Introduction to Context & Narrative

As I begin this course I thought it might be an idea to note down my initial feelings and understanding of what 'context and narrative' means to me. I have read some of the course literature already and have bought and read 'Context and Narrative' by Maria Short, so I do have a basic understanding of the subject and what to expect from the course.

Context is very interesting when talking about photography as it is something that a lot of people will overlook or not think about and yet in fact there is a context to every photograph - it isn't always consciously in the mind of the photographer, but it is still there. Context is something that I am continuing to get a better understanding of as I progress with my studies. Where a photograph is shown makes a big difference to how it is viewed. A photograph can take on a whole new meaning if it is shown on the cover of the Daily Mail compated to the same image shown on the front of New Internationalist for example. How the photographer thinks about the subject may also affect the context as they will choose to photograph it in a certain way - this is also affected by who the photographer is (journalist or family member) and why they took the photograph. Additionally how an image is displayed also affects the context: the same image seen on my blog has less gravitas than if it were seen on display, enlarged and in a frame in Tate Britain. These are simple starting points for me, to what is a very interesting topic. 

Narrative can be described simply as story-telling and most of us might say we are familiar with how photographs can do this... but are we really? John Szarkowski in the introduction to The Photographer's Eye says that photography has never been successful at narrative, and even the attempts of early photographic magazines to tell stories through sequences still relied on text to describe what was going on. I found this observation by Szarkowski slightly odd as I was under the impression that narrative was a common idea in photography and the captions weren't really required. Of course, I understand that text and captions help the viewer to more easily understand the story that the photographer is trying to tell so perhaps there is more to what Szarkowski is saying than I have considered. Maybe we really do need text to allow viewers to understand what any hidden narrative a series of photographs may have - if indeed there is one. In fact the more I ponder this the more I find myself agreeing with Szarkowski that individual photographs, particularly when taken 'out of context' can tell us a very different story to the one that the photographer may have been trying to tell - that is, if there is no text present to clarify things.


The Photographer's Eye, Szarkowski, J. 2012 The Museum of Modern Art, New York.