Barrett spends a lot of time discussing how medium affects the meaning of a piece of work. He describes photography in three main categories: one how it documents time, secondly, how it is selective of what it records of the world, and lastly its credibility in recording it. Throughout Barrett’s discussion he continually compares photography with painting. Yes there are significant differences in how the two mediums are interpreted because of their difference in medium, however it troubled me that his interpretation of photography relied on his understanding of painting. Do you lose the true interpretation of a piece of work by not truly looking at it for what it really is? By not having a solid understanding of the medium are you robbing yourself as a viewer?
Yes and no. Barrett works very hard to make the point that each medium comes with specific unique characteristics that affect the how the piece is developed. When simply viewing a piece for it’s aesthetic qualities it is not necessary to understand the process. In most formal viewing situations, one is faced with the work of art alone, without background information on the process or the medium. In that situation I have made many interpretations to my own satisfaction. I’d look at the formal qualities of the piece and how well they were rendered. Then I examine the subject matter and look for any symbols or icons to indicate their meaning or importance. Lastly I draw on my experiences and emotions to find out how the piece of art is making me feel.
However, according to this chapter I am missing out by not understanding if the piece is fabricated or true to life for instance. I guess that is a given when examining paintings because everything is fabricated slowly over time, even if it’s purpose is to render reality. Photography is different because it has some elements of both fiction and reality. Several factors play into the degree of each in a piece. Barrett’s description of selectivity is very accurate and helpful here. Besides the obvious of darkroom manipulations, straight photography involves fiction of its own accord. Every time a photograph is taken, parts of the world are included, and the rest is eliminated. This quality allows photographers to manipulate your view of the world while looking at their photographs. When a photographer sets up a shot, just as a painter will set up a still life or a model, she is making choices as to how the world looks and how we see it. But when the shot is taken there is still reality of the elements in the picture. This gives viewing photography another dimension. Even if a photographer uses a slow shutter speed to blur the motion of a speeding bullet, it is still recording a reality of how the bullet looked at that period of time that the photograph was taken.
But simply making the distinction between mediums is not enough. In some instances knowing how a photograph is taken makes all the difference. Knowing if it took two hours to snap one shot, or an eighth of a second makes a difference in how we perceive it. For example a photograph of the nights sky can be taken with an open shutter and left to record for hours. As the shutter stays open it records the movement of the earth past the stars, creating a pattern of the starlight. If a person takes a picture of a pattern of lights in the distance, the image could look very similar, but each one has a different dynamic to it. It is important in viewing photography to consider the elements of reality as well as the elements of fiction to truly interpret the work.