Re: Re-Reading Photographs

Martin Cohen (mcohen@UCLA.EDU)
Thu, 4 Jan 1996 09:03:18 -0700

Michael Riley wrote:

>Stacey Ayeh has posed an interesting question about reading photographs.
>Unfortunately, she may be right in her assessment that the semiotics list
>might provide better feedback. Appologies to Martin Cohen, but as
>Raymond Hames suggests the reading of photographs is not an a priori
>aspect of our "shared humanity" -- but is a socially learned and heavily
>conditioned process. Sure, photographs are indexical signifiers, but
>they are still signifiers -- not simply little fragmented bits of reality
>for the world to share. Furthermore, there is a very complex
>relationship between the data which can be retrieved from a photo,
>and the meanings which are assigned to that information. I agree that it
>would be best not to automatically recourse to unfortunate terms like "chiefs"
>to frame the question, but I also think it would behoove us not to loose sight
>of what is a good line of inquiry.

I would prefer to call photographs icons rather than signifiers, but let's
not get into that. Learning to "read" photographs is a rather short
process at best (and is at least in part a function of the quality of the
photographs). The greatest problem is not one of "meaning" but of
perspective; the reduction of three dimensions to two. A photograph is
completely filled in, there are no "blank" or "empty" spaces. Humans tend
to perceive presence and abscense in space, the background in your visual
field is still filled in with sensory information, but you ignore it and
see "empty space." Until you get used to the fact that a flat picture has
the background on the same plane as the foreground, this is a problem, but
a minor one. The same is true of film. Children learn quickly, but, as
our own history demonstrates, so do adults (unless you think European
peoples were predisposed to this?) Europeans did have a history of two
dimensional representational art, and I believe that any people with this
kind of background will catch on to photographs quicker. But we are still
only talking about a matter of minutes!

When the first motion pictures were demonstrated in Paris about 100 years
ago, the local newspapers had fun printing accounts of a frightened
audience fleeing their seats at a scene where a train pulled into a
station. Eye-witnesses denied that such reactions occurred. On the other
hand, European audiences did get a kick out of prevailing upon the
projectionist (who hand-cranked the film) to occasionally run it in