Interpreting Art, Chap. 6 — Interpretation and Medium: Photography

By Jeanne Beck

In this chapter author Terry Barrett discusses the interpretive consequences of investigating mediums other than painting or sculpture. He states that the artist’s choice of medium strongly affects meaning.

Although the chapter focuses on photography, Barrett makes it clear that he could have chosen another medium such as glass to make his point that “different media carry different connotations and (that) those connotations are important to consider…”

The three attributes he discusses as most specific to photography are selectivity, instantaneity and credibility. Selectivity means that photographers select a frame or scene from a myriad of possible subjects, choosing to include (or exclude) what is in the frame to best convey their meaning. Often, photographers choose to become identified with a particular subject. William Wegman’s carefully composed photographs of his pet weimaraners have helped him become renowned as a photographer and Ansel Adams equally so for his

Untitled, 1955-56, by Garry Winogrand (1928-1984).

Another feature unique to the medium of photography is instantaneity. A photograph is made in a measurable amount of time and what each one pictures has actually existed in time, even if only for an instant. This makes viewing and responding to the images different from responding to a painting in which forms and shapes have emerged stroke by stroke, choice by artistic choice, from a blank white canvas over a period of time. Photographers must rapidly process and select forms, values, objects and instants in time as though they could separate one instant from all the ones before or after. Yet capturing that one instant also fuels the viewer’s imagination to consider what might have come before or after this one moment.

The third evaluative tool that is unique to photographic art is crediblity. Most viewers of a photograph assume the image it contains to be credible, a representation of actual reality. This is not the case when viewers regard a painting, even if it is of the very same scene or figure. We know when we view a scene, place or person in a photograph that in some time and place what is portrayed actually existed. We tend to perceive it as more real than a painting, even when the photographic image is manipulated or staged.

What lingers in my thoughts is Barrett’s statement at the close of the chapter; “the meaning of any artwork is highly dependent on the medium in which it is expressed. ” He write that artists choose a medium to work in because that medium is the most appropriate one to express a particular idea. Of course that statement immediately sets me thinking about how and why an artist chooses to work in the medium of textiles. If the selection of this as a medium does affect its interpretation and meaning, what meanings might this choice convey? Are there attributes that are as unique to textiles as selectivity, instantaneity and credibility are to photography and if so, what might those attributes be?


20 Responses to “Interpreting Art, Chap. 6 — Interpretation and Medium: Photography”

  1. 1 June November 3, 2007 at 12:40 pm

    Hi Clairan and Olga,

    I have to separate out for myself the difference between the medium that I use and the goals that I have for that medium. Or at least I think that’s what I’m doing at the moment.

    So I resist “soft, mushy, fragile,fugitive” — because my goals are to be tough-minded, intellectual, long-lasting, sticking-around. Domesticity and homeyness and birth swaddling are too close to “quilts” which I don’t make (or at least any more). Too close to all that is feminine, fragile, fugitive. (After menopause, femininity becomes less of an issue — we are all one at that point).

    But of course, I wear clothes, I sleep in textiles, and I was brought up on Adam and Eve. So the connection is there. It’s the word that I lack. My art isn’t intimate or soft or domestic. It isn’t even about people at the moment (although of course it’s about myself). Nor is a lot of textile art that’s out there.

    So while I don’t disagree that quilts and quilt art and textiles have been associated with warmth domesticity, etc. none of that is why I use them. So I’m conflicted. Maybe going back to Adam and Eve, I could counter by saying textiles are the sign of original sin, of the guilt brought on by self-awareness. Textiles are connected to vanity, to narcissism, to trapping of our talents through fashion. (See what I mean?)

    So am I resisting this because I personally need to be working in steel? Or because the medium itself is not intimate but concealing, layering, hiding, as akin to shame as it is to domesticity?

    Just pondering — I don’t mean this to be an argument, but rather an examination of all the possibilities before we settle on, sigh, intimate.


  2. 2 Olga November 3, 2007 at 9:26 am

    Textiles are primary. Textile art is domestic-derived: textiles are our second skin, our homes or the linings of our homes, the decoration of our homes and of ourselves. Biblically the first textile was the appropriated fig leaf. Apart from the language of our bodies and of our voices textiles are the first means by which we express ourselves, by which we are categorised.

