Toward a Hermeneutics of the Photograph as Other:
Putting One’s World at Risk
Gerald J. Davey
NOTE: This is a draft in progress and presented for discussion purposes only. Some updating is still required and formatting has suffered in posting, for which I apologize. Some portions of the following text have appeared in other publications cited under the Publications link on this website home page.
Contemporary as well as historic approaches to understanding the photograph fall into three broad categories: those that emphasize its inherent “objectivity” and thus, (largely or entirely) limit its communicative capacity to objective presentation (e.g., Arnheim, 1986; Scruton, 1983; Walton, 1984, 1987); those that emphasize the plasticity of the photograph - exercised to varying degrees - as a vehicle for unique artistic expression (a tradition as old as photography itself, but in recent decades championed most broadly and effectively by J. Szarkowski of the MOMA); and those which de-emphasize both of the above and argue that social, economic and political forces ultimately - though not necessarily exclusively - account for the existence, distribution and use of photographs in contemporary western societies (Sontag, Sekula, Hall, Tagg and Stange among many others).
        For each of these, understanding is achieved “at a distance,” i.e., “objectively,” through method (what Gadamer terms “methodological consciousness”), the development of cultivated, aesthetic sensitivity (“aesthetic consciousness”) or some other form of expertise. 
       While each of these has differing underlying beliefs about the nature of the photograph, all share in the goal of “objective” knowledge that characterizes modern thought.  Philosophical hermeneutics, on the other hand, draws attention to the radically historical and participatory nature of all understanding and thus, challenges any presupposition of objectivity and exclusivity in our interpretation and understanding of written or visual texts.  Understanding the other as truly “other,” is necessarily being open to the experience (Ehrfahrung) of truth of the other.  It brings into relief our own assumptions and beliefs about the world, the meaning of our lives and our tasks within them. What is truly at stake in the process of understanding, then, cannot be fully encapsulated in a methodology.  It calls us to open ourselves fully to the voice of the text and in so doing, we inherently must place our own “world” at risk.
Key Concepts:
Interpretation Objectivity
Method            Aesthetics
Dialogue         Philosophical Hermeneutics
Dialectic          Critique of Ideology
There is something overwhelmingly appealing to me about containing the world in one of those 
rectangular shapes - to live my life in one room. That is what a picture is - a world contained \in a frame. 
              -Dennis Feldman, American Images (1977), p. 3.
"The linguistic turn" in early twentieth century philosophy,  established that through language we not only live in a world and come to understand our world but also "create" the world in which we live. 
Language, in this broader sense, incorporates not only written and verbally articulated signs, but the entire range of media and cultural artifacts through which human beings create and share meaning. It gives form to this larger "world" and brings it into existence as a shared reality.
In contemporary post-industrial societies, photographic images in all their forms and derivations in print, video and film play a central role in communicating and creating the world in which we live. (Gergen, 91; Jensen, 91, 40)   The use of images in political life, in the news - entertainment and advertising media that serve to channel and shape our desires, actions, perceptions and beliefs, has given a major role to the visual image in the development, maintenance and dissemination of our contemporary “world.”
In part, our increasingly visually oriented culture was made possible through our natural tendency (Dondis, pp. 1-2; Gifford, pp. 17ff.) to equate what we "see" in and through photographs with what is "real."  Still today, the photograph retains much of its original aura as a medium inherently tied to and reflective of what objectively exists in the world. (Messaris, 94)  It seems to differ from the window and the mirror only in its relative permanence and fixity.  It is perhaps the one medium where the trace of the human cannot be directly perceived except in the act of framing itself.  The photograph shows us what we want to see, what we would not otherwise see, and even what we don't want to see.  Indeed, philosopher Kendall Walton in "Transparent Pictures: On the Nature of Photographic Realism" (1984), argues that photographs are non-representational i.e.,transparent and that the photograph is essentially like the mirror and the telescope. As he writes:
         I must warn against watering down this suggestion....I am not saying that the person looking at a  
        dusty photograph has the impression of seeing his ancestors....Nor is my point that...photographs
        are duplicates, or doubles or reproductions of objects or substitutes or surrogates for them.  My
        claim is that we see, quite literally, our dead relatives themselves when we look at photographs of
        them. (251-2).
Walton ultimately addresses only one element -the optical-  within the great complexity of the photographic process.  Nevertheless, granted that such a refined thinker, along with such others as the aestheticians R. Scruton (1983) and R. Arnheim (1986a,b), each in their different ways, deny to the photograph any transformative value, it is little wonder that, for most of us, photographic seeing is still believing. 
