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Thursday, August 17, 2006

What Message Does a Photograph Communicate?

Sorry, I'm afraid that's something of a trick question. The answer is: none.

I think David Vestal got it right in his observation that pictures don't say things, they show things. If you imagine that you're conveying a specific message or meaning with your pictures, think again. You're kidding yourself unless you attach words that tell the viewer what's supposed to be going through his head. Even then there are no guarantees.

More from Colin Jago, in his post on art and communication.

Posted by: OREN GRAD


Blogger Ken Tanaka said...

This is dead-on right, Oren.

My closely related personal bugaboo is when I hear/read a photographer (or photo collector) yammer about story-telling. "I love to tell stories with my images." "This image tells a powerful story." It's airy-fairy bovine byproduct.

Photographs can illustrate a story or message. Photographs can suggest a story or message. Photographs can evoke emotional response. But telling a story requires language. And that's the end of that story!

11:30 PM  
Blogger docbradd said...

Just read your note and the article you reference by Colin Jago. The problem you run into is that there are levels to communication. I don't agree with Vestal if I go beyond the first (literal) level. A photograph was published many years ago by James Wood - it was of a baby holding (and playing with) a 45 automatic. On the first level, it "shows a baby with a gun." But clearly, to limit the communication of such an image to what it shows is to deny the very power of that image - the metaphoric content is much more powerful for those who meet the necessary felicity conditions to read the metaphor. Felicity conditions were defined for metaphoric expression by Dorothy Mack in about 1973 - sort like a frame, but more specific. To argue that Wood's image doesn't have a metaphoric message beyond what it shows, is to deny the power of all communication, from the extended metaphors found in Luke (the New Testament) to the power of the photos of Mapplethorpe, glorifying masculine characteristics and behavior. Your arguemnt *and jago's argument) is true only if you limit the level to the most surface level only.


11:37 PM  
Blogger Paul said...

I disagree. Pictures say things, show things, and quite often are the things.

12:51 AM  
Blogger Dierk Haasis said...

As I pointed out during the original discussion of this topic on The Open Photography forum - although put slightly different - the use of the term 'communication' by Colin is [misguidingly] narrow.

Even if one can agree on the premise that a photograph carries no message [another very narrow definition used here] it still shows something. Who shows? And to whom?

My counterpoint is not academic, it is not about redefining a term as long as it has either no menaing at all or a very specific one. To the contrary. Communication, as a quick glance into the Oxford English Dictionary shows has several meanings in the vernacular, of which even the euphemistical one for sexual intercourse is applicable to photos.

Holding together all of the listed definitions are two things:

1. Communication is about information.
2. Communication is about relaying.

Obviously a photo showing something has informational content - which is relayed to someobody (could be oneself). Actually anybody not having sat through Philosophy 101 or those that went on into further courses will immediately and instinctively recognise 'show' as an instance of 'communicate'.

1:09 AM  
Blogger Svein-Frode said...

If you live long enough you get to hear everything...

Photography is communication - PERIOD. In fact, viewing an image isn't much different from viewing words written on a piece of paper. Your brain responds to all visual stimuli through a cognitive process. Visual and written languages are both interpreted visually and verbally simultaneously (almost) by our brains.

However if there is some new theory rejecting the last 100 or so years of research in the fields of cognitive psychology, linguistics, semiotics and communication it would be an interesting read.

3:02 AM  
Blogger John Roberts said...

I would have to agree with this observation. If the communicator really wishes to be understood, words, or photos accompanied by words (as in a photo essay), are more efficient as a communication medium than a photo alone.

Personally, I don't consciously try to communicate thoughts, concepts, or some philosophy with my photos. I guess I'm just not that deep, and I'm not interested in trying to appear to be so. With my photos I am usually just wanting to capture and share something I found visually interesting or beautiful.

5:59 AM  
Blogger david mantripp said...

well showing things communicates too. Colin was talking about "communicating", not "saying". Hair-splitting, possibly, but not insignificant.

9:11 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

But what message DOES a baby with s gun convey? I can think of a few possible interpretations:

--Never let children play with guns.

--In America, this baby has a right to own this gun.

--This is one dangerous baby.

--This .45 is damn near as big as a baby.

--Babies are soft and squishy, guns are hard and dense.

