Contextual Ambivalence: Images + Inscriptions

Contextual Ambivalence: Images and Inscriptions

In my last post, I talked a bit about the potentially dizzying contexts of production and use that accompany nearly any photograph.

I argued there for the importance of understanding—to the extent possible—the meaningful contexts of production in subsequent interpretations of photos. And while I argued against the notion of a photograph-as-text—as a self-contained unit of meaning irrespective of its social processes of production and use—I also willingly conceded that photographs are indeed meaningful (in fact, ontologically and epistemologically multiple) without rich contexts of provenance and circulation.

My argument was simply that we should strive, whenever possible, to recover contexts of provenance, circulation, and use as a means of transcending superficial “readings” of photographs as texts.

This refresher serves as preamble to an intriguing book of found photographs that speak to a kind of contextual ambivalence which I hope builds upon my last post.

Ransom Riggs’ (2012) Talking pictures: Images and messages rescued from the past is described by the author as a coffee table book of vintage found photos.

It’s a really neat book, with some startling pictures, but it’s ambivalent in terms of how it treats contexts and photos as stand-alone objects.

One the one hand, Riggs presents these images as meaningful in themselves, as examples of the curious, nostalgic, voyeuristic, and vernacular. He argues for their value through arrangement—by placing these geographically, temporally, and situationally disparate photos in a collection together and then arranging them thematically around notions such as “Clowning Around,” “Life During Wartime,” and “Hide This Please.”

Simply doing so has worth and value. The images are arresting, interesting, full of life and pathos and curiosity. They are “crammed” with meaning, as Barthes (1980) has argued—“The photographic image is full” (p. 89).

And yet Riggs’ ambivalence also argues something of the opposite; all of the images in his book are deemed significant because each couples photography—writing with light—and inscriptions—writing with glyphs and symbols. The images are chosen and arranged because they say something in two modalities simultaneously, because they include writing. Because they aren’t crammed full (enough) and overflowing with meaning (enough) on their own. They are not texts-without-writing.

In his brief but insightful introduction (and in the video above), he notes: “I became a collector, albeit an odd one; my primary interest was in snapshots that had writing on them” (p. xi).

He argues that “A photo might seem absolutely ordinary, but for a few words scribbled on the opposite side” (p. xii). Those few words—that microcontext—transforms the images from something mundane (here, he shows a blurry image of a rock wall, a street, a street sign, and some shrubs—“as banal as snapshots get”; p. xii) into “hidden gems” (p. xii).

Indeed, for Riggs, the smallest bit of written context is transformative (p. xii): “It lent the mutest of snapshots a voice” (p. xiii). “The best inscriptions,” he argues, “make a snapshot feel current, no matter when it was taken” (p. xiii). The inscription which transforms the blurry, banal street photo is this: “Rock wall near Rose Bowl, Pasadena Cal. where Dorothy found a Baby Girl on Jan. 24 1961” (p. xii).

These images+inscriptions include something else for Riggs, and for people who interact with them. Pinney (2011), drawing on Barthes (1980), has described the double temporality of photography. Understanding this notion requires a bit of context from Barthes’ Camera Lucida.

In consideration of an 1865 photograph of Lewis Payne, a comely young man in shackles after his attempted assassination of Secretary of State W.H. Seward, Barthes’ interpretation of the image is: “This will be and this has been” (1980, p. 96; emphasis in original).

Barthes’ own caption for the photograph (his own interpellation, his own inscription, his own figuration of image+writing) is “He is dead and he is going to die…” (p. 95; emphasis in original).

Pinney (2011) describes this paradox of photography, how all photographs “bring the ‘there-then’ of the making of the photograph into the ‘here-now’ of our viewing of the photograph” (p. 85).

As Riggs suggests of the photographs he collected, “many of the snapshots I’d handled were of dead people; they were old pictures, after all” (p. x). But this realization occurs within the context of photography’s double temporality, most viscerally in his description of one of the first found photos that had a major impact on him—a portrait of a pretty teenager who reminded him of a summer camp crush.

He kept the image in a cardboard frame for almost a year, his “fantasy girlfriend” (p. x). At some point, however, he decided to transfer the image from the cardboard frame to a photo album, and at that point, for the first time since acquiring the photo, he saw the inscription on the back: “Dorothy … Chicago, age 15 Died of Leukemia” (p. xi).

A tiny inscription with profound and cascading effects on meaning and context: “Now she had a name—Dorothy—and a city, and a fate. I’d been fantasizing about a dead girl” (p. x). This will be and this has been.

Photographs in themselves are meaningful to someone, “crammed” with real and potential ontologies as they travel and circulate in different social contexts.

But photographs with inscriptions at once limit and extend ontologies. Ontological contexts are ambivalent.

Riggs concludes his introduction by suggesting that “Sometimes a word is worth a thousand pictures” (p. xiv).


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