       Then, too, our conception of the photograph as intrinsically realistic is inextricably bound to our faith in technology and the “objective” knowledge it produces.  That faith militates against our awareness of the transformation of the "thing itself" i.e., the object or scene photographed, that inevitably takes place in photographic representation.  Thus, we learn to ignore the inherent transformation in photographs from a three dimensional reality to a two dimensional representation, the reduction of an infinite array of colors in varying intensity and hue to a limited range of gray tones or a dramatically reduced color palette.  So, too, we fail to discern the reduction in the perceptible range of brightness from a ratio of 10,000 to 1, which occurs in the natural world, to approximately 100 to 1, the maximum range reproducible on photographic paper.   And we accept the frame--a seemingly arbitrary and artificial contrivance, a convention and sign--as somehow almost naturally constituting a single, unified gestalt and thus, a meaningful unit to be understood in itself. 
       Thus, the intrinsically realistic quality of photographs, our faith in technology and objective knowledge, and the inherent dominance of the visual sense within of our species' sensorium combine to militate against our awareness of the transformative nature of the photographic process.  This is especially evident in those fields where the claim to objectivity holds pre-eminent value and is maintained through strong social and institutional support.  Such fields constitute a wide and disparate group including photojournalism, social documentary and news photography; advertising, political, corporate and governmental uses of photographs.  Still today, for example, in Horton's The Associated Press: Photojournalism Stylebook (1990), George Wedding, Director of Photography at the Sacramento Bee, characterizes photojournalism as "holding a mirror up to society, so society can look at itself." (26)
Yet, as in oral and written language, photographs by their very nature necessarily require an interpretation of their subjects and in doing so, already define (give meaning to) what we "see" presented in them.  In spite of their unique quality of presenting a world seemingly indistinguishable from that which is “real,” and their fulfillment in this sense of one central aim of the visual arts, photographs bring to light a vision of the world, not the world itself.  Each photograph, as R. Barthes (1981) maintained is something new, something beyond "what was there." (81, p.115)  Indeed, the object or event is defined as object, and even created as object, by the photograph in and through which we encounter it.  The photograph, by the requirements of the photographic process itself, represents an interpretive, creative statement of meaning, an attempt at the integration of a world - even though not one easily brought to verbal articulation or even conscious understanding by the photographer or his or her audience.  After all, vision lies far deeper in our species’ history than spoken language.  The photograph defines and gives expression to that which is already perceived as something of human import and characterizes it as having certain qualities and not having others. It makes claims about its subject matter, thus signifying a claim to truth, whether literal or symbolic.  It carries with it as well a larger worldview within which its perceived meaning is coherent.
       Still, it does seem indisputably consistent with much of our everyday experience that a close tie, if not identity, exists between a photograph and “what is there." 
       In Pierce’s semiotic categories,  the photograph is indeed unique in having significant properties of all three forms of  signs through which we build and communicate our picture of the world for the photograph is simultaneously iconic (resemblance to its referent), indexical (a causal tie due to the direct effect of exposing silver halide to light and so transforming it into silver nitrate)  and symbolic (i.e., inherently meaningful as a deliberate act of human will within the confines of human culture and experience). 
As a result, the photograph provides the constant opportunity for - and perhaps the inevitability of - mistaking "a" view of the world for "the" view of the world. As such, it reduces the opportunity for meaningful dialogue  by presenting specific, historical, social, political, cultural and economic structures and practices as natural, even inevitable, characteristics of the "real" world.  This constricted view is not only difficult to challenge (and even recognize) but also successfully reduces the opportunity for realizing more encompassing, more radically open and diverse world making processes. In short, just as it has the capacity to create a world - a property shared with written and oral language - so too -particularly within the modern “objective” mind-set still characteristic of the social “sciences” it has the capacity to close us to the ‘otherness’ of the other, and so diminishes opportunities to challenge misunderstandings that jeopardize our relations with others as well as our understanding of ourselves as creative, world-making beings. 
From the inception of photography, of course, calls for the recognition of the photograph’s capacity for artistic and hence plastic expression have challenged this still dominant view (Schwarz, 1985; Scharf, 1974; Gernsheim, 1962).  From this aesthetic perspective,  the photographic medium’s inherent transformative power can be mastered by an individual artist and so give expression to a unique "vision,"  one which communicates something beyond the original subject, something uniquely the artist's own.  Here, the created image necessarily replaces the referent, “what was there,” as the object of our attention and the referent - through the transformative potential inherent in the photographic process - becomes a vehicle for that expression. (Berleant, 1991; Fiss, 1990; Grundberg, 1987; Szarkowski, 1973).  
In the 1970’s, beginning with  S.Sontag and A. Sekula in the US and Roland Barthes in France, a second major challenge to the objective “truth” of the potograph appeared, a critical perspective on the origin and nature of the photograph began to appear which shared with the aesthetic approach an emphasis upon the interpretive nature of the photograph, but attributed the primary creative role to broad social, cultural and economic forces which ultimately produce and shape photographic expression. The dominant contemporary form of this perspective in contemporary scholarly, photographic and communication literature is broadly termed ideology critique.  Its origins, in part, lie in Critical Theory as first developed by members of the Frankfort School at the Institute for Social Research where a combination of Marxist insights and psychoanalytic techniques provided the primary tools for social and structural analyses.   Contemporary thinkers drawing from this tradition (e.g., Sekula (1984);  Sontag, S. (1973); Hall, S. (1986), Tagg (1988); Stange (1989), and numerous others), although widely varied in method and primary focus of concern, tend to see the traditional aesthetic view above as an instrument which enhances and maintains the economic and political interests of a dominant social order, interests inimical to the genuine needs of dominated classes, gender and races. (Eagleton, 1991, 222.)  
