On Context – ESSAY FROM BLACK+WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY MAGAZINE 190

This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine

context

ˈkɒntɛkst/
noun
the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood.

To give your work context is to give it meaning to the wider world. Without context our work may seem irrelevant. With context our images connect to the intricate dynamic of human experience enabling people to form a bond with it. The purpose of this piece is to focus on a consideration that we all know to be true, is not often discussed and can have a great impact on our photographic legacy.

In my last article I spoke of the creation of art as being the act of bringing attention to the abstract. This is a good way to start looking at the concept of context; in observing something and making an exposure you have effectively placed your subject in its own context – one that has meaning for you. This initial personal contextualisation gives the impetus required for the photographer to capture the image and give him or her the reason to commit to it. Let’s say this is called ‘primary context’. At this stage all sorts of nuances, details and fluctuations of meaning are either consciously or subconsciously known by its originator.

Now a selection of images is made perhaps for an exhibition, a book or entering into a competition. At this stage ‘secondary contextualisation’ is required. As your images transfer from the private world of their inception and selection to the public world of arbitrary engagement those qualities and ideas in your work will be lost unless you can elicit some control over how they are viewed.

The viewing public do not have the visual acuity, time or inclination to engage with your images as you would wish so you must help them by controlling the environment in which your work is seen. The key here is to concentrate the viewer’s gaze on your work without distraction. This needs to be done both practically and conceptually. A frame is a ‘practical’ conxtextualising tool. Here the border allows the elements of the image to live in their own world – a world defined and delineated as something different but the wooden surround. A secondary or ‘conceptual’ context can be described by imagining the power of a solo show at the Tate versus the display of some work in a village hall. The same pictures may be exhibited but to different effect by leveraging gravity by association.

These suggestions are all vital aspects of placing your work in the right ‘light’, perspective or context. This is a report from the front line of working with photographers over many years but it is not exhaustive. The craft of placing your work in the right context might come to you instinctively or not. It doesn’t matter – context is essential when it comes to generating the most effect from showing your work. Context is relevance. It can’t be put simpler than that. Ignore it at your peril.

Here are some observations made during my time printing for photographers all over the world. I’ve had a chance to examine success and failure at close hand and these notes reflect some of the lessons I’ve learned.

ONLINE
It is too easy to show your images to many people. Flickr, Facebook, Instagram and the like all make the exposition of your work almost automatic. But, unless your pictures are connected to an event or cause, these media are disastrous for preserving the gap between the metaphysic truth of your images and the prosaic mess of the world around them. Your work needs space – space to make its own case. It is much better to use these media to bring people to your own website.

WEBSITES
Picture editors and curators have told my so many times that websites need to fulfill only two functions; clear visibility of images and ease of navigation. That’s it. A website does not need to be pretty – simply functional allowing the work to ‘speak’.

GROUP VERSUS SOLO SHOWS
When showing prints avoid group shows – they do nobody’s work any favours. Instead commit to your images and find a space where they can be shown on their own. Group exhibitions have the benefit of bringing more people in to view your work and they can be effective for people starting out but they are messy, prone to compromise and have the effect of degrading the power of your work especially when your work is adjacent to a weaker display. The aforementioned ‘village hall’ is a better environment to display your work than risking contamination by acquaintance with poor images.

PRESENTATION
Framing is over considered. You cannot reinvent photography with a stunning frame. Keep it simple and make all your pictures the same size so that the viewer can ‘tune out’ the ancillary details and concentrate on the actual images.

iPads are great for casually showing your work but we automatically devalue the work on show because screen images are so pervasive in our visual lives.

Hanging pictures is crucial to their impact. Poor hanging will reduce the power of your exhibition by a huge amount. Make sure that frames are neat and clean and hung so that they are dead straight. Failure to do this makes you look like an amateur (I mean this in the pejorative sense!). Neat hanging is more important than correct exposure for the purposes of connecting with viewers.

PORTFOLIOS
A set of prints in a clamshell portfolio box is endures as a good way to show your work. Allow wide borders (go up a paper size to incorporate this) and you get the double benefit of being able to handle prints (matte paper cleans up very well – direct message me and I’ll tell you how) and the separation from the environment that every good shot deserves.

CURATING A SELECTION
Loose a third. Some of my clients refer to the process of selection as ‘drowning your babies’ – a horrific term but one that sums up the process well. Your final selection should hurt. There will be loved pictures left behind because they weaken the ‘whole’.

Agree or disagree? Let me know at @schneideman331 or email me at alex@asprinting.net

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