No context; no meaning?

I was looking at  Only The Dead Have Seen The End Of War, a body of work by Calum Douglas in the March 2016 edition of the BJP; it's a really interesting idea.  I enjoyed pondering on the meaning of the images displayed in the magazine; and as the photographer himself says, this was his intention: "Though the result forms a timeline, the chosen images do not offer a particular narrative, instead encouraging the viewer to linger on the meaning of each photograph". (Smyth and Wright, 2016) So there's no story to follow, at least, not one which is apparent or deliberate. There is context of course; we know how and why Douglas's image link together, not only because he has told us but also because we can make the visual connections. But this made me think again on something that John Szarkowski said about photography 'never being successful at narrative' and about images 'needing extensive captioning to explain what's going on'. (Szarkowski, 2007).


Douglas's images individually viewed, out of context, would lose most if not all of their meaning. Or we could easily attribute meaning that isn't there. This is not a criticism of the work of course, the same could apply to many photographic collections - in fact it is the intention of the photographer in this case that the context is conveyed to the viewer (studio shots symbolising the seemingly never ending conflicts in the Middle East) so that they can ponder on the meaning of the images.

I think the point I'm trying to get clear in my own mind here is that the more abstract, or conceptual the image, or series of images, the more important it is to give context to them if you wish it to convey the intended meaning to the viewer. This is particularly the case as soon as you put the photograph on the wall of a gallery - it automatically must have meaning then. Surely as it is on display, there must be some important message that it's conveying. We need to consider many things when we look at photographs that don't have captions associated with them. One consideration is should we read anything into them at all?


Smyth, D. and Wright, S. (2016). Projects: Calum Douglas. British Journal of Photography, (7845), p.16.

Szarkowski, J. (2007). The Photographer's Eye. New York: Museum of Modern Art. pp.8-9