenstein said...

If a viewer emotionally connects to a picture, then it's a good picture. Everything else is a lot of pedantic navel gazing.

I resonated to your picture of the man at the Vatican. I don't know why. It's a good picture.

Scott Price said...

I think that the key to reconciling your point of view with Ken's lies in what the photographer wants the image to communicate to the viewer. I think that Ken's point is that if (and I emphasize that word) a photographer wants to tell a story with an image, he or she must also provide the viewer with an accurate portrayal of the context in which the image was captured. Photojournalism is the most obvious example that I can think of where this is critical.

However, I don't think that this implies that a photo must tell a story to be considered art. If so, most or all landscape photos would fail this criterion. There are legions of Ansel Adams fans who would defend the artistic merits of his photos.

I think the photo of the man in Vatican City prompted discussion about what telling stories because it captures a very social moment. As human beings, we naturally associate social gatherings with the stories that brought the people together. Hence, this photo quite naturally causes the viewer (myself included) to ask questions about the story behind the image. Who is he and who is he meeting? Why? Where are they? Why was this moment so interesting that the photographer decided to capture it and share it?

Wolfgang Lonien said...

No, a photograph doesn't have to be about something to be valid. Some photos gain from context, others are much more fascinating without. To just pose that single photo without any written context gives way to lots of possible interpretations - each viewer brings his or her own story or feelings or personal thoughts into it, which is great. Heck, even the Mona Lisa is without context, except of that name.

I find it beautiful and enthralling, but overcame the temptation to try to interpret it - neither here nor on my site. You posted it for me, so I was (and still am) thankful. And to some who asked about the meaning on my site I answered that I could only guess (and it seems that I guessed it at least half right). The meaning of the photo? I could only give my own interpretation...

Steve J wrote: "...the subject themself must be outstanding...", which happens to be the case with this photo of yours. That older gentleman is fascinating, and so are the woman, the man with the hat, the pillars or columns, even those blurred people in the background. But it's not about the subjects themselves, as I wrote on my site, as an answer to the question. I cited Sara Lando who was recently featured on David Hobby's "Strobist" blog:

“… you end up mistaking a photo of a beautiful girl for a beautiful photo.”

I know that you Kirk know the difference - as does Kenneth and maybe lots of others here. That's why we're all coming back - here (or at Ken's site as well) you'll find both. Beauty (of the subject) lies in the eye of the beholder, as they say. But making a great photo takes a lot more.

Thanks again Kirk. And Ken - your site is great as well.

Kevin Hanson said...

Ken, as an innocent bystander here... a witness to an event, your words were pointed more to how kirk interpreted them... you questioned the motivation for the photo, in a context not far from negative. My initial reading quickly formed to the notion you are a PHD who has for all your life (recent life) had to question and challenge all... I felt sorry for you.

Kirks image is... any and all or nothing you want it to be. For me, the image within nano seconds, reminded me quickly of my time at the vatican, in fact I wondered if I touched that same pillar... then my mind drifted to the emotions of the people - they were enjoying themselves, the place, the weather, the gelatto we didn't see... doesn't matter. Or maybe it wasn't joy it was a way to hide pain, maybe there is pain behind this face. Its human kind to attempt to show joy in times of weekness... doesn't matter, the picture is for anyones interpretations. I did not wonder who this person was, I wondered why and how and what.... never who or when. IF you were curious you'd ask simply what was on Kirks mind when he took it, why he felt the need to press the shutter, at that moment, at that distance, with the lens and etc....

For me a picture is visually the experience one can have from a wine, the art which forms in taste. Kirks picture above from the vatican for me was a super tuscan (new age style) and I'd put it up close to perfect. Why, for the emotions and the provocations it gave me just from the 2 minutes I may have glanced at it... for sure the glance was longer than a mouse over. A good wine... the sense of taste lingers as well for a given time, and when you concentrate on it, as well evokes emotions...

maybe that is the same it presented to you and why you had to question it... its the phd in you. (if you're not, I suppose its stereotypical of a type of person or traits thereof... no offense intended).

enjoy. capture moments. nothing has to be scientific. eh.

Dave Jenkins said...