        Ideology critique,  like modern aesthetics, intrinsically emphasizes the distance between the object or event photographed and what the photograph, as an artifact, communicates to its audience i. e., what it means.  It differs in its emphasis upon larger social, political and economic determinants which shape the subjectivity of the photographer, determine the production and distribution of photographs, and thus, their content and communicative potential as well.  Here, the primacy of the unique genius of the individual photographer, its essentially ahistorical, transcendent character is challenged.  Photographs appear in cultural milieus neither as a result of the uncoordinated acts of individual photographers nor as works best understood as part of ongoing artistic and pictorial traditions which transcend the broader political, social, and economic context of the time.  Nor, of course, do they mirror a pre-existing reality.  Rather, they appear as constructions which serve the interests of present power relationships.
       Contemporary as well as historic approaches to understanding the nature of photographic communication, then, tend to fall into three broad categories: those that emphasize the inherently objective nature of the photographic medium and (largely or entirely) limit its communicative capacity to objective presentation (e.g., Arnheim, 1986; Scruton, 1983; Walton, 1984, 1987); those myriad voices that emphasize the capacity of the photograph - exercised to varying degrees - as a vehicle for unique artistic expression; and those which de-emphasize both of the above and argue that social, economic and political forces ultimately - though not necessarily exclusively - account for the existence, distribution and use of photographs as well as other media in contemporary western societies.  While an emphasis on the objective quality of the photograph minimizes the creative role of the photographer, an emphasis upon the subjective and/or social-cultural dimension in photographic communication characteristic of modern aesthetics and the critique of ideology minimizes what appears to remain an inherent characteristic of the medium itself, i.e. its fundamental tie to the world of visually available objects and events and its seeming irreducibility to either a social, cultural artifact or an individual creator’s intent.
        This study argues that each of the views above hold to an underlying philosophical commitment to a view of understanding inclusive of what is commonly termed the “subject-object split, where knowledge is mediated through the application of a specifiable, determinable and hence less than an all encompassing “meeting” of the other. Here, understanding can be achieved “at a distance,” i.e., “objectively,” through method (what Gadamer terms “methodological consciousness”), the development of cultivated, aesthetic sensitivity (“aesthetic consciousness”) or some other form of expertise. Yet, to truly meet a text as “other” requires more. It demands that we place’s our own world at risk. Understanding the other as truly “other” cannot consist of an accumulation of information that leaves us unaffected. Rather, it necessarily brings about a change in our own being. Understanding is experiencing (Ehrfahrung) the truth of another.  It is also a process that necessarily brings into relief our own assumptions and beliefs about the world, the meaning of our lives and our tasks within it. Thus, understanding the other as other necessarily brings about a different self-understanding as well.
       From this perspective, aspects and insights of each of the above views can be maintained, but all in a radically transformed worldview.  Here, the truth of the photograph lies not in its correlation with physical reality per se, but in the truthfulness of its presentation of human experience. This is the measure of its so-called “objectivity” in human studies.  Truth is not “correlation” with what stands before the lens, because the photograph is inherently transformative.  The aesthetic view, which emphasizes the genius and intent of the individual artist, is transformed into a view in which art enters into human dialogue about the nature of our experience.  Art is dialogue about the human world.   Critical studies, finally, enters into this dialogue as well.  Yet, like all human understanding, it originates more in what Gadamer calls the “pre-judgments” of our lives, rather than in some abstract, self-sustaining intellect.  Criticism, rightly construed,  must remain self-critical, as a historical perspective grounded in a tradition of its own, one that speaks from a particular place and time and its power can be realized only by entering into open dialogue and so, putting it ‘truth’ at risk.
      This paper, then, argues that a philosophical hermeneutic perspective provides an avenue for maintaining key apparent insights, or “truths,” of each of these views, while at the same time, transcending the basic disagreements and incompatibilities between them, that otherness cannot be encompassed within the confines of methodological space.  To understand the other requires entrance into what Gadamer terms the “play” of understanding, where the outcome must be and can only be unknown and all-encompassing. Hence, as philosopher Carl Page (1991) has noted, it must be understood from the outset that, while philosophical hermeneutics has direct implications for and makes implicit and explicit demands on interpretive practice, philosophical hermeneutics is necessarily not a method  of interpretation. Rather, it constitutes a philosophical reflection on the nature and demands of interpretation as such. As Page (1991) writes, it focuses: "Not [on] what we want to happen, not what we choose to happen, but what does happen in the process of understanding." (Xvi)  As such, it provides a critical tool whereby we can determine the relative value and limitations of methods of photographic interpretation and best illustrate the parameters within which method - with limitations not yet depicted - can serve the larger purpose of photographic understanding. 
