Opinion: Pantall, Colberg, Hoepker and Understanding Images

© Thomas Hoepker

Colin Pantall and Joerg Colberg have both recently discussed the above photograph taken by Magnum's Thomas Hoepker on September 11th, 2011.

Pantall uses the image to point to the problem of the narrow emotional range accepted in the responses of photographic subjects to a situation, as well as the difficulty many people have coping with something beyond the simplest of narratives in a photograph. I would continue his points by adding that there's a problem with the assumption that it is possible to come to any correct reading of the emotional state of photographic subjects and in believing we can correctly conclude the narrative of a photograph in any way.

Hoepker makes these very mistakes about his own image. In a New York Times op-ed column by Frank Rich, written in 2006 on the fifth anniversary of September 11th, he's quoted as saying about this image, "They were totally relaxed like any normal afternoon...It’s possible they lost people and cared, but they were not stirred by it." Slate writer David Plotz makes the same mistakes in a rejection of Rich's column: "The subjects are obviously engaged with each other, and they're almost certainly discussing the horrific event unfolding behind them. They have looked away from the towers for a moment not because they're bored with 9/11, but because they're citizens participating in the most important act in a democracy—civic debate...They came to this spot to watch their country's history unfold and to be with each other at a time of national emergency."

Hoepker and Plotz both assert singular, different, yet conclusive readings of what is going on in the image: "they were totally relaxed"..."they were not stirred"..."they have looked away...because"...and finally "they came to this spot to watch." These assertions of being able to give a factual reading of the events portrayed in the image is problematic; all conversation about a photograph needs to be framed as conjecture. Short of finding the subjects and photographer and asking, we cannot actually know what was happening or why an image was taken - and even their words can be questioned; memories are fickle, we all have agendas.

Colberg follows up on Pantall's post by asserting that a photographer's intentions can't be known and that we observe photographs with inherent biases: "We all like to think that the photographer’s intention inform the image and that when we look at a photograph we can see those intention. [sic] But if we ignore the simple fact that we have no way of knowing what the photographer’s intentions were (How would we know? All we have is a photograph), especially in a news context, we don’t just look at photographs, we look at them with our own sets of expectations (as Colin notes) and biases. We often see in photographs not what they show, but instead what we want to see."

I will add a question to the conversation - if the emotional state of the subjects and the narrative cannot be extracted from an image, and the photographer's intentions cannot be known, how about allegory and metaphor as a strategy for correctly reading images? Not if the word "correctly" is left in the sentence. Reading and concluding - or better yet, creating - the allegorical and metaphorical meaning in an image is informed by one's life experience and knowledge and a matter of subjective insights. As long as the observer remembers that their conclusions also remain in the realm of conjecture, however, metaphor and allegory can definitely be a way to analyze and discuss an image.

This is why I would take what I imagine is an unpopular position and defend Rich's column, even though I don't agree with his conclusions or his reading of the image. Unlike Hoepker and Plotz, Rich does not claim a truthful interpretation of the facts the image contains. Jonathan Jones writes in an article in The Guardian about the debate around Hoepker's image, "[Rich] saw in this undeniably troubling picture an allegory of America's failure to learn any deep lessons from that tragic day, to change or reform as a nation: 'The young people in Mr Hoepker's photo aren't necessarily callous. They're just American.'" And Plotz writes about Rich's column, "So they turned their backs on Manhattan for a second. A nice metaphor for Rich to exploit, but a cheap shot." That may be so, and we can attack the conclusion and the arguments Rich uses to construct it, but he avoids making conclusive factual statements about the image of the type that get both Hoepker and Plotz in trouble.

© Gregory Crewdson

Let's start to draw some conclusions from all of this with a few more questions.

If we agree it's not possible to know the true emotions or narrative of an image, nor the intentions of the photographer, and that allegory and metaphor need to be remembered as a subjective reading of an image, does that mean that Hoepker's image of 9/11 should be read in the same way as the above image by Gregory Crewdson?

Should all art photography, photojournalism and documentary photography be read in the same way?

Is a news image in The New York Times as "truthful" as one of Crewdson's constructions?

