Exercise 5.6: Context and meaning

Walker’s essay ‘Context as a Determinant of Photographic Meaning’ starts with the consideration of a wedding photograph and lists a large number of contexts within which it could be seen; from a family album, to a magazine to an art gallery. The argument being that what one sees in, and how one assesses the image will depend on the context within which it is displayed.

Walker says that “Most critical analyses of photographs concentrate on their immanent structure” (relationships within the picture) but he argues tat the external context within which a photograph is viewed is also important in how it is perceived by the viewer.

He illustrates his contention with the same photograph in two different settings, one surrounded by text in a newspaper; the other a glossy print surrounded by a wide border on the page of a prestigious art journal. The way in which the same image will be perceived is very much affected by its context.

Walker goes on to discuss the ‘circulation’ and ‘currency’ of images. Here he defines circulation as the communication of the image and its movement through different social strata and institutions. While it is being circulated an image is current, but if it is withdrawn from circulation then it loses its currency.

He gives a further example of the work of Jo Spence and how he came across images of her in three different settings:
In the Three Perspectives on Photography exhibition at the Hayward
On the cover of Spare Rib magazine
In the entrance hall of a public in Finsbury

This shows how the three different contexts shaped the perception of the work.

It does seem self-evident that the setting of a photograph will affect how it is viewed (and by who). If any of my images for assignment 5 were seen only as a slide show on Youtube by a couple of people, then that is very different to them being exhibited at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery |(see below)


This exercise asks if there are any particular places that would be appropriate for the exhibition of the work I have produced for assignment 5. The obvious location would be the Colman Galleries at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery. The Museum website states that “The Colman Art Galleries house the world’s largest public collection of works by the Norwich School of Artists, the first regional society of artists established in England. Notable members include John Crome, John Sell Cotman, Joseph Stannard and George Vincent.” https://www.museums.norfolk.gov.uk/norwich-castle/whats-here/galleries/fine-art

Not that the photographs should be displayed in the main gallery alongside the major oil paintings – apart from anything else many of the scenes depicted are not ones that I chose for the assignment. There is, though, a small gallery space, just off the main gallery which is used for temporary exhibitions and this would be ideal.

It is definitely not a ‘white cube’ which is good as I think that a setting with character is far preferable. I would see introductory text about the work of the Norwich school painters leading in to the photographs which would be displayed in sequence and just with the title of the location where the images were taken.

In terms of context and meaning, I think that the photos would gain considerably from being in such a setting and it would increase their relevance to be seen with the Norwich School originals on display nearby.