--"Gimme the breast now, or else!"

Oren's point is that there is no SEMANTIC message in an image. (I would have thought this was implied by the word "message." And of course there is "communication" in an image, in this case namely "here is a baby with a .45." But isn't that pretty much the same thing as saying the picture shows how something looks? It's not conveying any meaning beyond what it shows, at least not reliably.


12:25 PM  
Blogger Ken Tanaka said...

Hmmm... I wonder if I was a bit premature in my response.

I stand by my issues concerning photographs' inability to tell stories. But conveying a "message" is simultaneously more simple and more complex of a communication concept.

A message, at least to me, is basically a one-liner (or a one-thoughter). And that is something that photographs can and do convey very effectively.

Whether or not the photograph conveys the message that its creator intended is a different and more complex "story", one highly dependent on the viewer's point of view. I know that I have occasionally been shocked when viewers of some of my images decoded them in ways I had never expected.

So I'm not waffling, but rather modifying my position to agree with others that photographs can communicate "messages" to viewers. But they still can't tell a story.

12:34 PM  
Blogger DonovanCO said...

This discussion reminded me that when I was working on my Masters in Communication in the early 1970s, one of the courses I took was "Art and Communication." I won't bore you all with the details of this class, but rest assured that those who have made human communication their life work, definitely agree that art, in all its forms, is a vehicle for communication. Communication does not and should not only occur on the verbal level. Language, written or spoken, can be far too limiting, and translating from one language to another fraught with difficulties and dangers.

I would like to offer two examples from the world of photography to illustrate how photographs can communicate at a deep emotional level.
1. David Douglas Duncan's photographs from the Korean War, as published in his book "Yankee Nomad"
2. W Eugene Smith's photo story "Country Doctor"about Dr. Robert Ceriani of Kremling, CO, originallly published in Life but also exhibited since then.

No words are needed in both of these examples.

1:46 PM  
Blogger Svein-Frode said...

OK, if we are to discuss semantics/semiotics we are dealing with the theories of Erwin Panofsky, Roland Barthes, Umberto Eco and Søren Kjørup, to mention a few. In that case I agree that visual language in pictures can never compete with a written language in terms of accurate communication. Beyond a photographs function to show how something looks like (photographed), the message will be more open to interpretation (much like written language in the form of a poem) as the visual codes are less standardised (compared to alphabetical characters, musical notes and more simple icons/signs). Written language, on the other hand, will have difficulty explaining exactly how something looks like.

1:55 PM  
Blogger Max said...

I think the question here is, zero-ambivalence photography works as art?
If the message is crystal clear, I mean. Does that turn into something else? Politics or marketing, may be?

2:13 PM  
Blogger fizzy said...

Mike -- the example of the baby-gun picture does not communicate any of the things you mention quite exactly, but it does convey all of them to some degree. A photograph isn't the appropriate medium to convey exact statements of facts. But it sure would convey the fear for the child's life and our casual disregard for the usage of these deadly objects more viscerally than a hundred gun-control editorials would. Photography is most certainly communication -- you just can't apply the standards of conveyance of factual information to it.

I simply didn't understand the original article you linked. It seemed to argue that the production and viewing of photographs for pretty much any purpose was useless. If a photograph isn't supposed to convey some meaning or feeling to us (communicate), why do we bother looking?

2:53 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"I simply didn't understand the original article you linked."

'Twasn't me. 'Twas Oren.


6:52 PM  
Blogger Lux said...

If the "message" from the author to the receiver, gets lost or distorted or alltogether another, then conventional communication has not happened. Photography does not work as a conventional communication medium, because there's no way to make sure that what the authors had in mind about his/her photo is going to be received by the viewer's mind. Conventional communication mediums, like traffic lights, have narrow meanings. If while driving a car you face a red light you know you are being commanded to stop your car. People viewing a photo get all sorts of "messages" from it, and maybe none of them is what the author tried "to say" if he/she tried to say anything at all.

I do not try to "say" things with my photos. You can take them however you are able to taked them. Photos are not encoded messages, but objects, things, that produce effects and actions within our minds, bodies and lives. Completely subjective and personal effects.

3:26 PM  
Blogger Mads said...

Photography conveys a message in the same way poetry does.

2:31 AM  

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