Do we know as little of the intentions of a advertising photographer making an image to sell a bar of soap as those of a photographer like Crewdson?

Is the answer that we just can't know anything about an image for sure, so all interpretations of it are equally valid?

I think Pantall gives us a way to answer these questions when he writes, "[We] want to reduce things to black and white and right and wrong dualities." To begin answering the questions above, we need to remind ourselves to avoid reducing our thinking about how to look at images to simple dualities - while going ahead and continuing to look at and discuss images. Photography does not allow us to make conclusive readings about images, yet it is part of our job as photographers, critics, curators, and writers on photography to attempt readings anyways. We investigate images and construct arguments for how an image could be read. We aggressively ask what is really going on, what the photographer's intentions are, what biases we have, and what meaning we can construct through allegory and metaphor. This is the foundation of using visual images for communication (and the root cause of really long grad school critiques).

© Nick Ut

Taking this point one more step, all readings of an image are not equally valid - it is not the case that because there is no photographic truth, all readings are therefore of equal value. The problem is that it's difficult to quantify the reasons why. A toddler does not deserve the same voice on an image's meaning as mine or yours. We have more experience looking at images, knowledge of context, life experience, and knowledge of history. My conclusion to all of this is we need to accept something I'll call spectrum reading. Spectrum reading would be the rejection of a duality that says because, for example, we can't know for sure the true emotional states of the children in the horrific Vietnam War image by Nick Ut seen above, they are therefore open to the same degree of speculation as the emotional states of the man and woman in the image by Crewdson. Or that the intentions of a photographer taking an image of a bar of soap are as vague as Crewdson's. Or that because we can't easily quantify the value of a particular response, that all are therefore equal.

We need to read the context of the image, take note of who the observer is, look at who is making the image and try to figure out why; we have to understand the accepted parameters for image manipulation in the media venue of the image, talk with friends and colleagues, etc...then we can make more (or less) intelligent arguments about an image and its meaning. The site Bag News regularly does a good job of this with political and news images. Pantall does this regularly on his site and did so here on this site a month ago looking at an image by the photographer Billy Monk. We can look for truth, argue about intention, divine metaphor - we just can't claim to be absolutely correct.

Lastly, I'm going to be a little more optimistic than both Pantall and Colberg on one final point. Pantall writes, "We are still not very sophisticated in our visual way of experiencing the world" and Colberg writes, "We don’t really understand photography." I'd like to suggest that although the ability to understand visual communication may not be as developed as with written communication, we're not where we were in decades past, either.

There has been a corrosion in the belief in the truth value of a photograph at least going back until World War II. John Szarkowski, the long-term director of New York's Museum of Modern Art, fundamentally refuted the ability of photography to explain large-scale public issues, such as Margaret Bourke-White's attempt to explain the effects of World War II in her photographic work. "Most issues of importance cannot be photographed," Szarkowski claimed, declaring the fields of photojournalism and documentary as non-effectual in his influential book, Mirrors and Windows (1978). His comments reflect a now long-standing trend towards doubt about photographic veracity which became widespread after World War II and continues today, an erosion of confidence represented by the debates about the authenticity of Robert Capa's Death of a Loyalist Soldier (below) and other World War II images. This loss of confidence has helped to create a distance between documentary photography and photojournalism and their traditional roles, facilitating their consideration as works of art or personal expression, an interesting conversation beyond the scope of this particular post.

© Robert Capa, Death of a Loyalist Soldier

This erosion of confidence in the truth of photographs is also seen in the almost immediate questions we have around the authenticity of an image like the one below. We see it, we question it's truthfulness. As the manipulation of photographs has grown, so has our own skepticism and disbelief - that is the foundation for a more sophisticated reading of images in our culture, an advancement in ability. We now largely understand that, "A snapshot can make mourners attending a funeral look like they're having a party," as Walter Sipser - the man on the right in Hoepker's photograph - wrote after reading Hoepker's comments on the image and Rich's column. We're still not a visually literate society, but we have a wider understanding of the power, lies, and meanings of images now than we did before.

Uncredited image from the Facebook page of "All Things METAL \m/"