Re: Readings of Photographs

Martin Cohen (mcohen@UCLA.EDU)
Fri, 5 Jan 1996 08:45:42 -0700

Michael Riley wrote:

>The process of learning to read photos is a complex one, and it is a PROCESS.
>That is, perhaps rather than there being one reducible way that WE
>collectively see photographs, there may be fundamentally different modes of
>responding based on our positions (albeit one person might practice more
>than one, and they could change over time if we are retrained -- such as
>going to art photography school). Formalist art photographers, social critics,
>historical documentarians, tourists, advertisers, lovers, and the nostalgic
>bereaved understand the same image on different terms from different social
>positions. Differences in class, as well as culture, as well as
>history, as well as the context the photo is inserted into also inform our
>responses. The fact that photos are simultaneously both iconic as well
>as indexical signifiers underscores this process.

This has little to do with recognizing an image in photographic form. This
is a matter of cultural interpretation and meaning filtered through an
individual's experience.

I would not say that "learning" to recognizing food is a difficult process.
We all master it, despite the fact that what may be on my plate tonight
may be quite different form in appearance, odor and taste than any form of
food not culturally modified. And yet even your dog will still recognize
it as food. What you descibed above are not qualities of the photograph,
but cultural meanings that may be layered on to it.

Neither you nor your dog, for example, may understand that my meal,
beginning with herring and moving on to brisket, boiled potato and tzimmos
evokes deep memories of my grandmother who was born in Romania and grew up
Jewish in London, or that the meal has shared meanings among others of
similar backgrounds. But these have nothing to do with the human/animal
ability to recognize food. (Don't give me stories of people, usually
Western people, who starved rather than eat the "weird" food offered them.
Foolishness is not the same as inability to recognize what others see as
food. It is not that they cannot recognize, it is that they have learned
and internalized a revoltion that is akin to racism. Again, your dog would
have no such problem).

So, just as the "meaning" of a photograph, and the way it is interpreted
may be complicated, so may the "meaning" of food - what it is, when it is
eaten, how, with whom, etc. BUT - universally, and with no training
required - a photograph is an image, and food is food. And recognizing
food is always more important than understanding it, or, I may not know
much about food, but I know what I like.

Martin Cohen

"A rose is a rose is a a rose"