As someone (not sure who, may have been Elliott Erwitt) once said, "It doesn't have to mean anything. It's just a picture to look at."

kirk tuck said...

Kenneth is more than welcome to post any different image here. He's a long time reader and not an adversary. I thought his comments brought to light some very interesting points, especially in an age where everything and anything is fair game as "art." The point is not to attack Ken for his question but to discuss the actual question: Do some photographs NEED context.

Let's not turn this into a pissing match.

Dogman said...

Whose context? Viewer or photographer?

I'm reminded of a story concerning Lee Friedlander doing a slideshow of his photos. He was merely going from one photo to another without providing any narration. A member of the audience asked him to provide more information on the photos. He agreed and then proceeded to give the location and year of each photo without further elaboration.

If the photo is worth a damn, it doesn't need explanation. Provide your own context.

kirk tuck said...

But, Kenneth is asking a very valid question. Something we might all at least consider.

kirk tuck said...

Kenneth, my response is not an emotional response because I think it's a question that we all grapple with in making photographs and if we don't grapple with it we should. I understand the difference between objective and subjective and my point in bringing up your comment is that photography seems to be held to a different set of standards from other forms. That may be because of its dual nature as both journalism and representational art and even abstract art. The artforms don't seem to respect the barriers.

I enjoyed your comments because they made me think about an aspect of what I do all the time. Your insight pushed me to consider other approaches to understanding the medium. And that's a good thing. In the end I disagree with the implications but I don't think that belittles the point of view. If anything, that we don't reject something out of hand speaks to the merit of the argument.

That's what this whole blog should really be about: What makes a photograph and what makes us look? Everything else just gets in the way.

Please poke me in the ribs more often. I enjoyed the process and the back and forth.


kirk tuck said...

And Kenneth, if you want me to use a specific image please let me know, I'll be happy to change it out.

kirk tuck said...

I think you are right, Scott. I value Kenneth's questions because they really made me examine my own motivations. Not only the motivation to shoot it but also the motivation to show it. And I'm still not comfortable that I know the answers...

But I know that I do like ellipses....

Anonymous said...

I'm of two minds here. I like to see and read captions, even if brief, ie. "view north on Capital blvd., from Legion st., Olympia, Wa." You know, that sort of thing. I suppose not all photographs need a caption, some are of famous people and locations that are already self evident. But sometimes I simply want to know a minimum of information. That said such photographs as "Boy with toy grenade" by Mary Ellen Mark, or "Walk to paradise Garden" by Gene Smith I think work as well with or without captions. However in his 'Country Doctor' photo essay in Life magazine the captions are necessary. Just my opinion.

John Robison (who has a Google acct. but can't remember his log on)

AndyK said...

So you got me thinking about context - or maybe meta-context :).

I was looking at Nicole Young's Google Plus postings (after your mention of her foodtography book) and came across this posting
Collecting Clouds
where she talks about collecting backgrounds to use in later images and shows a before and after example a an old country church with ominous clouds added.

At first this old fuddy-duddy was very perturbed, both at the notion of the creation of this image and then at the overwhelmingly positive tone of the comment stream. But then I said to myself - if this was an image for the dust jacket of a novel I wouldn't have a single issue with it.

But if I were to find out that Ken Tanaka's
Summer Storm, Chicago had a similar genesis, I would demand my money back from Mike Johnston from his print sale.

I have a framed poster on the wall of Harry Callahan's "Chicago 1950" (the trees in winter on the misty Lakefront). Since that is my birth year and birthplace I am drawn to it and study it. If it was just a thumbnail at smugmug I would have never noticed it.
Eastman House catalog entry

Jayson said...

Kirk, from a purely neutral standpoint it did seem to me that you were attacking Ken's comment. It was obvious you chose your words carefully in order to avoid offending Ken, whom I'm sure you respect, but after reading the post the gist of your rhetoric seemed to be "Ken's wrong, and he contradicts himself." I'm just pointing out the perception of one neutral bystander.

I like the Rome image, btw.

kirk tuck said...