    But textiles are also the most fragile and fugitive of artefacts. Like our skin they slough off after a short life span. Closer to us too in their transitory nature.

  3. 3 clairan November 3, 2007 at 6:29 am


    I think I like intimate; I think it’s what I mean. And it is “mushy” — it’s soft, it’s feminine. It’s important. It’s the basis of civilization. “Mushy” is the derogative, male perspective “female is weak” term. I want to celebrate the femaleness of cloth. Of closeness to the body — birth swaddling to death shroud — of cocoon; and tapestry to keep out the wind as well as entice the spirit. Cloth as art has long been beautiful and practical — as women are and have had to be. OK. For me it’s early, and that’s like late for June.

  4. 4 June November 2, 2007 at 8:20 pm

    Hmmm, I’m thinking on that. Let’s see: tactility, flexibility, familiarity, intimate, haptic. That list has a lovely ring, don’t you think?

    Now I’m not sure about “intimate” but it might be just the right word, particularly for your generation; for mine, it was usually connected to “garments” (Victoria’s Secret kind) and often was spoken of in hushed terms: “she’s airing her intimates on the clothes line!” Sorry, it is after 9 on a Friday night and my mind does tend to sink into mush and murk and silliness.

    Maybe leave out “tactility” and keep “haptic.” It sounds more techno-geeky.

    Does anyone else remember that certain bed coverings were called “haps?”

    But “intimate” might be too, well, too soft a word. It tends toward the mushy (like my mind). It now means sex, of course, and not a lot more unless subjected to disclaimers. And I’m calling that “mushy???” Ah well, it is Friday night. I think someone serious has to step in here.

  5. 5 clairan November 2, 2007 at 5:46 pm

    I think cloth, by ts nature, is intimate. Is that the word we are looking for?

  6. 6 June November 2, 2007 at 1:03 pm

    Ok, we need a word that encapsulates Clairan and Olga’s ideas.

    “Familiarity” isn’t it, since there I think I was talking history and culture. And tactility isn’t it either, although like familiarity, it has something of that “closeness wih humanity,” what Clairan calls the “immediacy.” Maybe “immediacy” is the closest we can come.

    But I’m agreeing that this attribute of textiles, a closeness to the everyday and the personal, the immediacy of living, is important.

    Dijanne uses a word, “haptile/ haptical” (haptility?) with which I was unfamiliar. I’m not sure of its connotations — my dictionary simply sense “of or relating to the sense of touch.” But I think her usage echoes the kind of meaning that Olga and Clairan are getting at.

    Wikipedia says: “Haptic technology refers to technology which interfaces the user via the sense of touch by applying forces, vibrations and/or motions to the user. This mechanical stimulation is used to create haptic virtual objects.”

    and in a sub-head “Arts:

    Touching is not limited to a feeling, but it allows interactivity in real-time with virtual objects. Thus haptics are commonly used in virtual arts, such as sound synthesis or graphic design/animation. The haptic device allows the artist to have direct contact with a virtual instrument which is able to produce real-time sound or images. We can quote the physical modelling synthesis which is an efficient modelling theory to implement cross-play interaction between sound, image, and physical objects. For instance, the simulation of a violin string produces real-time vibrations of this string under the pressure and expressivity of the bow (haptic device) held by the artist.”

    Note that it’s the artist who is involved in that last sentence, not the viewer. We aren’t dealing with technology but with the sense of haptility.

    Quilt art presents a virtual sense of touch, in that the viewer doesn’t actually touch the object but nevertheless senses it as something to come into contact with.

    Another take on haptic: “This term haptic comes from a Greek word having to do with contact. Hence, haptic input is input that involves physical contact.” Bill Buxton Univ. of Toronto papers

    Of course, if you pursue it very far on Google, you get “A next-generation dental lab system that utilizes haptic technology.”

