Considering a Photograph

I’d like to explore a number of ideas on how to consider a photograph, using as a departure point a recent post – well, not that recent anymore, but life has a way of sneaking along surprisingly rapidly these days – by Joerg Colberg on process.

I learned much of my approach to considering an image from the painter Paul Celli as an undergraduate student. We discussed images in his class in terms of technique (materials and process), form (the visual language employed), and content (themes and concepts). Over time I’ve added a fourth element to that system, "context" or the historical facts surrounding how and when an image was made, for example political environment or social milieu.

Forming bridges between these four elements allows them to function together and complement one another. Technical choices create forms that suggest themes that are relevant to their context - something like that. Very few images, projects, or artists are able to do this consistently. This approach could be considered reductive and it has all of the inherent problems of using any system, but for the purposes of analysis and conversation, it's a least a functional way to consider images.

Process is not an end point for a work of art, except in work that explores the medium and process as content. Colberg's post is an appreciated reminder of this. I agree with him that process is not interesting in and of itself, that it must be a vehicle for saying something. Images that stop at process are one-dimensional and don’t sustain prolonged viewing. An 8x10 is not an excuse to create boring and sterile images that try to use sharpness or print size to carry interest nor is a camera phone an excuse to create images with poor technique or form. The qualities of the camera have to be intelligently matched to subject matter and content so that there is harmony across the elements of the image. One project deserves one camera, another project another.

These points on process pertain to almost every image ever created, including not only photographs, but paintings, drawings, and prints from printmaking processes.

While the meat of the Colberg post I unreservedly support, he uses an example of two "tintypes" for illustrating his points that I find problematic. It raises separate and unnecessarily complicating conceptual issues. His having done so, however, opens a number of conversations on how to consider a photograph that, it should be said, fall outside the scope and interest of his original post.


According to the addendum to his post, Colberg received a number of responses to the original text that pointed to the difference between photographs as prints / objects and photographs on the screen. This is a starting point that I would also use; given it's apparently trodden ground, however, I'll just sketch out some thoughts on this and leave it at that.

The original post uses as an example two images, one created by the Hipstamatic Tintype filter and the other an actual tintype. If they are manipulated to look the same, Colberg writes, then this shows process doesn't matter in terms of meaning.

To cite a fairly extreme contrary position, former MoMA curator Peter Galassi has argued that even a print of the same negative by the same artist on the same substrate using the same process is unique – the odds of being able to exactly duplicate an image by keeping all variables stable through the printing process being infinitesimal. Now consider two separate processes, one trying to imitate the other and imagine trying to control for all the variables involved. Ink lays on the surface of one process and enters the paper in another. The type of paper used for a process affects its presence in space through thickness, amount of transparency, and texture of paper. The tones and gamut of color in a print varies from developer to developer and printer to printer. Different boxes of paper from the same company of the supposed same paper can produce different prints based on conditions in the factory when the box of paper was manufactured – picture how much different papers using separate processes vary.

It becomes hard to argue prints can ever try to imitate another process successfully. Any print differs in meaning from another because there's simply no way to reproduce the look of another print process, no matter how skilled the attempt. The original tintype example, one has to conclude, can only apply to onscreen images because as a print even a mildly discerning eye can see the differences quickly between a digital print of a Hipstamatic image and a tintype. Given the inter-connection between technique (including process), form, and content discussed above, changes in process affects content and therefore meaning.


Given this point about the differences between prints, Colberg's post can also be read as a condemnation of the screen as a viewing and showing space for images. The screen's severe limitations become apparent through his example: if you can make two images from separate processes look the same on a screen, including one made with a minipad through a digital process and the other with an analog direct positive on an iron substrate - and I agree with him that you can – that serves as a demonstration not so much of how process doesn't matter, but rather of how much is lost viewing images on the screen, of its homogenization of images, its elimination of subtleties, and its reduction of the factors for viewing. This reduction also speaks to the limitations for photographers who create work specifically for the screen. The photographer choosing it as their venue for showing photographs must accept the limited use of a narrowed range - or perhaps better to say a different range - of visual language possibilities.