I'm just making my usual, emotional and hyperbolic argument in what I thought was defense of my way of thinking, and only realized later that Kenneth's comments had already started working to reconfigure my brain and open the door to the tiniest possibility that I may not be 100% right.

I like to think that I always choose my words wisely, it's the thoughts I have trouble with...

And finally, yes, I do respect Kenneth. Anyone who makes me think without pissing me off or agreeing with me has valuable stuff to add to our conversations.

Bill Beebe said...


Richard said...

Kirk, I think photographers need a real, working definition of what is "art." My daughter is in grad school in a top art program in Printmaking. From what I have been observing with my daughter, the definition and the creation of art is very different than what is liberally tossed out on the blogs. Anything really isn't fair game as "art." Experiencing how ART is defined today (vicariously through my daughter and her exhibitions), it is much more conceptual and ripe with context. Art photographers are forced to deal with this challenge from museums and galleries.

But that doesn't make non art photography less than it is. Photography is an exquisite form of communication that rivals prose and often poetry. It is a stimulus to to explore the world and a tool to expand our vision.

Sue Bryce, the Australian glamour photographer was doing Creative Live one morning and she mentioned right before she started shooting that she hadn't had any coffee yet. Realizing that she wasn't going to get any, she said this, "Photography is my coffee."

Frank Grygier said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
carl frederick said...

Beauty does not need a "context" to be appreciated, enjoyed, loved, absorbed; regardless whether that beauty is in the structure of a person's face, the light cast on a building, the gathering of unknown people (such as your photograph), a yawn, a tear, a laugh or an expression, or even a traffic pattern, etc.


Kenneth Tanaka said...

Kirk (and All),

Here are a few examples of my point.

First, let's look at a little-known Lee Freidlander image, as presented by the Andrew Smith Gallery in NM: http://www.andrewsmithgallery.com/exhibitions/y2kshow/friedlander.html (See the top image.)

We imagine that the man (Lee) is somehow related to the baby. Grandchild? But it's just a guess based on the (over-the-top) trope employed in the image.

Now let's turn to a pretty well-known image by Joel Meyerowitz, "Blind Man, Spain, 1967":

If not for the title would we know the man is blind? Now that Joel tells us he's told us he's blind what do we imagine is going on here? What do we imagine he might be hearing as the street life swirls around him? What if we could not see that wider context, if we could only see a man in dark glasses apparently enjoying the warm sun?

Finally, let's look at an image that cuts a directly parallel line with yours, Kirk, and to my point. Here we see a snap of Joel Meyerowitz himself: http://www.zimbio.com/Joel+Meyerowitz

We're peeking over shoulders and past heads to get a glimpse of him, just as with your photo. Many readers here will undoubtedly immediately recognize Meyerowitz and assume that he's the center of attention within the context of the image. His prominence as a subject is emphasized by the photographer's pinpoint focus on his head.

But what if we posted this same image on, say, the Roller Derby forum (?) where nobody would recognize Joel? What might viewers' reactions there be? "Who is that guy?" would certainly be the predominant question because the photographer has used pretty basic tools (focus, placement/organization) to construct a message that the bald guy is important within the context of the image.


Anonymous said...

Similar to the recent analysis of "eating a buffet or a single fine meal" I think sight, and images, and thus photography elicit a broad range of arguments and response, depending on the beholder. What sings to me, is not even noticed by another. Long live the difference!

kirk tuck said...

Got it. And I understand (now) that the caption/context can add value to the appreciation of an image. Thanks for not loosing patience with my obtuse initia response.

Note to self, more and better captions. When needed.

kirk tuck said...

I got to look through a box of unpublished Henri Cartier Bresson prints a few years ago at the Humanities Research Center and I loved the combination of one image and its almost forced caption. The image was a black and white print of some haystacks in the middle of a totally mundane field. On the back, in HCB's handwriting (in pencil) was the terse caption: "Hay is stacked, as in France." The image was from a remote area in China taken in the late 1940's. The caption was the only thing that gave this particular print ANY value.

Dogman said...