        An object is an artwork at all only in relation to an interpretation....The interpretation is not something
        outside the work: work and interpretation arise together.... 
                                                                                  -Arthur C. Danto (1986)

         Authentic hermeneutical understanding truly humanizes us, it becomes integral in our very being.... 
                                                                                  -Gadamer (TM, 94-5)

While works by aestheticians such as R. Arnheim (86a,b) and R. Scruton (83) noted above are replete with what Gadamer terms aesthetic consciousness, and on that account both ultimately reject photography as a fitting vehicle for the expression of unique genius fundamental to fine art,  even the much more influential work of John Szarkowski, who’s long experience as a photographer lay the basis for a new understanding of the unique character and flexibility of the medium, retains fundamental aspects of aesthetic consciousness. 
            Szarkowski, who succeeded Edward Steichen in 1954 as Director of the Museum of Modern Art, is widely regarded as the dominant twentieth century influence in bringing photographic works into the world of art museums and galleries, contrasting sharply with the views of Arnheim and Scruton above.  As Richard Woodward writes: "No one has done more to uncover important new work, expand and redefine tradition, and foster an appreciation of the unique contributions of photography to art history." (8)
Despite the many innovative and insightful features of Szarkowski's interpretive approach to the meaning and aesthetic potential  of the photographic medium,  Looking at Photographs (1973), his most enduring work to date, and even his most recent Photography Until Now (1989),  remain powerful examples of modern aesthetic consciousness. In the former, Szarkowski's demonstrates his widely recognized skill at the interpretation of individual photographs in the analysis of over 50 photographic images.  That these images are presented by Szarkowski for our "delectation" suggests that right from the beginning, we are here to appreciate their beauty as an end in itself, affirming still the fundamental divorce between the world of art and the world outside it. According to Szarkowski, the rationale for the acquisition of photographs at MOMA was not that the photograph had marked artistic and aesthetic value, but that "the visual arts were so intimately interdependent that one medium could not be properly studied in isolation." (9)  As Szarkowski notes in the preface: In 1929, when the acquisition of a painting by Cezanne was still considered adventurous, the proposition that photography deserved serious critical study would have been simply unintelligible to the leaders of most art museums. (9)
          Against this background, and the continuing resistance to the inclusion of photography in collections and discussions of art, the need for an intensive defense of the aesthetic potential of the photograph was widely felt.  That such works had appeared with great frequency from the hands of practitioners and even a few avant-garde art critics was insufficient.  Such a work, however, had to come from within the traditional confines of the art establishment. Szarkowski, himself a professional photographer, when called--much to his surprise--to the museum post, took up the challenge.
         That the medium itself  has a unique capacity for artistic and meaningful expression is the basic proposition of Szarkowski's work. This accounts for his unusual inclusion in Looking at Photographs of such a broad spectrum of photographers over the entire history of photography, with content varying from news photos to aerial reconnaissance, with no more than one photograph per photographer represented.
It is important to note, however, that this emphasis, in fact, does not reduce the central importance of the creative artist to Szarkowski's aesthetic approach.  While Szarkowski notes that his work includes photographs from a wide range of "known and unknown" photographers, forty seven of the fifty photographs included were made by widely collected and well known photographers. These are the masters of the craft, here presented and discussed typically through one of their lesser known works, a demonstration of their abiding aesthetic, expressive genius.  The other three are all listed as "unknown photographer," one of which is an early nineteenth century daguerreotype and the other two aerial reconnaissance photos from World War II.
          Among the better known photographers presented in this work is Bill Brandt whose work is represented by the inclusion of his "Young Housewife in Bethnal Greene, 1937."  (122)  In this photograph, a young woman in heavily soiled and stained clothing is on her knees and appears to be rinsing out a cloth or sponge, which she is using to clean an entry-way floor.  The woman's face is downcast, and she appears to be crouched down and tired. The lighting is overhead which accentuates the woman's face, shoulders, arms, and knees.  The bucket is in the low center of the composition.  The woman is framed by that part of the doorway which is visible in the photograph and she is placed toward the upper right of the photograph.  Within the frame, only the doorknob of the entry door is visible.  There is no discernible detail of the interior of the house, only a suggestion of darkness and a flat, closed-in space. 
          Szarkowski begins his commentary on the photograph with a general discussion of the nature of artistic tradition, which he holds "exists in the minds of artists, and consists of their collective memory of what has been accomplished so far....Its function is to mark the starting point for each day's work." Szarkowski then goes on to note Brandt's early study with Man Ray, his exposure to Atget and "the French Surrealist film-makers."  He writes, Brandt's "own work already possessed a strongly surreal character..." which he characterizes as a "mordant, poetic romanticism suggestive of de Chirico and Dore." (121)
Figure 1.