  7. 7 Olga November 2, 2007 at 8:59 am

    I think that one overwhelming attribute that textile work has is its closeness with humanity. Somehow the overwhelming majority of textile pieces, pieces that immediately tell you they are textile, have a link to the everyday personal, to the domestic, to the feeling that textile is what we keep and use next to ourselves. The work of artists like Hilary Bower and Aimee Spilstead have a hardness to them, but also that immediate sense that these are part of our home.

    I’m not expressing myself very well, but I think that a painting or a sculpture of no matter how intimate a nature is somehow something other, a universal statement from the beginning. A piece of textile work however has its origins in the domestic, the useful, the essential, something to do with touch and our body, and I believe that good textile art has that still as part of its core. What the fabric/textile/material is is important.

  8. 8 clairan November 2, 2007 at 6:33 am

    June, Jeanne

    When I said “immediacy” I may be being somewhat inarticulate. What I mean is because of its familiarity (which I think is very important), and perhaps also its flexibility and tactility, it’s less distanced from the viewer. One is drawn up to it — one is less tempted to simply view it from afar — its appeal is more immediate. (Am I getting a little closer to what I mean to say?)

    I like the 62 Group idea.

  9. 9 June November 1, 2007 at 7:35 pm

    We could go to the “62 Group of Textile Artists” (I recognize Jan Beany’s name there, but no one else.)

    There’s a great variety shown in the thumbnails and the artists are unfamiliar, so we’d be forced to look closely.

  10. 10 jeannebeck November 1, 2007 at 5:15 pm

    Tactility, flexibility, familiarity…worthwhile suggestions, June. I am making a list! Of course once we feel we have identified our rubric then the next challenge would be to select some textile artists and view their work through these lenses to see if and how the terms fit to help us interpret the work. Are there contemporary textile artists whose work invites us to interpret them?

  11. 11 June November 1, 2007 at 4:22 pm

    OK, now I guess I can’t just listen any longer:

    Tactility, it seems to me, is essential to the textile medium, particular if you factor in the artist as well as the viewer. In spite of the fact that some textile work is flat and hard to the touch of the viewer, in order to call it textile work, it has to have had some hand work in it (I don’t mean “hand work” I mean a touch of the hand, something besides the brush or the blowtorch, placed by the hand under a needle, bound by gluing the edges, and so forth.) Prints are pressed; textile art is handled.

    Flexibility also seems pretty essential. Textile art can be 3-d or bas-relief or triangular or something with no name; it can be woven or wound about or stretched, etc. It is flexible in its very nature, like other fibers, and flexible too in the way it becomes used.

    Familiarity is also impossible to escape — textiles are rooted in familiarity, as Clairan points out, so deeply rooted that it’s hard to disassociate them from their origins (which is at the heart of “what do we call the QA/AQ medium?). As soon as we stopped wearing skins and went to flax (or whatever) we started a tradition that steeps what we do.

    I don’t think “immediacy” is one of the attributes of textiles, though, particularly if you think of stopping time, as happens in photography or glass work. Like painting, our work is done over time, is a piece with time, and even its familiarity is rooted in time.

    By the way, Alison, the Portland Art Museum has a couple of Rauschenbergs (I think that’s who did them) that are cut pieces of cardboard, glued together and put on the wall. So “somehow lacking aesthetic appeal” isn’t a criteria for a fairly good museum’s acquisitioning policy.

    In fact, Arthur Danto (The Death of Beauty) says aesthetics are totally off to one side when considering contemporary art. Meaning is the most important thing. He uses art history to make his point, but I would use contemporary culture. One reason that aesthetic decoration is “mere” decoration is that it’s absolutely accessible in the cheapest Target store. Decoration, whether ethnic or trailer trash or Fifth Avenue Loft, can be purchased easily. So while you can sell “mere” decoration and we all must have it in our houses, it isn’t part of the contemporary art scene. Too easy, too mechanical, too much of it around to be taken seriously.

  12. 12 clairan November 1, 2007 at 5:18 am

    I think there’s certainly a place for the decorative. And textile art in the west has often been considered decorative — mainly because it’s been considered women’s work. In other places it’s given a higher place of importance, including sacredness, often because it’s men’s work.