I've seen the photo by Meyerowitz before but never realized the man was blind until now. Yet that point isn't really necessary for me to appreciate and like the photograph of a man who seems lost in the enjoyment of the music being played by the street band in the background. The context of the man's blindness means little to me and adds nothing to my understanding or appreciation of the photo. As for the photo of Meyerowitz in conversation, context is needed because the photo is a record and records should be precise. Now, if the blind man's identity and his actions were part of a record of events unfolding, I would agree that context would be necessary.

As for Friedlander's photo, I've seen it before as well. As one of the thousands of self-portraits he has done over the decades, his relationship to the baby may be interesting to some people but I don't need to know the relationship to see the humor in the photo. His relationship to the baby is no more important to me than his relationship to the blonde woman in his photo of his shadow shown here http://www.sfmoma.org/exhib_events/exhibitions/304.

Context is needed in reportage. At least in honest, factual reportage rather than propaganda. For photographic art, not so much. Let the art teachers and photographic historians debate context and the photographer's motivations and subliminal meanings. It keeps them busy and employed.

John said...

In my view the finest images allow numerous interpretations.

Steve J said...

Sorry Kirk, your comment came out as "well here's one of YOUR photo's, how does it meet your criteria?" Not all my shots meet mine. Some of them I just like.

I don't want a p*ssing match either, I just think you could have asked Ken for his own illustration. I will quite accept that it was not your intention to be confrontational so let's leave it there.

I have just read Richard's reply above and I wholly agree with him, both on the reality of modern art, and on the validity of photography independent of art.

On the subject of portraiture however, the nub of the issue is the audience. If I want a portrait of me then what matters is how I look. I employ Kirk Tuck and I am over the moon with the result. But noone else who sees that shot will necessarily find it that interesting other than technically (I am really quite boring to look at).

But - and I speak only for myself - if I am putting out a shot of someone as a stand-alone work for a general audience then I think context does matter. When travelling I try (not always successfully) to put something of the place in the picture, whether the subject contains a person or someting else. If the caption is not required, then so much the better. At best it should simply inform, not prop up the image.

By far the best illustration of what I mean by "place" is not work of my own (if only) but that of Nuri Bilge Ceylan, a Turkish film director who took a number of shots in cinemascope format when location hunting for the film Climates. Here is a small sample, but it illustrates perfectly what I mean and I cannot think of anyone who surpasses this. These shots could not have been taken anywhere else but Turkey.


(Thanks to Mike at TOP for first bringing his work to my attention).

theaterculture said...

I'm late to this party, but I wanted to chime in and say that something about Kenneth's original post on the photo really troubled me. Perhaps it's to do with my own (over-)education, but the sentiment he seemed to be expressing, that the image is somehow opaque or unmeaningful because it is "lost without context," runs against the grain of my assumptions about history, the arts, and art-history in two ways.

First, on the level of reception, it ignores the fact that no artwork is ever really "out of context." This particular picture is in a number of contexts: the context of Kirk's career, the context of his web-site where a lot of the viewers are aware of his interest in portraiture and the human face, the context of his relationship with Wolfgang, the context of the whole internet, the context of the history of street photography....I could go on forever. The photo "means" something in and because of all of those contexts; to prioritize a single possible narrative meaning about the people in the photograph is reductive, and risks missing out on a myriad of ways the photo could be enjoyed and found meaningful.

Second, on the level of content, it seems to presuppose that there's some amount of supplementary information that would be enough to conjure the "true" meaning of the image. But what would "enough" possible be? Would a really good caption satisfy it, or do we need a paragraph? A Proustian novel detailing the man's entire emotional history (and his favorite tea cookies) prior to that moment that led up to him being there, or doing the same for the photographer? Would that true meaning favor the photographers impression of what he was capturing, or the subjects account of the moment being captured? What if the two disagreed? Which are the important details to know about a particular photograph? Who decides?

A title, a caption, a story, or any bit of written language might illuminate a photo differently, but it isn't always necessary or even always helpful and certainly will never be enough to make the photo (or any other artwork) "complete."

Kenneth Tanaka said...

One more time, just to be clear.

1. I was originally referring to THE SPECIFIC IMAGE that Kirk posted in the earlier thread. Not generalizing about whether all photos, your photos, my photos, or rapper LIttle Biggie's photos need language description. I just made what I thought was a casual observation about that one picture.

