I read Terry Barrett’s essay about context in photographs (Barrett, 1997) while I was in the process of researching the photograph below for an unrelated reason, and decided to use it as a case study for considering the different interpretations that might be placed on it in some of the different contexts in which it might be presented. This exercise also highlighted the fact that the contextual viewpoint determines which elements of the image are brought to the forefront of attention.
In formulating interpretations [of photographs] or in adjudicating among implicit or explicit interpretations, three sources of information are available for examination: information evident within the picture, information surrounding the picture in its presentation, and information about the picture’s making. […] These sources may be called the picture’s internal context, external context and original context.
— Terry Barrett (1997)
The internal context is the image itself and the fact that it is untitled and was taken by my father in late 1962 or early 1963.
The original context is that the picture was taken on an outing to Gharyan in north-west Libya with family and friends. The framing of the image indicates that the mural was its primary subject.
I have personally viewed this image through a couple of different external contexts, and have outlined these below along with other possible contexts that I think are potential frameworks for viewing it and which offer different interpretations.
Internal context refers to the picture, its title if it has one, date, and maker. External context refers to the picture’s presentational environment. Original context refers to the picture’s causal environment, namely, that which was physically and psychologically present to the maker at the time the picture was taken.
— Terry Barrett (1997)
External context 1: a family slideshow
This was the way we viewed the image while my father was alive, and our attention would be on the people in the picture – my youngest sister Sarah in the arms of my mother, accompanied by close friends of the family.
External context 2: an archive of photographs
After my father died in 2015 my sister Jane scanned more than 300 of his slides and passed copies on to me. I have filed them in my computer’s Photos app in a folder entitled Dad’s slides. In this context the image’s status as part of a body of work is emphasised.
External context 3: social history
Viewed in the context of social history, the image shows a glimpse of British Forces family life in an overseas posting in the postwar era as well as the fashions and preferences of the period. The mural’s depiction of the north African coastline as a woman and the style of that depiction reveals wartime Forces’ attitudes towards both women and the region.
External context 4: a study of untutored artwork styles
The image might be placed in a study of American pin-up art or a history of graffiti as an example of a style of drawing and/or a record of a specific work created in March 1943 by the artist Clifford Saber, a volunteer American ambulance driver with the British 8th Army.
External context 5: a historical study of WW2
Clifford Saber created the mural when he was briefly based at Gharyan, and there are many military references in the drawing. A similar photograph (but without people in it) is held in the collection of London’s Imperial War Museum.
External context 6: an analysis of Libya’s political history
The photograph was taken at a time when King Idris ruled Libya, before Colonel Gaddafi’s revolution overthrew him to establish a republic. The mural was created at the start of a pre-Idris period of Allied occupation, which followed nine years of occupation by Italy, who built the barracks that housed the mural. The interpretations that the image might invite would depend on whether it were included in a western analysis of history or an Arab one.
References and resources
Barrett, T. (1997) “Photographs and contexts”. An excerpt from Goldblatt, D. and Brown, L. (eds) Aesthetics: A Reader in Philosophy of the Arts. USA: Prentice-Hall. Available at: http://terrybarrettosu.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/B_PhotAndCont_97.pdf [accessed 28/03/18]
Imperial War Museum (2018) “The Lady of Garian” wall murals, Gharyan, Libya. Available at: https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205118244 [accessed 28/03/18]
Wikipedia (2018) “Gharyan”. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gharyan [accessed 28/03/18]