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Thursday, September 14, 2006

Careful With That Caption, Eugene

There's an interesting mini-controversy over on Slate concerning the interpretation of the Thomas Hoepker photograph above taken on 9/11/2001. I've mentioned before—even in some cases lampooned—the perils of putting overly specific interpretations on photographs, ideas I first came across in Gisele Freund's long out-of-print book Photography and Society. In this case, Slate, with the help of the internet, managed to turn a secondary source (Hoepker) into a primary source by locating the man on the right in the photograph and asking him directly what the five of them were talking about and feeling. It turns out, not unsurprisingly, that later commentators' interpretations are quite far off the mark.

(Incidentally, I recently contacted the publisher of Photography and Society to ask about the options for reprinting it or getting a reissue someday. He turned out to be also a fan of the book, but it turns out that the French publisher owns the rights to the text, the American publisher to the translation, and there would be hundreds of image permissions to gather in order to do a reprint. We both agreed that it was probably not feasible. That's really too bad, as it's one of those rare books that should be perpetually in print and familiar to all students and fans of the medium.)

Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON (with thanks to an anonymous tipster)


Blogger Svein-Frode said...

Imagine this then, there are still people out there who think that good photographs don't need wordly explenations... What a load of crap. This just illustartes the duality of images and the need to discuss and theorize about visual language and communication.

These two images are good examples of how completely different it is possible to use and interpret meaning and social impact of photos:

The documentary "Looking for an Icon" is a great film explaining how images aren't always what they seem to be according to popular beliefs.

6:53 AM  
Anonymous Popum said...

Copies of Photography and Society are available at

7:09 AM  
Blogger Ken Tanaka said...

Of course this type of misrepresentation has been around nearly as long as photography itself. Subjects' positions, gestures, and surroundings offer such powerful visual suggestion perhaps for only a fraction of a second. But, as the old stadium chant says, "There it is!".

It's a good example of why a photograph cannot tell a story. It's generally a liar.

10:26 AM  

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