Bill Brandt's "Young Housewife in Bethnal Greene," 1937.
(To Be Supplied)
Szarkowski notes Brandt's relative isolation from contemporary photographers and argues that for some "of the most independent talents" such isolation can constitute "a sanctuary where radical visions can develop undisturbed." (121)
          In commenting upon Brandt's corpus of work, Szarkowski notes: "In the years following his return to England, Brandt concentrated on photographing his countrymen, of all classes and conditions." Further, he writes: "These pictures are moving and strange; they express both sympathy and tranquil detachment, as though Brandt were photographing something that existed long ago." Finally, he asserts: "Though unsparingly frank, his pictures seem to refer less to the moment described than to the issues of role, tenacity, courage, and survival." (121)
          Szarkowski's emphases reveal some of the most salient features of modern aesthetics.  First, the discussion ties Brandt directly to his position within an artistic tradition and in spite of the fact that the subject matter of Brandt's photographs concentrate so heavily upon "his countrymen, of all classes and conditions," Szarkowski says nothing about Brandt's own social, political and economic status in English society. Indeed, it is as if Brandt's whole identity were that of artist  and in photographing "his countrymen, of all classes and conditions," he was not so situated within that range that his position influenced or contextualized his vantage-point - at least not sufficiently so to be essential to understanding the photograph itself.
         Here, then, is a special genius whose work can be understood without  reference to social or other mundane historical forces of the time and indeed, by interpreters who's understanding is equally uninfluenced by the same forces in their lives as well - productive of an understanding that withstands the movement of history itself.   Moreover, the individual, artist-genius stands ensconced in a tradition that cuts through the broader forces of history like a knife.
        Szarkowski's commentary on  Russell Lee's "Son of a Sharecropper Combing Hair in Bedroom of Shack, Missouri," (1938), illustrates other characteristics of modern aesthetics.  As described by H. G. Gadamer "Aesthetic experience is indifferent to whether or not its object is real, whether the scene is the stage or whether it is real life.  Aesthetic consciousness has unlimited sovereignty over everything." (89) Secondly, the legitimization of the viewer/ interpreter's subjective response to the photograph is itself, with proper sensibilities, adequate grounds for its understanding. The picture stands alone and meets its viewer alone, as if the two were set apart from the ongoing historical world around them, lifted up into a timeless realm.
       In commenting upon this photograph, Szarkowski contextualizes the image within the pictorial tradition of the toilette "an important subject for artists since the Egyptians." (134)  His only comment upon the surroundings in which the young boy's grooming takes place is that "the nature of his surroundings make the moment no less private or ceremonial." (134)  No other mention is made of the poverty in which the boy lives, the work of Lee and other photographers as documentarians of rural American poverty for the Farm Security Administration during the Roosevelt Administration, facts of which Szarkowski himself was intimately aware but which represented a viewpoint which Szarkowski was struggling against - as if only an appreciation the universal and transcendental traditions of aesthetic creation were essential to appreciate the art  of this man's work.  Even the seemingly sad, disheartened expression on the boys face--reflected in a broken mirror--fails to warrant the attention of Szarkowski's interpretive gaze.
Figure 2.
Russell Lee's "Son of a Sharecropper Combing Hair in
 Bedroom of Shack, Missouri" 1938
(To Be Supplied)
        Here, it seems, the material circumstances become merely the occasion, the accidental accompaniment to the universal, the thematic in art history--this in a medium in which particularity is a dominant characteristic.  Szarkowski focuses on an activity which transcends the individual moment, one in which the boy himself is actor but not truly subject.  As a "real" human being, the boy is of secondary importance to his pictorial role and the continuation of an artistic tradition which slices through the fabric of his real life unconnected with its past, future or the fullness of his present.  Here is art unconnected to the whole of life.  It, like the whole of the FSA was innovative because of establishing not the documents themselves but the “documentary style.” (Photography Until Now, 215 )
         Works, of whatever kind, take place in no such vacuum from the world in which they come into existence.  While historical research faces the same difficulties of interpretation since both the subject of study and the historian meet and exist “within” history and historical understanding is never complete in itself, it is worth noting that among Lee’s body of works (which exceeded 50,000 for the FSA)  there are a smattering of similar and older children as well as adults also standing at, before or reflected in a bedroom or cabinet mirror.  Intrinsically, such settings allow the viewer to see more of the subject, front and back, and more of the setting as well and hence are useful in the communication of information as well as a tool for effective composition i.e., the creation of a  unified, visually coherent message.  Still, they are few in comparison to those of children sitting on their beds, trying to help themselves to something on the stove - often in the absence of their mother or father- sitting on the front porch (if they have one), playing games with other children, looking ragged and scared while standing before the threatening unknown of the camera and the man whose eyes seem hidden behind it and so remain unreadable, and finally, looking awkwardly off in some direction, or downcast as if lost in thought.  In short, all the photographs Lee took of children had them doing something-even if only sleeping - for there was little else that they could actually do before the camera’s lens.  Of these, standing in front of a mirror, was necessarily one.
