‘Context and narrative’

It seems that photographs are taken most seriously when they have a clear narrative conveying a well-thought out concept; when each photograph that we dare present to the public or our esteemed peers has undergone obsessive scrutiny; when our images have been carefully selected for their size, their shape, their sequencing and constructed meanings and symbols; when the function and purpose of our photographs prescribe our practice. But why?

At this point, I cannot answer this question and can only cite this quote from Magnum photographer Hebert List:

“The pictures I took spontaneously – with a bliss-like sensation, as if they had long inhabited my unconscious – were often more powerful than those I had painstakingly composed. I grasped their magic as in passing”.

(List as cited in Short, 2011:  133)

Marinovich, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography, in an interview for The Guardian, said he didn’t know or understand some of the content of the images that he took in South Africa during Apartheid: “For 17 years I’ve been asking everyone I can, what does it mean?”

Every so often, it seems that our best efforts to master the photographic medium are circumvented by our own feelings and emotions, the mysteries of enchantment, or life with all its misery passing by. Something happens that defeats reason and challenges traditional photographic practice.

While it is acknowledged that photographers subconsciously use their visual awareness when producing and selecting images, I can only wonder how intuition plays a part. Is it down to the experience of the photographer, their expert knowledge in the subject they are exploring, or plain serendipity?

Perhaps I’m asking the wrong question again. I have read ‘Context and narrative’ by Maria Short (2011) from cover to cover over the last two days. Perhaps it’s time to put it down. So I open ‘Problems of art’ by Susanne Langer (1957). My eyes are instantly drawn to this phrase: ‘To create a sensory illusion is, then, the artist’s normal way of making us see abnormally, abstractly.’ (p. 32).

It’s starting to make sense: The photographic approach, the importance of the context, the painstaking construction, the careful placing of meaning and symbols in an image, the displacing, the act of subverting. I see it… I see why photographers would use these techniques to arrive at their end. Yet I feel incapable of constructing such abstraction in my own photographic practice.

I carry on reading: ‘The dynamic form of feeling is seen in the picture, not through it mediately; the feeling itself seems to be in the picture’ (Langer, 1957: 34). I see it even more clearly – but not Short’s insight into photographic context and narrative – rather, my counter-argument.

My photographs are exactly the contrary to Langer’s beliefs. Indeed, feeling is not necessarily seen in my pictures – but mediately. My photos are a vehicle for feeling, and the feeling itself often resides outside of the picture – within the fan, already constructed. My photos act as a trigger, a mediator. I had started to grapple with this idea when writing in my previous post: ‘my photos were enough of a prompt for them [fans of Nick Cave] to relate to the artist once again, to fill in their own fan’s stories’.

This was reinforced with an online conversation I subsequently had with one of my friends (one of the fans of Nick Cave mentioned above) about the photographs I took of Nick Cave at Beauregard festival. He wrote to me:

‘Maybe I want to have to do a bit of work – to construct a meaning – to construct NC [Nick Cave] for myself. Maybe this links me to him more. … The first time I saw NC it was almost a religious experience. … I can recreate the throbbing in my chest as they started Tupelo. … I can feel the tingle down my spine and the intense feeling that everything was good with the world. This wasn’t just about being there in that moment. It was about being there in every moment – caught up in time and space and being whole and full and non-existent but complete. It was an amazing experience. The shadows, the crowd, the darkness, the heat – it was all right. I could have died there in that moment and everything would have been good. (I am glad I didn’t, looking back – but in that moment…) A complete moment of beautiful existence. Flow, peace, one-ness. … And that throbbing guitar pounding in my chest, shaking my heart. Photographs of NC take me back to that – a little bit.’

(16 July, 2013)

Call this whatever you want but my friend’s experience when looking at my photographs, falls into Langer’s concept of ‘sensory illusion’.

Now take another friend of mine who has also looked at my photographs of Nick Cave. She is interested in how I progress as a photographer but she is not a fan of his music or his fiction, only knowing the name and the face. All she could see in my photographs was this famous person. She could not get beyond it. My photos left her cold, yet she sensed that something was different in these shots, perhaps as if I had ‘grasped their magic as in passing’.

What is this ‘magic’ that we can feel and photograph, but we cannot see? What is this ‘magic’ that others cannot even see when photographed? What is this magic that challenges the conventional approach to making meaningful photographs? Exploring the topic of fandom might provide some useful answers. The concept of pleasure, memory, nostalgia, emotional involvement and mourning in fan theories might help us understand how the relationship between photograph, subject and the audience can indeed subvert the conventional approach to story-telling using the photographic medium.


Langer, S., K. (1957), Problems of Art: Ten Philosophical Lectures. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Short, M. (2011), Context and narrative. Lausanne: AVA Academia.

Smith, D. (22 September 2009), Apartheid-era scenes the new South Africa would rather forget. [Online]. Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/sep/22/apartheid-south-africa-photographers Last accessed 19 July 2013.

Comments are closed.

Post Navigation