    However, I think if we want to enter the art world, we must consider the meaning and interpretation of our work. Isn’t that exactly what makes it art as opposed to say a pretty tablecloth? As artists don’t we want to express something meaningful about our world, internal or external, to an audience? I don’t think art has to be ugly to be meaningful — I think we need more beauty in the world. But I don’t imagine a lot of people will be impressed by my making pieces that say “I like blue” or “blue and green are pretty together.” Of course we explore technique, but until we commit ourselves fully to making work that delves deeply into those things we’re most passionate about, that engage us completely in an ongoing dialogue with self, that force us to seek for answers, sometimes to questions we can barely formulate, I think we cannot expect to be taken seriously as artists.

  13. 13 alison November 1, 2007 at 3:24 am

    It’s probably never either/or, more a balance of one over the other. I sometimes feel a work has been created to be decorative more than meaningful, and that later, when an artist statement is required, the artist makes up some goggledygook to satisfy a curator.

  14. 14 jeannebeck November 1, 2007 at 3:10 am

    Clairan, I reread your comments and wonder if we might extract “familiarity” and “immediacy” from them to add to the list of terms that might be considered evaluative tools for interpreting textile art?

    I am still very intrigued after reading this chapter about addressing the question of whether we can come up with an evaluative framework for a critical discussion of contemporary textile art that can be used as a rubric to contrast different artists and their work.

    Does textile art require “meaning” and “interpretation” or is the work mainly decorative?

  15. 15 alison November 1, 2007 at 2:33 am

    Practicalities aside, if the tactile quality is necessary to the ability to evaluate a piece of textile or fibre art, isn’t it interesting that we deny that opportunity to viewers, posting ‘do not touch’ signs around pieces on display?

    Dimensionality and tactile qualities are linked of course, and Eileen’s comments are interesting – somewhere only in the past couple of weeks I was looking at some contemporary exhibition prospectus which specifically precluded 3-D works – if literally taken this is nonsense, but I think they meant works that fit only into the bas relief we all recognise as ‘quilting’.
    The rectangular shape is interesting. Many quilters have inadequate knowledge of construction possibilities to tackle a truly irregular shape. The sides and bottom edges are fine but the top can just be too hard as the results either flop forward or the hanging arrangements are problematic and possibly ugly. But something else – consider an irregular shaped painting -oils, watercolour, whatever – imagine what you hardly ever see – just hung on the wall as is – somehow aesthetically ‘lacking appeal is putting it mildly. Framing in a rectangular shape bestows a validity or importance felt by the artist and recognised by the art world – I’m sure there’s something of this in the presentation of art quilts.

  16. 16 June October 31, 2007 at 6:26 pm

    Jeanne and all,

    Excellent topic, leading to questions vital to our art:

    I’m going to keep my eye on these answers, since Barrett’s question is one I’ve often asked and never felt I answered completely.

  17. 17 eileen doughty October 31, 2007 at 5:55 pm

    Perhaps textiles are no longer a discrete medium, now that many of us are painting on our cloth, embellishing and collaging with metal, ceramics, glass or indeed with photographs. Complex cloth!

    However I believe we should be striving towards using our medium in ways that other media typically don’t; in particular I believe we need to separate quilted art more visually from paintings. Looking at a picture of a quilt, and a picture of a painting, often you wouldn’t necessarily know that the quilt was fabric (though that isn’t totally fair, as seeing it in person is different). For example, painters and photographers tend to stick to the rectangular format of their canvas, and keep them flat; so do the vast majority of quilts. Is a quilted surface different enough from a flat one? Do we need to reach deeper into the third dimension?

  18. 18 clairan October 31, 2007 at 1:31 pm

    Yes, I think so. But I’m certainly open to other suggestions.

  19. 19 jeannebeck October 31, 2007 at 12:52 pm

    So are tactileness and dimensionality two attributes you are recommending as evaluative tools for looking at fiber art?

  20. 20 clairan October 31, 2007 at 12:25 pm

    Cloth is familiar and immediate, tactile; quilting adds an element of 3 dimensionality to an essentially 2 dimensional work, it also adds line in the background (where Leonardo, for example, might have painted a landscape behind a portrait, a quilt artist might add lines/shapes with quilting that would be quite unexpected in a painting. Cloth allows for layering and depth.

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