The Shared Experience of Art and Photography

A post I read over at The Online Photographer has gotten me to thinking about the experience that is shared between the creator and the audience in both art and photography. The audience will almost always walk away from the image with impressions that the artist never intended to make. Sometimes, those impressions are exactly the opposite from what the artist intended. And, in some extreme cases, modern interpretations are forced upon Classical or pre-modern arts and literature using methods to divine meanings that the creator could not have intended because such vocabulary or philosophies were non-existent in his era (ex. “a postmodern, deconstructionist, gender-feminist, Marxist literary interpretation of misogyny and social justice in Homer’s The Iliad“).

Still, there is a very real shared experience between the artist and the audience which sometimes results in one reading more into the work than the other intended. Some photographers view this with a mild bit of dread as it seems the author of that article, Mike Johnson, feels. He seems to be of the mindset that once a photo has been taken, no future variance in interpretation should be allowed. While I can see some merit in that viewpoint (after all, none of us are going to radically reinterpret V-J Day in Times Square as being anything other than a celebration of the end of World War II), I also can understand that sometimes, even if the reason for taking the photo is still the same, the feelings about the photo will be different. And that’s okay. The example that Johnson gives is the photo of his daughter and the paper mâché dog. He originally took the photo just to capture a moment he thought was particularly precious. But now, he looks at the photo and sees it as:

The photograph is a metaphor for a child’s innocence and it is tinged with sadness. Children are easily duped, in particular because they have unfettered imaginations. For instance, Westerners spin a yarn about Father Christmas. Although absurd, children have no problem believing it. Their scant knowledge of the real world and their fertile imaginations combine to make the story utterly believable to them. One day, they will awaken. For now, the ruse gives them joy, so we let them persist in their ignorance…

There’s nothing wrong with his present interpretation. He shouldn’t feel as though he’d be tarred and feathered for his perspective changing. Indeed, though we still view V-J Day in Times Square as an iconic image of celebration, we also now look back on it as being from a simpler era where men and women had more clearly defined roles. Indeed, if a sailor grabbed a random woman on the street today and kissed her, he’d be guilty of assault. Sometimes we long for a return to that simpler era and sometimes we look back and are amused that we ever once thought the world could be such a simple place.

Changing your view and your interpretation, so long as you are not forcing a completely alien viewpoint on the creator, is not only normal, it’s human. We all view the world through our own parochial points.

— da Bird