Meanings, frames, borders and dialogue
Ph.D. student in Curriculum and Instruction
Course: EDCI 690 – Digital Photography: Technology and Educational Implications
Student number 0237092
Review authors such as Berger and Barrett as they discuss the meaning-making
associated with photography. The camera presents viewers with information that is
selected, arranged and altered in order to convey a particular version of “truth”. How can
we interpret the meaning of photographs? What do this critics advise as responsible
approaches for analysis, interpretation and judgment of images?
1. Image as monologue and dialogue
Both books, “Ways of Seeing”, by John Berger and “Criticizing Photographs:
Introduction to Understanding Images”, by Terry Barret, tell us how to interpret images,
either paintings or photographs. Apparently, an image can be just an expression of a
monologue: the artist makes his work in a certain moment, and the image is revealing
itself to the viewer(s) after, when the artist is no longer present. The communication
looks, at a first glance, to be only one way. The artist does not have the feedback from
viewer(s) in real time, and cannot change his/her work according to the opinions he/she
This appearance is misleading. The dialogue existed from the very beginning, in the
moment before the art subject was made and before the above considerations about
seeing the final product could be even done. The artist was already in a two way
communication with the surroundings, society and future “consumers” of his/her product.
The still image is just a concise way of expressing this dialogue.
The oil painting of some centuries ago was the result of a long initial dialogue
between the artist and the person who ordered the work. The painting was expressing
more the life conceptions and ideas of the future owner, and less those of the painter. The
painter had a limited liberty in dialogue – a limited possibility of communicating his own
ideas and conceptions. According to John Berger, the images for publicity go with this
dialogue a step further. They communicate what is the image to envy, and are not meant
for the present, but for the future – to create a desire/future consumer and to induce the
idea that the consumer can also become a subject of envy. The target audience of the
image is asked to give an answer which can be either in accordance with the intent of the
image, either against it.
None of the authors literally wrote that the subject of their books is the human
dialogue, but in fact, both books are about establishing, continuing and understanding a
human dialogue, in which images just happened to be the carrier of a certain message.
2. Authors’ approaches to interpreting images
Terry Barrett has a structural approach towards meaning-making associated with
photography. The book was organized according to the main steps in criticism:
describing, interpreting, evaluating and theorizing. The material is focused on one type of
images, photographs. The book is intended to transform somebody with no art
background into an aware viewer and, implicitly, a critic. The presented concepts are
organized in a hierarchical form. The general concepts in the book are branched and
discussed, without exhausting the subject and without imposing a correct way of meaning
making. Terry Barrett follows in his writing the sequence: enunciation of the concept,
location of it in the general context, example(s) for it and explanation of the concept. The
book is a standalone work. The reader is invited to enlarge his horizon with other
readings, but the book itself has a clear beginning, content and end.
John Berger has a less structural approach towards meaning making of still images.
His book is a collection of seven essays. Their order is not by chance, and the reader is
invited several times to go beyond the written words. Images are evidence of class and
gender discrimination. Some essays are made only from images, with no comments. The
author cannot be accused of being too left oriented because of this technique. The
strongest essay against capitalism and imperialism is the essay number six. The author
does not express any opinion, but the selection and arrangement of images convey to a
particular version of “truth”.
The essays are heavy loaded with ideas that could be, themselves, developed on
separate books. The main advise as responsible approach for analysis, interpretation and
judgment of images (paintings and photographs) is to expand the critique towards outside
the criticized work, and take in consideration the context in which the still image was
made. While having a certain structure, the book does not intend to be a manual towards
criticizing images, like Terry Barrett’s book can be. “Ways of Seeing”, by John Berger is
meant as a part of a continuum, and pages can be added without altering the congruence
of the initial content of the book.
3. Frames and borders
The meaning-making associated with photography is helped by the physical
delimitation of the image. It occupies a well defined space of itself, and the “exterior” can
be changed, without altering the meaning of the image. The picture or painting can be
transported in another house or museum, and the meaning would be the same. This idea
is challenged by John Berger which makes us cautious about the religious paintings from
the walls of churches. These paintings describe the inside life of the church and their
meaning is altered without the space for which they were meant.
All meaning-making associated with photography and painting is dependent on the
previous knowledge of the viewer. A photograph representing a glass of water would be
recognized by human beings as the picture of a glass of water, and the attention would
sleep towards how that glass was photographed. An alien civilization, not using the same
objects as we use, would have a totally different approach towards interpreting the same
photograph. Related to this idea, Terry Barrett invites us, as a first step in meaning-
making, to describe the picture – to get familiar with the subject of our critique.
