The Delicate Thread of Photographic Context

Apr 18, 2024

The Delicate Thread of Photographic Context

Apr 18, 2024

With the letter A, at the very beginning of David Campany’s excellent lecture ‘Photography and Cinema from A to Z (and back again)’ at UCL here in London the other night, he showed us a still from the 1961 Italian film Accattone. It’s an image of tables at an outdoor cafe with the frozen action of several seated men flinging themselves away from a table. He explained that he first encountered the image in a magazine he subscribed to when he was around 12 and had no idea what was actually happening within the image. He pledged never to see the film, so the image was never “ruined”. The idea of intentionally leaving a disconnect with the context of a photograph one is compelled by is a fascinating idea. It roughly connects with some of my pondering about the medium applied through my work.

Having words accompany photographs throughout their existence, telling us what we are looking at, is a critical and often overlooked aspect of photography. It seems obvious, but it isn’t. I find it tragic when I encounter an orphaned family album that has nothing written, just pages of faces and scenes. I continually encourage my mother to write descriptions in our old albums. When the delicate thread of context is severed, photographs immediately shift from a visual description to a visual suggestion. They transform into a visual theatre proposing something of the past rather than being a part of something from the past. Sometimes, the view in a photographic image is straightforward; often, it’s not. Photographs have the unique ability to tell the truth and mislead simultaneously. (The work of Thomas Demand immediately comes to mind.)

About 70% of the photographic material I gather, both negatives and prints, arrive stripped of descriptions – or have cryptically few. I research many of them and have successfully reconnected several with context. But there are many others that, as much as I search, I cannot discover the story behind them. Like the children’s game Telephone, descriptions and context of photographs get garbled and lost with time.

The images I’m sharing in this post are my response to Campany’s Accattone still. They are selected from a series of negatives acquired from the United States 5 or 6 years ago. I know nothing about what is happening in the images, who the women photographed are, or why they were taken. I can only deduce an era based on atire and the boxy cut of the negative edge – likely the 1950s. The images appear to show an experiment taking place on young women in what could be an accademic setting. In my mind these photographs could be cinematic stills from a hybrid of the Handmaid’s Tale and La Jetée.

Thinking about Campany’s lecture, I’m glad that I haven’t been able to unearth the story behind these photographs. I prefer to preseve them behind the proscenium arch in the theatre of the imagination.