Reading the forum this week, I notice that a good number of the feedback given to the images is informed by a pre-existing understanding of the work of my peers. I was aware of the previous work of many of my peers through engaging on the forums and webinars over the last few weeks, plus following many on social media.
I believe that the task was with the aim of removing this knowledge of the work in order to read the image ‘cold,’ which would be useful to understand how a variety of meaning can be drawn from an image where it may be viewed without the context and the understanding of the author’s intent. This is important as it poses the question of whether the communication of the image’s meaning is understood without the supporting documentation that might accompany a piece of work. Also, worth considering Barthes’ removal of the author, which may distort this reading of images (Barthes, 1977, pp. 142-148).
With this in mind, I decided to test the reading of my current portrait practice but realise that many of my peers have seen much of this work already. With the aim of gaining this ‘cold’ reading, I decided to use a portrait taken within the timeframe of this current module and in a similar style to the work that I have intended to shoot for my work in progress portfolio (Fig. 1), however is unrelated to the look at my local community.*
Authors might not be that dead after all.
This week, I spent some time looking in detail at Roland Barthes’ essay ‘The Death of the Author’ (1977) with the aim of seeing how this could apply to my practice. Barthes suggests that the reading of a work becomes a relationship between the reader of the work and the author, which has a fundamental impact on how that work is read. The background of the author could be prioritised over the message of the work. For example, if I am telling you that my project is about a fractured sense of community, is this being communicated through my images, or are you as a reader attributing this information to the work and changing the meaning of what has actually been presented.
The image that I added to the forum is a portrait of Dave, who is a member of the Peterborough Curling club in Ontario, Canada (Fig 1). What information in the image is actually telling us this? And did the reading of the image support this? One of the most immediate signs in my image of Dave is of the Canadian flag sewn onto his hat with the rest of the image fairly monotone by comparison. Red, I find is a very useful colour to use when composing images as it instantly draws the eye to it. Is the flag a dead giveaway that the subject is Canadian, not necessarily. Fashion items regularly use flags as an accessory, and there are a number of clothing companies that utilise the Canadian flag as part of its brand. Personally, I feel that there are a number of factors that link this image as being taken in North America, and Canada specifically. The Colour tone is typical of this part of the world, but potentially I am only aware of this fact having spent a good amount of time in the country; I purposefully chose to move Dave to the panelled background to increase this feel to the image. Dave is wearing a plaid shirt, which is also typical of a person living in Canada, however this too could be circumstantial and coincidental. Lastly, and most telling, is the name badge, which although not part of the plain of focus, you are able to make out the name and ‘Peterborough Curling’ however this too can be confused as someone living in the UK city of Peterborough. My intention that when these are read together, you are reading a portrait of a Canadian male.
The feedback more or less confirmed this (Fig. 2). The name badge and outdoor clothing meant that Dave was assumed to be working outdoors, and that the work was a defining characteristic of who Dave is. In fact, this portrait was taken indoors, however the clothing is necessary as this is a curling club where the ice needs to be kept at a low temperature. Dave is also retired and a member of the club for social and active reasons. Joanna spotted the Canadian flag and made the connection that he is indeed Canadian. Apprehension and annoyance was also a reading of the image, which is fairly accurate. Dave allowed me to take his portrait and even moved to the panelled background, however, he was not there to have his photograph taken, and was keen to continue curling, which can be viewed in some of his expression. However, I quite like this tension in the image and it is one of my favourite images from the curling club shoot. Linking to my initial commentary on pre-existent knowledge of the work, Andy’s feedback was interesting in that he does have an awareness of the kind of work that I produce having helped me out on a shoot for the last module where we have spoken at length about both of our practices. I am happy with Andy’s reading of my work but aware that this could come from a position of being more informed than most. I am interested to understand what he meant by the lack of meaning as this is a clear area of development for me.
‘Death of the Author’ is useful in that the communication needs to be strong enough for the work to stand on its own. Barthes’ requires us to consider that a work can be read in a multitude of ways, and the term ‘reader’ does not mean a physical one, but instead a way of placing the work in a space where all possible readings can be extracted (Seymour, 2017, p. 27). This notion is useful in that we can view a work liberated from authors, who might seek to control how a work is consumed (p. 22). The image of Dave was not necessarily ambiguous enough for an oppositional reading to truly test the nature of my dominant reading, the denoted elements tell enough of a narrative of who Dave is, even if this is not completely accurate.
Removing authors as the primary means in which we consume and read work can be a useful tool of reference to bear in mind how that work is being read and it puts the focus back on the message and not the messenger – for example, in the way that we understand a speech of a political figure (Seymour, 2017, p. 43).
I am not sure that I fully support that you can completely remove authors from the work as they could provide useful understanding of the intent of that work. It is almost impossible to do so anyway, especially in our information driven era where everything can be accessed and re-accessed online, although it could be argued that by virtue of the way images are shared online, they can lose meaning and easily be recontextualized in the form of memes, for example. There are a number of reasons where it is useful to understand the context in which that work was created, which could also include background information of the author. For example, as a way of breaking established hegemony in colonial and male gaze. A number of Barthes’ contemporaries such as Raymond Picard were critical of this approach to Authors, arguing that the historical and context are crucial to understand the work (Seymour, 2017, p. 24). Stanley Fish also discussed the importance of context in how we interpret meaning and an important consideration of this is in the author (p. 57).
It is important to continually assess the spaces left by the author when we look at the work in their absence. It is helpful to view a work with this separation, and a notion discussed by Michel Foucoult in his essay ‘What is an Author’ (Foucoult, 1980). However, Barthes’ himself also notes that the image is used to illustrate written word, we may also need to include some kind of commentary (in the form of words) for it to be fully understood (Barthes, 1977, p. 26). And although text does not necessarily relate to the author, it can be useful for understanding the intent. Therefore, there must be a middle ground in which images should communicate effectively and where the intention can be supported through the dominant reading of the author but not held hostage by it.
- *Although I am now wondering if this is a factor that should really matter. My project idea is looking at the notion of the fractured community, so a portrait of a small community group in Canada that I shot whilst visiting my wife’s family over the Christmas period may support the narrative of never truly fitting into one place.
Barthes, R., 1977. Image, Music, Text. London: Fontana Press.
Foucoult, M., 1980. Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews. New Edition ed. New York: Cornell University Press.
Hill, P., 2019. Dave, Peterborough Curling Club, Ontario, Canada. [Photo]
Kurowski, J. et al., 2020. Week 4 Activity: Viewers Make Meaning (Forum), s.l.: Falmouth University.
Seymour, L., 2017. An Analysis of Roland Barthes’s The Death of the Author. London: Routledge.