Introduction (C&N)

Context: noun (Oxford English Dictionary)

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

“The context of a photograph and its surroundings (i.e. what’s outside the frame as opposed to what’s inside the frame) are fundamental to how it comes to exist and how it is consumed. No photograph exists without a purpose, background or context. Whether on a billboard, on a gallery wall, or in a family album, the meaning of a photograph is influenced by what surrounds it – and not just its physical location.” Extract from the course text.

We are encouraged to read beneath the surface of an image – what the course text describes the ‘who, what, why, where and how’. Judith Williamson’s Advertising articles in Source are recommended reading for an example of a critical review of an (advertising) photograph. The following link[accessed 23/04/19]

has been provided, leading us obliquely to a pdf of an article by Judith Williamson on an image used for an Apple ad. The image used is shown below:

Williamson explains in her article how the image purports to show Apple as godlike and design as the “Holy Spirit” – look at the pure white light bathing the child’s face. Williamson goes on to contrast this with Apple’s use of cheap labour (through the contract with Foxcomm) in China; labour who cannot hope to benefit from Apple’s products.

This ad, viewed by Foxcomm’s workers, would be seen in an entirely different context (unaffordable, out of reach etc.) than if viewed by say some affluent parent in California.

One criticism of Williamson’s article is that only one perspective is provided as commented on by Wells (1992), undermining its value as a commentary on context. Joachim Schmid, (b.1955) is a prominent German photographer “who has based his photographic career on using other people’s pictures.  In a genre referred to as Found Photography Schmid provides witty and perceptive insights into our collective fascination with using photography to document our existence.  Using vernacular photography, he found either in fleamarkets or online Schmid makes collections of repetitive imagery.  He now has 96 books each with a different edit such as Food, Hands, Hotel Rooms etc.   By curating the pictures into themes, he takes a critical look at our relationship with photography throughout the last few generations and how we continually repeat ourselves by taking the same pictures.”[accessed 24/04/2019].

According to the course text, his work provides “an eloquent presentation of a shared and absurd compulsion to share the same events in the same ways”. However, in the interview, Schmid’s apparently simple explanation for why we do is simply that “they work”. He goes on to speculate that people prefer to take snapshots of events that represent happiness in their life. The reader is left to the assume perhaps that somehow happiness produces boring, repetitive, prosaic imagery, while images of events that represent sadness or hardship are therefore interesting or poetic.

“By understanding the context of particular photographs, it becomes possible to obtain the fullest appreciation of the narrative(s) they convey…By ‘narrative’ we mean the visual flow, the coherence of the set of images, or the construction of the single image.” Extracted from the course text.

Narrative: noun (Oxford English Dictionary)

  • a spoken or written account of connected events; a story: a gripping narrative
  • the practice or art of telling stories
  • a representation of a particular situation or process in such a way as to reflect or conform to an overarching set of aims or values.

Maria Short (2011) notes that the art of storytelling relies heavily on the role that context and narrative play in relation to the medium in which it was told and to whom. Context can be described as the setting (for an event for example) and narrative the account connecting events.


Short, M, (2011). Creative Photography: Context and Narrative. Lausanne: AVA.

Wells, Liz (1992) ‘Judith Williamson, Decoding Advertisements’ in M. Barker and A. Beezer (eds) Reading into Cultural Studies, London, Routledge