Preconceptions and Interpretation in Photography

Several photographs were on display, ready for critique by a class of senior-level art  students. The first was of a briefcase containing an identification badge, a book on optical engineering and a calculator. The first response was a definitive

“no one in Silicon Valley would have that in their briefcase”.

For the Millennials in the audience,  Silicon Valley is a place to which people come to code smartphone aps and drive up housing prices. Even though at least one person in Silicon Valley had those items in their briefcase, they were unable to accept the documentary evidence in front of them – in spite of the supposed ability of photographs to deceive one into thinking they are “truth”.

Interspersed through the exhibit were photographs taken through a car window while driving down “typical” streets in San Jose and its suburbs. Small, tech companies everywhere. Another observer commented that these photographs  were of places that “don’t actually make anything, they just move stuff around”. In fact, the locations were purposely chosen to be of places that do make physical things.

The purpose of the work was to explore the wonder and dislocation experienced by “the stranger” who, on arriving in Silicon Valley, discovers an entire ecosystem supporting high-tech start-ups. In any city’s strip malls you might find a “mom and pop” ethnic food store. Here, the shop next door will be a guy designing, building and selling custom high frequency probes for wafer scale testing of integrated circuits. The local big box store promotes refrigerators, HDTVs and SchmartBoard: “You can now hand solder practically any surface mount component quickly, easily and flawlessly!”

Even with this explanation, almost all of the suggestions for improving the photographs would have resulted in reinforcing the trope of suburban office parks as ubiquitous, artificial and sterile. At best unrelated to, and at worse the complete opposite, of the work’s purpose.

All of this could be passed off as an artifact of art students critiquing a piece of bad work. Since the work did not have its intended effect, it is in some sense “bad”, and art students are not naïve viewers. But as Mark Twain once said “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” This experience demonstrated that our interpretation of a photograph — and everything else for that mater — is in large measure determined by “what we know for sure”, even if what we know “just ain’t so.”

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