Exercise 5.6: Context and meaning

Task: Read John A Walker's essay 'Context as a Determinant of Photographic Meaning'. Summarise Walker's key points. 

John Albert Walker (born 1938) is a British art critic and historian. His essay, 'Context as a Determinant of Photographic Meaning', is just one of his many thematic essays about art, design and mass media. 

Walker begins his essay by asking the reader how a wedding photograph is recontextualised each time it is present in a different way, such as in a magazine or in a family album. Whilst the space within the frame contains a world within which we can enter, the context continues to influence our own perception of the image. This could be based on the viewer's previous experience with that type of media, or a similar experience as presented in the image, such as their own wedding day. 

In order to qualify the term 'context', Walker (2009, 2) believes that it could be 'architectural, media, mental, socio-historical, etc.' When a photograph is recontextualised then there is a change of emphasis in the depicted content. The wedding photo in an album focuses on the bride, where as in a bridal magazine the dress is the focal point.  

Meanwhile, recontextualisation as part of a montage with a caption, text, or other image, can create a juxtaposition which did not feature in the original, isolated image. Nowadays, Google image searches decontextualise photographs. Not only are they removed from their intended environment, but there is also the possibility that they will be compared with those neighbouring them on the screen. With the emergence of wifi enabled devices, the viewer is able to digest these images in different locations, and sometimes the same image in different places. 

Despite the photographer having their own interpretation of the photograph, Walker raises the point that we need to be able to account for the circulation and changes in meaning, as it has been reproduced. The image has evolved during its lifespan. 'Its circulation, its currency (Walker, 2009, p.4). The Internet age, with its overwhelming proliferation of images, has meant that it is difficult to know the original context for an image. What it was originally intended for. Furthermore, since Walker's essay, the viewer (or consumer) is also a creator of images. This experience of image creating and sharing has possibly had an influence on the viewer's interpretation of an image. With this social networking of images, an image maker might have the intention of using it in a number of different contexts, such as Facebook, their smart phone 'wall paper' and hung on a wall at home. I wonder how this would tally with Walker's opening example of the wedding photo. 

Although Walker did claim that it was impossible to fully be aware of how someone else interprets an image in another context, social networking enables the commenting on of photographs. Subsequently, these comments have the potential to impact on another's interpretation of the scene, such as drawing attention to another aspect of the scene. 

As an artist, Walker is content with the concept of an artwork being commissioned for a specific purpose, for a specific location. However, the development of the Internet has randomised the process of sharing images. During an image's circulation, it can be difficult to view the original image, as intended by the photographer. 

This article has made me more aware of how I share my images, and made me question why I am sharing them. If I was to display the images for my fifth assignment, then I would want to use led screens, to display the animated gifs. I could even install them at the location where they were taken. The message of Consume would then be much stronger there, in the places which could be endangered. 


Walker, J. A. (2009) Context as a determinant of photographic meaning.