Describing starts with physical characteristics, like the medium, from what an art object
is made of. The attention is concentrated between the frames and the border is clearly
defined by the frames. The next step in description is the style – trying to eliminate the
borders imposed by the framing of the photograph and match the general characteristics
of the image with a class of images, a school of making this kind of work. Examples of
styles are neo-expressionism and pictorialism. Once the frames are no longer a strict
border, comparing and contrasting are possible. Comparing and contrasting is a common
method of critical analyzing of art works, where differences and communalities of the
criticized work are found through comparison with works of the same artist or other
artists. Internal and external sources of information can alter the meaning associated with
the photograph. A fight between two solders can be considered a separate incident by a
critic and a part of a war by another critic, who recognized the uniforms of the solders as
the uniforms from a certain war. Description is already an interpretation and evaluation.
Those aspects are important to be taken in consideration, especially when the meaning-
making is put in an article, and the reader of the article does not have the chance
himself/herself to see the image that is criticized.
The same idea about the importance of frames/borders in meaning making is
expressed by John Berger, without the use of the words “frame” and “border”. John
Berger writes that “when an image is presented as a work of art, the way people look at it
is affected by a whole learnt assumptions about art”. These external factors, out of the
frames of the criticized work, are concerning the beauty, truth, civilization, genius, form
and status, to exemplify just with some. More than that, the assumptions change during
the historical period. John Berger is more concerned by this changing because his subject
is meaning-making for art works spanning centuries. Terry Berrett limited the subject of
his book to photographs, which are a recent appearance on the art scene.
4. Meaning-making and mystification
Terry Barrett declared from the very beginning the meaning-making he is using for the
photographs follows the steps: describing, interpreting, evaluating and theorizing.
Interpreting is “to account for all the described aspects of a photograph and to post
meaningful relationships between aspects (Barrett, 1996)”. The interpretation is
dependent on the person who makes it. The subject of interpretation can be a single piece
of work, a collection of works by the same authors, or a whole collection of works,
delimited by a style, a country or a certain period it represents. The interpretation does
not necessarily try to reveal authors’ own intention.
According to John Berger, interpretation can degenerate in mystification, “the process
of explaining away what might otherwise be evident (Berger, 1972)”. The photographer
has the advantage and disadvantage of showing more obviously than the painter his/her
own position, both physical and ideological. Art interpretation can serve the interests of
ruling class and did so for many well known and appreciated works. The piece of work is
already itself an interpretation or mystification of reality.
The comparative interpretation tries to find the content inside the borders of the
criticized art and to compare its elements with elements from other pieces of art or with
the same elements known or presented in other ways in critic’s everyday life or
imagination. This meaning-making is prone to be not understood by somebody lacking
the same knowledge the critic has.
The archetypal interpretation tries to find universal/mythical archetypes and to relate
the image with those archetypes.
A feminist interpretation would underline the gender discrimination and the use and
abuse of women in pictures as sex symbols. Publicity often uses beautiful women in
attempts to sell products that have no connection with sex and women. Women and
objects are put on the same plan, as things that can be bought and possessed. Photography
inherited a lot of baggage from oil paintings from hundred years ago. While men were
represented depending on the social power and wealth they had, women were more often
represented as ornamental beings. Man’s presence in a painting (translated today in both
paintings and photos) shows what he can do to the viewer or what he can do for the
viewer. “By contrast, a woman’s presence expresses her own attitude to herself, and
defines what can and cannot be done to her (Berger, 1972)”. Many painters represented
women devoting themselves not to the surroundings or to the man that is also presented
in the painting, eventually as her lover, but to the viewer/consumer/owner who paid the
painting. The interpretation of this kind of art necessary takes in consideration what is or
what it was correct in painter’s or photographer’s mind, and how the notion of
“correctness” changed in time or has to change, in critic’s interpretation. The second and
the forth essays from John Berger’s book show us women presented as saints, prostitutes,
objects of possession and mothers. The interpretation is let to the reader.
Psychoanalytic interpretation uses a Freudian interpretation, in which everything is
related to sex and oriented, in a way or another, towards sex.
The formalist interpretation is based primarily on considerations of the image’s formal
proprieties. The most of the meaning-making is done from the compositional
arrangement of the still image.
The semiotic interpretation “seeks more to understand how an image means than what
it means (Barrett, 1996)”.
The Marxist interpretation puts the criticized image under the light of the society
which produced it or it is represented. The whole book of John Berger can be considered
a Marxist (and, in the same time, a feminist) interpretation of art. Art belongs to the
ruling class. Art belonged to the ruling class, more than it belongs now. Paintings were
used as justification of ruling class – the wealth meant everything. In the essay number
five, John Berger makes a meaning-making of paintings representing objects and
landscapes. They were signs of wealth and who could posses was somebody – who had
nothing was nobody. Rich people were represented in distant impersonal positions. When
they smiled, they did not show the teeth. Poor people were assimilated with objects that
can be possessed. When smiling, they were ready to offer themselves like objects, and
smiled showing the teeth. The Marxist interpretation did a lot of damage in the ex-
communist regimes from Eastern Europe. Its meaning-making degenerated in
mystification and art works were destroyed or hidden from public view.
The interpretation based on stylistic influences puts the criticized work into a
historical or stylistic context.