2. My remarks were observations on the FORM of that image. THAT IMAGE was captured and post-processed in a manner that suggested the subject was noteworthy IN SOME CONTEXT (perhaps creator of the Roller Derby, perhaps a convicted Vatican banker, whatever). That is, it APPEARED to be part of a narrative.

3. Yes,...yes... photographs can be pretty, can be enjoyed, can be adored and saved without captions or supplementary information. But just as so many snappers recite the old saw that "photos should tell stories" these same people should accept that a photograph can be constructed, even inadvertently as was the apparent case here, in such a way that it suggests that it's trying to tell such a story...but is not. Like a very intelligent-looking person who turns out to be intellectually vacant.

I'm exhausted. I think I'll stay away from the computer for the Labor Day Holiday! ;-)

Best Regards,


Steve J said...

Even HCB took a few dull photos, possibly just for himself (don't we all do this when travelling - wow that road sign looks funny etc.)

The Vienna Kuntshaus museum put on an exhibition of HCB's previously unpublished work when in the US after the war. Clearly the issue with fame is that your name is more important than the output - he seemingly had a few off days as well and I'm sure he would rather some of them had not been published.

Interesting though, mainly because of the historical context. Maybe one day my boring London street shots will be high valued historical records of London in the noughties? (Unlikely)!

But it made me feel better about taking some shots I am not so happy with.

Anonymous said...

The problem with captions, is that the reader is being lead, usually truthfully but perhaps not always, to a certain interpretation of the image. Kirk could give any caption he pleased to the Rome photo, truthfully or not, to give it weight or meaning beyond what it actually has.

Anonymous said...

SteveJ, It is interesting that you use Mr. Ceylan's images to make what to me is the opposite point: I found that 18 of the 20 photos in that gallery could've been taken anywhere in eastern or southern Europe, the Caucasus or the Middle East - in other words, those images were in no way descriptive of "place" or unique to Turkey (the obvious exceptions are the one showing a very distinct and well-known mosque in Istanbul and the Ararat photo). Although I have lived in Turkey, the images do not show place or tell a story. They work (for me) because they are very interesting in their own right, regardless of external context. I just happen to like the photographer's perspective, choice of subject matter, the use of a subdued palette, and the resulting final image.

To bring it back to Kirk's photo, I liked it because it is an interesting character study. It could've been taken nearly anywhere, even in Istanbul or one of New York's colorful neighborhoods, and to me it would be equally fascinating to study the expression and the composition. It does not need context, story or even a caption to work. I think that applies to just about any interesting street portrait, though your mileage may obviously vary.

Ken (but not Ken Tanaka)

Dennis said...

I have to agree with Ken on this one. Not that all photographs need context, but that some do. Over the years, reading innumerable opinions on various forums as to what a photo should or shouldn't be (it should evoke emotion, it should tell a story, blah blah blah) with no regard for many of the huge number of purposes for which photographs are made, I've reached my own conclusion: photographs should be interesting to look at. Not to just anyone, but to somebody for some purpose. A photograph can succeed if it illustrates a passage in a college textbook, but it might make a really bad greeting card. An out of focus picture of the new baby can bring a smile to family members, even if 99.999999999999% of the people on the planet would find nothing interesting about it. An abstract doesn't need to tell a story. Nor does it need context. Other photos are only interesting (or certainly more interesting) with context.

In the case of the specific photo (man at vatican), I think that it just isn't interesting enough to stand on its own. A large portion of the frame is occupied by the OOF back of a man who appears to have nothing to do with whatever is going on, and maybe a tighter shot of the subject and the woman he is greeting (or a shot from an angle that showed her face) would have been more interesting, but as presented, it isn't interesting enough without context. (I'm not sure that context would have made it any more interesting, though, as I'm not under the impression that anything interesting was happening here).

Now, I think Kirk has a great talent for portraits. Portraits mystify me - I'm never quite sure what makes some supposedly great portraits great. Portraits with context (portraits of known celebrities, for instance) enjoy an advantage over portraits of unknown subjects; people want to see them. Take that famous portrait of Winston Churchill and you have layers of context; it's interesting because he's famous, and more interesting when you know the backstory (the photographer snatched away his cigar IIRC). But how do you take a portrait of someone and make it interesting to strangers ? I don't know ... but Kirk does.

sey said...