A related but different and fundamental point: on a screen you might be able to create those two "exactly the same" images from Hipstamatic and a tintype, but neither image, to remind ourselves, is a tintype. One started as a tintype, but then it was scanned. It was corrected. Image information was eliminated when it was resized. It went through an entirely transformative digitization process. Perhaps the artist believed they were simply creating a digital copy to show their tintype on their website. They may have even done so with the idea that they are not involved in a creative process, simply a reproductive process.

To the contrary, however, they have actually created a different image. The act of digitizing is an act of interpretation which is an inherently creative act. The image is transformed by process into a different, second image based on the first. This limits Colberg’s original example to an argument that two digital files deriving from different sources in the right hands can be manipulated to look the same and if they arrive at a point of sameness, they have the same meaning – and therefore process doesn’t matter.


This leads us – parenthetically - to the assumption in the original post that digital images on a computer screen are photographs. Colberg writes, "Many photographs do not even exist as objects any longer." Is a digital file that shows an image a photograph? In one sense, yes, what the hell else would it be? But is it a PHOTOGRAPH? That’s a slightly different question more open to conversation.

The images you place on the Internet, unless they are part of a project designed specifically for presentation online or on a screen, are – as Bryan Formhals of LPV Magazine says – equivalent to a movie trailer, the showing of a section of a body of work in an alternative format. The actual photographic print or the photographic book are the object and the work of art, the intended format for most art photography. The file image on the screen? I continue to view it, personally, as either a digital negative or a format for showing people in other places the image in an accessible way, depending on where the file is in its process. It runs the risk of becoming a semantic argument, but this does not necessarily translate to it being a photograph. It remains open to question that the product of Hipstamatic / Instagram – printless photography in conception – as well as an image from another source presented on the screen are best considered as similar enough to a traditional slide or print that they should be referenced with the same word. We remain at a point where the definition of a photograph is in flux; conceptualizing photography beyond the print remains a process.


We left off with the two tintypes example as an argument that two digital files deriving from different sources can be manipulated to look the same and if they arrive at a point of sameness, they have the same meaning – and therefore process doesn't matter. That's still problematic, however. Let's challenge this point in order to underscore another idea of looking at images. These two hypothetically identical images on a screen made by separate processes of digitization arriving at sameness in some situations may be considered to have the same meaning. In many others, however, they may not.


This gets into the most interesting part of the conversation for me: what information should we consider while analyzing an image? Should we be using the same information in different contexts of interpretation? What types of contextual information impact the meaning of an image? Does meaning depend on who's looking at it? How should unseen contextual information surrounding the creation of an image change our reading of an image as this information becomes known to us?

Like almost everything in life, the answers are frustratingly gray: people interact with and read an image differently depending on their use of the image under consideration and what their needs for understanding are. The way people should be pursuing a consideration of context - including process – when they look at a photograph depends on when and where and how they're asked to look at it.

Let's first consider what we mean by context. I would consider context as all of the extenuating factors surrounding the creation of an image. This includes information such as the year of creation, where it was created, the social and political environment surrounding its creation, who created it, for whom they created it, and also how the image was made.

There are times to view images apart from process and other contextual information, which is to say, when process and context don't matter very much or at all. One is a situation encountered, I imagine, with much more frequency by those that might read this post than the population at large and probably the situation Colberg imagined as he wrote his post – the cold critique of art photography. This is a read of how visual language (form) creates content apart from any context. This, for example, applies to a student asking for a critique of their work without speaking or otherwise communicating context before receiving comments. If the student has done their job, there shouldn't be much need for conversation about process unless it's getting in the way. This type of critique proposes to talk about what we are seeing and what it means without background information; we should be able to look past process and engage the form and content directly (again assuming the image content is not a commentary on technique or process).