The biographical interpretation tries to make the meaning-making of the image based
on the reason why the artist choused a certain subject.
The intentionalist interpretation bases the meaning-making on information provided
by the artist, regarding what he/she wanted to express in his/her work.
The interpretation based on technique is more and more a temptation today, when our
life is flooded with technical toys and it is considered “cool” to be a techie. The image
can be done in many ways and the choice of one of them can lead to a certain
Mystification is a real danger in meaning-making. Any singular use of the above
interpretations has chances to degenerate into mystification. A feminist interpretation can
completely ban the nudes from the art, although there are nudes representing not only
women, but men, too. An extreme feminist interpretation would never reveal the
independent beauty, confidence and strength that a woman can have in a nude,
independent of the beauty (or ugly) body is presented in an image. A semiotic only
interpretation can completely ignore the message an image transmits. Both authors, in
different words, suggest a combined interpretation is more appropriate for analysis,
interpretation and judgment of images.
5. Judgment of images
Judgment of a painting or photograph is often done in one word: “good” or “bad”. The
judgment is based on the interpretation, meaning-making process. If a photograph let out
of its framing a part of the head of somebody, for example, can bring a judgment
expressed by “bad’, after a technique interpretation. Even such a simple judgment and
interpretation can be challenged, and another person can find values in the criticized
picture. Terry Barrett tells us that judgments must be sustained by reasons, and that
simple words like “remarkable” are not very useful neither to the author, neither to
others. The judgment is based on criteria, which are “rules and standards for greatness
upon which appraisals are ultimately based (Barrett, 1996)”. The common theories of art
supplied criteria that are used for photography, too: realism, expressionism, formalism
The oldest theory of art is the realism, also known as mimeticism. The artist tries to
make his work like a window towards a piece of reality. The image is judged by how
close it gets to the reality. The photography and digital imaging can construct a reality
that does not exist. The camera presents viewers with information that is selected,
arranged and altered. Constructing the reality and the concept of “truth” is dangerous. We
have the tendency to believe photographs. New techniques can lie our eyes without
thinking a false reality was constructed. Lying does not even require a lot of technique –
lying can be simply done by omission. For example, a photograph can present a person
who generously offers 100 dollars to the photographer, as a free gift. The framing of the
image can omit a third person who has a gun aimed of the “generous” person. The reality
can be a very different one, if elements are taken out of the picture and, even if the
photograph is a window towards the real reality, the window is too narrow for meaning-
Expressionism/expressivism judge the images by the intensity of the feelings
provoked to the viewer/critic. Photography can be not only a window to reality, but a
mirror to it. The photographer can freeze moments not usually seen by the public, or can
present them in a different way that makes the viewer change his/her attitude towards the
“Formalism insists on the autonomy of art (Barrett, 1996)”. In this kind of judgment
the image is judged only by its form, and the subject is considered irrelevant. Straight
photography (images coming directly from the camera, with no manipulation) is targeting
a formalism type of judgment. Pure straight photography never existed, because the
choice of even black and white film for outdoors or for indoors (different white balance)
was already a manipulation. Straight photography is almost an illusion in digital
photography, where noise reduction algorithms, altering the images and especially the
fine details in the images that can be confused with noise, cannot be completely turned
off and are inerrant of the constructive principal of digital cameras.
The instrumentalism judgment is in direct contradiction to the formalism judgment.
Art is criticized according to how good instrument is in the service of a cause, in the
service of life, in general.
Originality is often a spontaneous judgment criteria: we see pictures taken by our
friends and we automatically think how original those pictures are. Craftmanship and
good composition are other used criteria.
Terry Barrett warns for flexibility in judgment. The best is to use several criteria and
to give arguments for them. Some types of judgments can complement each other, some
are in contradiction one with another. The judgment from today can be changed in the
future and an image that had no value in the opinion of a critic can gain new values in the
opinion of the same critic, after re-evaluation of his/her judgment.
The last step in criticizing images, according to Barrett, is theorizing. “Theorizing
about photography, like interpreting and evaluating photographs, results in conclusions
that are more or less enlightening, more or less informative, more or less helpful in
making photography, photographs, and the world understandable (Barrett, 1996)”.
6. Communication and dialogue
Both books offer ways of interpreting and judging images. Images are a mean of
communication spread more and more due to the technological advances. Photography is
available for everybody and we became flooded with images as we became flooded with
text, in the recent past. A responsible approach must be taken for analysis, interpretation
and judgment of images. Personal feelings can be hurt and interpretation/judgment can
serve, on purpose or not, unwanted propaganda. John Berger’s book is an attempt
analysis of this phenomenon. Art – including images – is an activity done in the human
society for the human society and flexible and open dialogue must guide images’
interpretation and judgment.
Barrett, T. M. (1996). Criticizing photographs: an introduction to understanding
images. Mountain View, Calif., Mayfield Pub. Co.
Berger, J. (1972). Ways of seeing. London, Harmondsworth,, British Broadcasting