A still larger issue, however, is not simply the meaning of this particular picture, or a few others like it, but the corpus of work of which it forms a part, which, in this instance, focusses upon and interprets the everyday life of tenant farmer’s and their children, not to mention the still larger project of creating a national document, the attempt to show them as dignified individuals, with loving families or sometimes only very partial ones, living a life they neither deserve, nor want, a life good Americans should not accept for their fellow citizens and so deserving of direct governmental intervention. (Baldwin, 1968, 117 ff.; Doud, Interview with Roy Stryker, Transcript of Tape, side one, p. 2 ff.) The assumption that this picture, without reference to that larger text which informs it, is once again a carryring forward of an aesthetic tradition that is more likely to mis-inform than inform.  What one can discern from the single photograph here can and almost certainly will mislead the viewer more than reveal the world presented.
           Key to the hermeneutic critique of aesthetic consciousness, then, is the primacy of the ontological relationship between the text and its referent (which may be the object, scene or person before the lens, or may be something altogether different for which the latter serves as sign or symbol) in light of the radically historical character of all understanding. Indeed, from a philosophical hermeneutic perspective, it is through 'picturing,' whether the pictures take the form of spoken or written stories, drawings or photographs,  that our “world” comes into being at all. Through picturing, it is not the picture that is brought into being, but the world itself enters into human dialogue and experience. The picture itself, then, is not the focus but the claim to truth, as reflection on human experience, presented there.  To look at art “as art” i.e., something separate from other categories of life, activity and experience, is comparable to looking at eloquence or wit while ignoring the message itself, that which is being said about the world of human experience.  In art, the world is coming into existence. One need not fail to admire the special talents displayed or certainly the uniqueness of the insights displayed, but to do so at the cost of ignoring the “claim to truth” presented there is vacuous. 
            Moreover, understanding is always already an understanding "as" something. Yet, it is precisely as object of our attention, the process through which we build worlds and those worlds in turn ground us, that this picturing has importance and thus, the separation of the aesthetic from immersion in this larger process of world making constitutes a fundamental error of aesthetic consciousness.
          Meaning, here, too, is not limited to the consciousness or intent of the photographer, nor does it lie as a code to be discerned by the cognoscenti.  Rather, the completion of works (their meaning) is inclusive of our encounter with them. As Gadamer writes:
        all encounter with the language of art is an encounter with an unfinished event and is itself part of
        this event. This is what must be emphasized against aesthetic consciousness and its neutralization
        of the question of truth. (TM, 99) [emphasis added]

        Similarly, the meaning potential of the photograph greatly exceeds any momentary or individual interpretation of it.  Rejecting the tyranny of the cult of "genius," a point in common with ideology critique, hermeneutics rejects the very ground upon which photography has been so readily distinguished from other visual arts.  It does so by freeing the latter from enslavement to the myth of artistic genius and so art becomes contiguous with the entire range of human endeavor. (Jensen, 89, 40) Indeed, for Gadamer, it is symbolic of it. Art, then, now becomes the product of dialogical play where the artist is shaped by the art as the artist gives shape to the art.  Excellence in achieving a work of high expressive value does not then, separate the photograph from the world of which it is a part for here lies its roots, value and its power for artist and viewer alike.  Rather excellence refers to its power in world-making by entering into and contributing to the dialogical and dialectical nature of history.
       The act of reading is strategically situated at the point of "application" (Anwendung, in the hermeneutic
        lexicon) where the world of the text meets that of the reader, where the interpretation of the work ends
        in the interpretation of the self. (157)

                                                                      - R. Chartier
        What distinguishes the process of refining hermeneutic practice from acquiring a mere technique,
        whether it is called social technology or critical method, is that in hermeneutics history codetermines
        the consciousness of the person who understands.
                                                                       -Gadamer (1989)
Social scientific, quantitative approaches to understanding photographs have been less frequently employed and on the whole, less influential than what are broadly termed critical approaches which are inherently more holistic, complex and contextually rich.  The slight nuances in each and every facial expression, the exact nature of what appears to be seen through the eyes, how does one successfully quantify, isolate, compare and classify the nearly infinite range of subtle human possibilities here?  While there are successes here, which provide potentially meaningful results e.g., the range of expressions or visual cues employed by politicians, the number of crime photos employed by different publications over a given range of time, the use of photos of socially prominent men and women vs. coverage of the homeless, or neglected children, and so on.  Still even here it is ultimately the larger social context that is the ultimate focus of study and behind that study lie social, political  and moral codes that form the operative values and routines out of which the work is done and that, themselves, are grounded in yet deeper philosophical and or religious commitments that only occasionally are brought to conscious evaluation - itself  a rather dubious process of self-reflection.  While broad types of images, techniques and contexts of presentation e.g., in a political campaign, can and have resulted in useful analysis, the plasticity of the photograph, the universe of its subject matter, the particular gestalt of each image, are perhaps ultimately more difficult to quantify meaningfully and in their full breadth than any other mode of communication.  In a literal sense as well, the whole world of human experience is the camera’s subject and that, in turn, can never be “enclosed” as an object of study for, at any given moment, it constitutes the horizon of our thought and is subject to the full range of human interpretation, equally unknowable and itself always constituting the ever expanding movement of history.
