Reflections on Week 10

There was some stimulating debate on the Multiple Meanings forum. People approached the discussions in very different ways. s.

Commentary on an artist, their work or even a single picture, often contains phrases like “this raises questions about X”. Those questions are rarely formulated or asked, let alone any answers that may be possible responses. That form of words tended to evince a negative reaction from me. Why say that if you don’t even go on to ask the question? This week has helped me get over that stance. I started to understand that adopting the position of a questioner or critic, is part of the process of interrogating work.

Realise that questions may be asked of this work.
Formulate some of them.
Ask some of the questions.
Consider possible answers.
Be critical of the answers.
Formulate more questions.

Repeat until you run out of time or motivation, not when you think you have answered the questions adequately.

I also became interested in the idea of photographs as attractors of meaning.

“Photographs, like places and artifacts, attract meaning. The meaning is not inherent or fixed. When we create a photograph, we express our own vision and ascribe our own meaning, but also provide a locus for others to create their own readings of our work. Some of our photographs will attract more meaning than others, but we can’t know which will be winners and losers, our job is to carry on making photographs”.

“In late June 1962, photographer Bert Stern had a three day shoot with Marilyn Monroe. He thought he was photographing a superstar. In fact he was creating a visual obituary. Marilyn was dead six weeks later and Stern had taken the last photographs of her. When we take a picture, we have no idea of the life or the meaning that it will ultimately take on”.

It seemed to me that a photograph has a kind of gravity of meaning about it. For some photographs, that gravity is weak and the photograph may not mean very much to most people (although it could mean a lot to a small group of people or single person). Other pictures attract enormous interest and spawn many attempts at understanding. The meanings can then attract each other, with the most widely held meanings coalescing into generally held views about the photograph. Even then the meaning of a photograph does not enjoy a fixed status. Subsequent events can then shift the democratic understanding of the photograph.
Innocent pictures of Bill Clinton with his intern, Monica Lewinsky, later became evidence of their dalliance.
Pictures of Michael Jackson became tainted by the allegations made against him.
The image of Princess Diana posing alone in front of the Taj Mahal ( a monument to a dead queen) became symbolic of her estrangement and early death.

Then it must be asked, what is the nature of this gravity of meaning? I would suggest that it is a matrix of forms of appeal.

A picture of something familiar; a loved one, a familiar face, a place that is recognised.
A picture that meets our standard of being aesthetically pleasing.
A picture which shocks.
A picture that is heart-warming.
A picture that motivates.
A picture which is declared significant by other commentators.
A picture which flatters us.
A picture of an important event.

This is not an exhaustive list. Nor do all the factors of the matrix need to be operating to make the picture meaningful. But a combination of some of these factors is likely to be exerting an appeal when a picture becomes interesting to us, or to a larger audience.

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