In other reading circumstances, however, context should be considered and, therefore, process does matter. Continuing with the above example, when a student or artist gives information first about the intended content and asks whether or not the images are communicating it, process does become a consideration as part of a response. Would bigger prints enhance the impact of an image's content? Would sharper images convey the content better? Would a small, faster camera help the photographer engage their subject matter in more ways? What camera, what process, and why they should be selected become elements of critique, as well, perhaps, as other contextual elements.

Another reading space where context and process matters, and matters perhaps more than in any other, is that of historians and archivists, sociologists, anthropologists and those who study material culture. Anyone, in fact, who looks to read the image to understand it within a wider societal framework. Process forms part of the understanding of the image and informs its meaning. It matters if the image was made with Hipstamatic or is an actual tintype, even if somehow superficially they look the same.

So, do Colberg's two hypothetically identical digital images derived from separate sources– equal in appearance - actually mean the same thing? Yes, but only on screen and only in limited reading situations where context, including process, does not matter, is not of interest, or cannot be known.


In the majority of situations I can think of, however, process matters because images are normally read with regards for and interest in context and, in addition, some amount of context can normally be known either by looking at the image or by minimal research of an image. Frequently context is actually unavoidable knowledge, inherent in the process of looking.

In fact, in most cases part of our job as observer of the image is to find out about context. As I wrote in a post last year, we need to read the context of the image, take note of what our role as observer is, look at who is making the image and try to figure out why they are making it; 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 conclusions and arguments about an image and its meaning.

What's more, I think that the reading circumstances in which process does not matter are shrinking. As a general public, we are becoming better educated about the importance of how the environment and specifics of an image's creation dictate content and as specialists we are strengthening our abilities to decipher an image’s provenance with better technologies.


Another line of conversation evolving from Colberg's post concerns how our understanding of an image is fluid, cumulative and based in revelation of information about the image over time; that is to say, having no context to use while considering an image is a temporary state that is actually hard to preserve. Furthermore, once context becomes known it's almost impossible not to consider the image through its lens; context becomes wedded to the image and shifts our read of it. Let's look at an example to illuminate.

Imagine I give you a vernacular image from a junk store of a smiling man. You don't know who made it or how it was made and you appreciate the image for nothing more than the odd smile on the man's face and his awkward pose. You are reading, enjoying, and understanding strictly the photograph itself, restrained to a reading based in visual language – the lights, the shadows, the texture of paper, the size of the print, etc. – and the subject-content depicted by the forms.

However, imagine that a month later a friend visiting your studio points out to you that the image of a smiling man you've tacked to your wall actually depicts a famous civil rights activist murdered the next day during a march. How does it shift your understanding of the image? It would be hard to maintain the same thoughts about it. What if you discover that leader is a family member?

How does it change your understanding if you find out the image was made by a woman or, alternatively, by a man? Should it change your understanding? What if I die and the photograph takes on special meaning to you as the only object I ever gave you?

What if you discover it's actually an image created by Ernest C. Withers, a well-known civil rights photographer and worth hundreds of dollars? Or not made with a Brownie, but rather with a camera invented by Withers, a one of a kind photograph used only to create this image, a singular example of an alternative photographic process?

What if it was created by someone who lied about who they were in order to make the image? That would be a real life case with Withers, a photographer of the civil rights era who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. It was discovered in 2010 that he was also an FBI informant.

Each small part of context we learn, however large or subtle, changes our relationship to the image, and this ever-changing relationship to an image as we get more information about it creates a limited time or space in which we can imagine reading an image outside of context. Once context – including process – becomes part of our viewing of an image, it's hard to see it again without it.

Colberg's points on process are ones I agree with. I also agree with his central point that process should not dominate our reading of an image; in fact, much great photography results from masterful technique that's also masterfully hidden so that content can be appreciated. His tintype example holds true for a very small range of situations which makes the example – while true - almost conceptual in nature. It does, however, open an intriguing range of conversational lines that I hope to further engage over time.