          Contemporary critique of ideology perspectives, on the other hand, constitute some of the more coherent, systematic expressions of societal viewpoints i.e., those which see the photograph as “used” and even created by a social framework which it serves. (Grossberg, 1984)  Critique of ideology originated with the Frankfurt School at the Institute for Social Research where, in a 1937 essay by Max Horkheimer, the term "Critical Theory" first appeared (Ingram, 1).  Dissatisfied with the failure of the positivistic social sciences to produce substantial change in western capitalist society, concerned with the rise of fascism and the dire results of communism under Stalin, the founding members of the Frankfurt school produced a unique synthesis of critical social philosophy consisting of an amalgam of insights from Marx's political economy and Kant's critical philosophy, psycho-analysis and social science that remains widely influential today. 
        Stuart Hall, perhaps still the major figure in British Cultural Studies,  characterizes the problem of ideology as "to give an account, within a materialist theory, of how social ideas arise" [emphasis added] and notes  "it [ideology] has especially to do with the concepts and the languages of practical thought which stabilize a particular form of power and domination; or which reconcile and accommodate the mass of the people to their subordinate place in the social formation." (1986b, 29)  John B. Thompson, in Ideology and Modern Culture (1990), writes similarly:
       The analysis of ideology...is primarily concerned with the ways in which symbolic forms intersect with
        relations of power.  It is concerned with the ways in which meaning is mobilized in the social world    
        and serves thereby to bolster up individuals and groups who occupy positions of power.  Let me 
        define this focus more sharply: to study ideology is to study the ways in which meaning serves to
        establish and sustain relations of domination. (56) [emphasis original]

       Ideology, then, in the literature addressed here, seems inseparable from some notion of consciousness as imposed upon and not truly reflecting the interests of the population holding to it.  As Paul Ricoeur (1986) writes, ideology is "the systematic distortion of communication by the hidden exercise of force." (301)
      Janet Wolff (1981), a well known critical theorist specializing in the arts,  writes: "Critical social science explains meanings and ideologies, by disclosing the social and material interests which give rise to them." (104)  She argues: "Ideas and beliefs are not transparent, but always originate in and conceal social structures and processes." (105)  As a result: "We refrain from ‘taking seriously' what a person thinks or believes, but instead, in an act of ‘partially suspended communication,' we take what is said as a symptom of the objective situation." [italics added]  (104-05)
      Wolff readily acknowledges that ideology critique is not value free. She also denies the existence of any value-free approach. 
      Ideology critique, like aesthetic consciousness, is emancipatory in intention. For ideology critique, the notion of a universal, emancipatory reason i.e., the ability of reason to provide insight into the true nature of social phenomena, or ideologies, is essential so that their underlying structure and function can be determined and thus challenged. For aesthetics, the emancipation of photography was found in its inclusion in a world deemed captive by ideology critique.
      As Wolff writes, the fundamental ground of ideology critique is the assertion that:
       The ideology of a society in general is founded on that society's material and economic basis, and
        promulgated (not necessarily consciously, and in no sense conspiratorially) by those groups in a
        privileged position of power in relation to that basis. (Wolff, 53)

       Wolff notes that no simple theory of reflection in art works or other social production remains acceptable today. Rather, the relationship between artworks and social structure is extremely complex. Ideology is "mediated by the aesthetic code." (120)  She continues:
Without accepting any simplistic theory of reflection, it can be shown that the perspective (or world-view) of any individual is not only biographically constructed, but also the personal mediation of a group consciousness. [Italics added] (119)
      Critique of ideology and aesthetic traditions, then, conceive of the role of the creator of an artwork in substantially different terms.   Following Althusser, Wolff writes: "So individuals are always subjects, and, as subjects, are constituted in ideology.  There is no `subjective essence' which escapes this constitution...." (131) 
      Thus, one task of ideology critique is to explicate "The way in which authors are produced, or constructed." (123)  Here "Psychoanalysis provides a way of exploring how it is that subjects are constituted in ideology.  Moreover, it destroys the notion of a unified subject of consciousness-the subject identified with the ego-and replaces it with a complex concept of a `de-centered' subject." (133)
While the impact of both ideology critique and aesthetic consciousness can be seen in the work of many photographic critics, historians and commentators, only recently have its proponents begun to produce scholarly monographs directed specifically toward the ideological critique of photographic works. One such significant and wide ranging study is John Tagg's The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories (1988).
