“Viewing one of these works involves looking briefly at the image, then looking away to read the text, and then looking anew at the image, lingering on it, drinking it in fully once it is loaded with meaning. By that point, it is practically a hybrid of text and photograph.” (1: p.154)
Geoffrey Batchen was describing Taryn Simon’s series An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar when he made this comment but it could be seen as a more general statement of how text and photographs interact to create combined meaning.
Left entirely to its own devices the photograph is “pragmatic rather than semantic, indexical rather than iconic or symbolic” (4: p.73) intended rather than incidental but ultimately “weak in intentionality” (5: p.92). Barthes said “the photograph is an extended, loaded evidence” (2: p.115), it proves the sometime existence of its subject but despite being evidential it remains ambiguous and incoherent a “floating chain of signifieds” (3: p.39) needing to be “made into meaning” (4: p.66) but refusing to be made; John Berger’s builds on this argument by proposing that the photograph “offers irrefutable evidence” that something existed “yet tells us nothing of the significance” of its existence (5: p.88) but as he believes “in every act of looking there is an expectation of meaning” (5: p.119) he recognises the need of the audience to extract and fix that significance, that meaning because we not only expect there to be meaning but a meaning that can be fixed and agreed upon. The photograph offers no such comfort.
This ambiguous, incoherent but evidential artefact detached from the photographer’s intent with no fixed meaning is, because of its very nature, susceptible to appropriation by words that purport to describe, explain, justify, criticise, exploit, hide, fix or load it with meaning. The photographer is at liberty to do so, as is their publisher, editor, curator or audience but the photograph is a nimble evader of such chains and can detach itself from one meaning to find new, evolved or concurrent meanings. Clive Scott summarises this elusiveness as:
“Language may come unstuck from the image, may have a bad memory and be unable to repeat itself reliably. When this is so, the photograph escapes the plotting and mappings of history and re-enters the carnival.” (4: p.327)
The following essays explore the games played at the carnival, the many ways in which language and the photograph are woven together.
(1) Short, Maria (2011) Context and Narrative. London: Thames and Hudson
(2) Barthes, Roland. (1980) Camera Lucida. London: Vintage Books
(3) Barthes, Roland (1977) Image Music Text. London: Fontana Press
(4) Scott, Clive (1999) The Spoken Image: Photography and Language. London: Reaktion Books
(5) Berger, John & Mohr, Jean (1982) Another Way of Telling: A Possible Theory of Photography. London: Bloomsbury