Thank you, theaterculture.

You've very eloquently voiced my exact thinking! The photograph/painting/sculpture/music/etc. in itself provides the context.

Being a PEOPLE street photographer for 45 years, my aim is to share with my
audience a nano-second in the life of my subject. A very brief instant of what I perceive
to be insightful into the subject's character/mood. If I fail to do this and need to 'explain'
in words then I haven't achieved my goal. I emphasize 'people' because they are my subjects, the environments/surroundings are, usually but not always, purely coincidental and irrelevent. If geographical/time context is needed then I try to include recognizable background in the shot. The written word is the last reluctant resort.

I too have an art and art-history educational background. Perhaps this is what makes us look at and see art-works differently.

Steve willard said...

Perhaps this is the place to use the "content aware" features in Photoshop CS6?

Clay Olmstead said...

The worst thing the artist can do to a piece of their work is to say what it's about. The work either speaks for itself, which makes the explanation unnecessary, or it raises mysteries that the viewer has to solve on his or her own terms. The artist's thoughts automatically become "the" answer and put an end to the fascination.

Raianerastha said...

Ah, a world in which so many want everything handed to them...Sometimes the context of the photo is the questions it leads us to ask. People can get caught up in qualitatively and intellectually analyzing a photo that they overlook the emotional response. It's like the person who listens to an opera, fixated on the technique of the singers, and never feels any emotion in response to the arias.

My personal take on why this happens is that the ego of some people leads them to view a photo not in terms of how it works as a photo, but rather in terms of how the viewer thinks he would do it differently, including an assessment of whether he could produce a "better" image. When we allow critiquing a photo to overshadow emotional response to the photo, the photo loses a great deal of impact.

Of course, a simpler response to the context question comes from Charlie Buckets: "It's candy, it doesn't have to make sense". Same with photos.

Michael Ares said...

My article on "Snapshots" in Street Photography if anyone is interested.


Neal said...

I don't think all photographs need captioning or even context, some of the photos that have connected with me most are ones which ask a question but don't give an answer.

interesting discussion nonetheless, it's refreshing to see some lively debate and constructive investigation about the art we all enjoy for once.

Kevin Hanson said...

A true photograph need not be explained not can it be contained in words - ansel adams

Joe Kashi said...

This entire thread is a worthwhile example of how photography has changed in the past few decades, at least in the academic "context" . Not so many decades ago, Aperture editor Minor White, as did Edward Weston before him, made photographs that were intended to be fairly universal because their immediate context was not so apparent. As a result, their photos tended toward the abstract and minimalist, or at least had that ambiance.

That's where the concept of "Zen" and a deeper openness based upon a lack of preconception entered into the photographic idiom and aesthetic. This was no more, and no less, than closely seeing the world as it really was. That universality is easily lost when the context is so obvious or constructed/forced that you have no reasonable option but to accept the photographer's evident interpretation. An obvious context too often forces preconception, which precludes other valid interpretations by the viewers. Such photographs tend to lose their appeal more quickly. In fact, a lot of current academic and published "fine art" photography tends to remind me of 1910s Pictorialism, which became so obviously contrived as to stimulate its own backlash, the f/64 movement of Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, etc.

Avoiding an insistent single meaning was part of Minor White's idea that the audience needed to "read" a photo by projecting their own experiences and perceptions. That requires images that are both receptive to such projections and that also provoke projection. Come to think of it, Steiglitz's Equivalents were intended to be rather the same.

These aesthetic concepts are currently far out of fashion. Now, it seems as though no photographer gets tenure and no photograph gets published in Aperture or elsewhere unless it has gobs of context. If there's not enough context, we can always construct more. The older aesthetic of the found object abstracted from a life that's closely observed is certainly not what's taught to the current generation of students. I suspect that in a decade or two, our 2010 variant of Pictorialism will again seem as quaint as the 1910 version seemed to the Paul Strands and Edward Westons of the last Century.