      Fundamental to Tagg's analysis is the assertion of a radical distinction between the photograph and the "world" which it purports to present objectively:
      At every stage, chance effects, purposeful interventions, choices and variations produce meaning,
       whatever skill is applied and whatever division of labour the process is subject to. This is not the
       inflection of a prior (though irretrievable) reality, as Barthes would have us believe, but the production  
       of a new and specific reality, the photograph, which becomes meaningful in certain transactions and 
       has real effects, but which cannot refer or be referred to a pre-photographic reality as to a truth.(3)
       This view is shared by a wide spectrum of commentators and does not in itself sharply distinguish Tagg's approach from that of aesthetic consciousness.  However, Tagg continues “ we have to see that every photograph is the result of specific and, in every sense, significant distortions which render its relation to any prior reality deeply problematic....(2)
       For Tagg, then, the problematic nature of the relation between the photograph and its referent is the result of ideological constraints which develop and maintain dominating social, cultural, political and economic structures and practices and thus, present a "distorted" relation between man and world throughout. Indeed, according to Tagg, the act of picturing, i.e. framing the subject, is inherently an ideological imposition upon the "world."
      Thus, the photograph must be understood as an artifact which reflects the institutional interests of a dominant social order empowered in a certain historical moment.  Any attempt to understand the photograph apart from such structures results in a failure to grasp its meaning.
In his analysis of Russell Lee's 1939 photograph "Hidalgo County, Texas," for example, Tagg emphasizes the image as a whole and the interrelation of each element within it, a characteristic shared with the aesthetic approach.  It is what is necessarily a part of any view of the photograph as in some sense a "statement" or a presentation of a point of view. His emphasis upon an ideological reading, of course, sets him apart from the former:
       The photographs are dense with connotations, as every detail-of flesh, clothes, posture, of fabric,
       furniture and decoration-is brought, fully lit, to the surface and presented.  Just as we see each detail
        within the meaning of the total photographic image which they themselves compose, so we see 
       every object both singly and coming together to form an ensemble: an apparently seamless
       ideological structure called a home.[Italics added] (159)
       And he continues:
        On the one hand, the ideological construction put on the objects and events concretizes a general
        mythical scheme by incorporating it in the reality of these specific historical moments.   At the same    
        time, however, the very conjuncture of the objects and events and the mythical schema dehistoricizes
        the same objects and events by displacing the ideological connection to the archetypal level of the
        natural and universal in order to conceal its specifically ideological nature.  [emphasis original] (160)
Figure  3.
Russell Lee's "Hidalgo County, Texas," 1939.
(To Be Supplied)
Tagg’s choice of this photograph provides a propitious opportunity to compare his approach directly with an aesthetic approach presented by Janet Malcolm in Diana and Nikon: Essays on the Aesthetic of Photography (1980).  As Malcolm writes:
Sitting in respectful symmetry around their magnificent floor-model studio of Aztec modern design, she
        sewing and he leafing through a magazine [82]. Over the enormous radio (which had taken the place
        of the hearth in 1939, with people warming themselves around its songs and comedies and
        romances) hangs a machine-art tapestry printed on black cloth and depicting a scene from a French 
        rococo court, with aristocrats in powdered wigs graciously gathered about a harpsichord. The stout, 
        swarthy American woman's head is covered with a black hairnet, to keep her pincurls in place, and
        her stockingless feet are comfortably encased in disreputable laceless shoes.  The husband's right 
        sock has an enormous hole at the ankle, about which he is equally unconcerned. This picture's life-
        its ' action'-comes out of the contrast between Art Deco and life (and homely and poor), but its irony
        is gentle and good humored. (159-160)

        The contrast here could hardly be more sharply drawn. The details in Malcolm's description seem to bring the picture to life as a narrative, qualities which concern Tagg secondarily, if at all. Unlike the objective approach, which emphasizes simply what was there, the aesthetic appreciates the value of the frame, the conventions of visual communicating within and without the history of painting. Malcolm senses the presence of the photographer himself, his unique choice of composition. His perhaps wry sense of humor - the loci of his vision: the scene in the tapestry vs. the actual, present scene below and those striking but easily overlooked details, the large hole in the man's left sock and the woman's hairnet and laceless shoes, details which seem to escape Tagg completely, or about which he is unconcerned. Malcolm seems, on the other hand, to recreate the artist, his vision and hence, his personhood at the very moment he created the image before us.
       Malcolm , however, offers nothing about the larger events and purposes and project of which this image forms a part. She says nothing of the time, the challenges behind the FSA’s creation, the conditions of an FSA photographer’s employment, the other photographs which Lee completed in Hidalgo Co., TX during that month, nor, of course, the remainder of the huge corpus of Lee’s work, which itself forms part of a still larger corpus of work by other FSA photographers. [To Part Two]