Photographic Meaning

From Allan Sekula: On the Invention of Photographic Meaning (1975) in Goldberg 1981: Photography in Print:

“The meaning of a photograph, like that of any other entity, is inevitably subject to cultural definition.” (p.452)

“Photographic ‘literacy’ is learned. And yet, in the real world, the image itself appears ‘natural’ and appropriate, appears to manifest an illusory independence from the matrix of suppositions that determines its readability. Nothing could be more natural than a newspaper photo, or, a man pulling a snapshot from his wallet saying, ‘This is my dog.’ Quite regularly, we are informed that the photograph ‘has its own language,’ is ‘beyond speech,’ is a message of ‘universal significance’ — in short, that photography is a universal and independent language or sign system. Implicit in this argument is the quasi-formalist notion that the photograph derives its semantic properties from conditions that reside within the image itself. But if we accept the fundamental premise that information is the outcome of a culturally determined relationship, then we can no longer ascribe an intrinsic or universal meaning to the photographic image.” (p.454)

“All photographic communication seems to take place within the conditions of a kind of binary folklore. That is, there is a ‘symbolist’ folk-myth and a ‘realist’ folk myth. The misleading but popular form of this opposition is ‘art photography’ vs. ‘documentary photography.’ Every photograph tends, at any given moment of reading in any given context, toward one of these two poles of meaning. The oppositions between these two poles are as follows: photographer as seer vs. photographer as witness, photography as expression vs. photography as reportage, theories of imagination (and inner truth) vs. theories of empirical truth, affective value vs. informative value, and finally, metaphoric signification vs. metonymic signification.” (p.472)


One response to “Photographic Meaning

  1. What book was this article taken from? Would I find it in, “Photography against the Grain: Essays and Photo Works 1973–1983 (1984)”

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