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A Conceptual Framework for Understanding Photographs

Author(s): Terry Barrett

Source: Visual Arts Research, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Spring 1986), pp. 68-77
Published by: University of Illinois Press
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A Conceptual Framework for Understanding Photographs

Terry Barrett
The Ohio State University

Abstract Standing photographs, losing apprecia

tion for their differences, and miseducat
Selectivity, instantaneity, and credibility are
characteristics which distinguish photography ing those we teach.
from other picturing media and make our This study is a theoretical discourse
experience of photographs significantly differ on photography. While recognizing that
ent than our experience of other pictures. photographs share commonalities with
Photographs ought to be interpreted by an other representational, expressive, com
examination of three types of contextual in municative objects, this text argues that
formation: internal, original, and external. Pho
photography is different in kind from other
tographs are beneficially seen as functioning
pictorial media. The text is situated within
analogously to certain types of language state
ments: descriptive, explanatory, interpretive,
the general discourse of aesthetic edu
cation and art education but accounts for
ethically evaluative, aesthetically evaluative, and
theoretical. These categories are a heuristic all photographs, not just those made
device to prompt interpretive discourse about under the auspices of the art world. It is
photographs. Placement of any photograph in written to increase understanding and
one or more of these overlapping categories appreciation of photographs and to
demands supportive evidence drawn from heighten critical response and dialogue.
contextual information.
Three main conceptions guide the text.
First, selectivity, instantaneity, and credi
bility are identified as separate charac
teristics which distinguish photography
If photographs are not significantly dif from other picturing media and make our
ferent from other pictorial representa experience of photographs significantly
tions, then a sound theory of visual art different from our experience of other
would adequately account for photo pictures. Second, based on these dis
graphs. If photographs are very much tinctions, it is argued that photographs
like paintings, prints, and drawings, then ought to be interpreted contextually by
much of what we have come to know of
an examination of three types of infor
paintings, prints, and drawings ought to mation: internal, original, and external.
be applicable to photographs. If such Third, it is argued that photographs, for
were the case, and if we wanted to purposes of interpretation, are benefi
increase awareness and understanding cially seen as functioning analogously to
of photography, the most that would be certain types of language statements,
required to understand and appreciate namely, descriptive, explanatory, interpre
the newer medium would be increased
tive, ethically evaluative, aesthetically
familiarity with a larger number of pho evaluative, and theoretical.
tographs, an awareness of the medium's
history, and some factual knowledge of
photographic technology. But if photo Selectivity
graphs are significantly different from
other types of two-dimensional visual Photographs are different from other
representations, and if we treated them kinds of visual representations in matter
as if they were essentially similar, then of degree and kind. One characteristic
we would be denying the uniqueness of which distinguishes photographs is se
photography at the peril of misunder lectivity, another is instantaneity, and a

68 VISUAL ARTS RESEARCH ? 1986 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois

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third is credibility. Each of these distin making stylistically realistic pictures with
guish photography from other media of photography has been and continues to
visual representation, and all photo be one of its most desirable attributes
graphs share each of these character (Arago, 1839/1980; Pitts & Stein, 1980).
istics to a greater or lesser extent. It is The ease of photography results in pho
these three characteristics which make tographers being more selective than
our experience of photography qualita painters in the senses that photogra
tively different than our experience of phers typically make many more pictures
other two-dimensional visual represen than do painters and typically make many
tations. Those photographs which share more pictures than they ever present
in these essential determinants of selec publically than do other picture makers.
tivity, instantaneity, and credibility to a Despite the comparative ease of pho
greater degree are those we implicitly tography, the photographer's problem of
and correctly consider to be more "pho making conceptually or aesthetically co
tographic"; and those which share in herent images is more difficult than it
each of these to a lesser extent are those might seem when one considers that the
we implicitly and correctly consider to be camera impartially records whatever falls
more "painterly." within its view, much as a tape recorder
Certainly painters select, both subject indiscriminately records as equally sig
matter and manner of presentation, as do nificant the voice of the lecturer as well
photographers. But different kinds of se as the rustling of the audience and the
lection are involved. Painting is an additive sounds of the room ventilator. The pho
process; photography is a subtractive one. tographer's problem is one of selecting
Painters come to blank canvases, whereas the significant from the insignificant and
photographers' viewfinders are never making that choice apparent. The ease
empty given any amount of light. Painters of photography is countered by "the fact
add to the blank canvas and perceive that a thousand other pictures of the
emerging forms as they paint and paint same subject would have been equally
over, typically adding imagery to former easy" (Szarkowski, 1973, p. 134).
imagery, mark to mark, stroke to stroke, The history of aesthetic and critical
brushing paint on top of paint. Photog discourse supports selectivity as essen
raphers, however, are essentially engaged tial to photography. A conceptual split
in a subtractive process, one of taking regarding what is and what is not pho
away, distilling. They select from the entire tographic has revolved around selecting
universe available to them, choosing a photographs with the eye and camera
broad or narrow field of view, from very (Strand, 1917/1966; Weston, 1943/1973;
close to very far, and make the exposure White, 1968; Arnheim, 1974) versus using
that typically results in a single instant of the camera as an unrestricted means of
time from a single point of view. The making art pictures which allows for hand
viewfinder is always filled with visual in painting and other nonphotographic
formation, or stuff of the world. The pho methods (Ward, 1970). Sides of the schism
tographer manipulates the camera, the have been variously referred to through
subject matter in front of the camera, or out history as Pictorialism and Purism,
both, until the viewfinder is deemed to be or Pictorialism and "straight photogra
appropriately filled and the visual clutter phy" (Hartman, 1904/1980), or "manip
seen in it has been satisfactorily distilled. ulated" and "straight" photographs.
This manner of working is different in kind Some from outside the photographic
than the manner of adding paint to a blank community (Benjamin, 1939/1980, 1935/
surface. 1979; Sontag, 1978) have criticized the
Photography is also a relatively easy medium for its inevitable distortion
method of image making. The ease of through selection, its inherent segment

Understanding Photographs 69

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ing of the whole into misleading frag see the world as if it were made up of
ments. instants. Photographers must see ob
jects, often as they are moving, as they
are interacting with other objects, how
Instantaneity the objects will be transformed into two
dimensional forms. Unlike painters who
Photographs are instantaneous in differ perceive emerging forms relating to other
ent senses: they show any unbroken time forms as they paint slowly, over days or
span as if it were an instant; they are months or years, or quickly paint and
made in an instant; they are made of paint over, photographers strive to per
instants; they are made instantly. Pho ceive all that is happening through the
tographs are made in an instant because viewfinder as a would-be instant in an
in exposing a piece of film to light in instant. It is not only the interaction of
order to make a photograph, the shutter the visual forms which photographers
of the camera is open to light for a certain must perceive, but also the implications
duration of time. Photographs are also of those interactions which must be per
made of instants in the world because ceived and evaluated in terms of expres
photographs are dependent on the re sion and meaning (Barrett & Linehan,
flection of light from objects in the world 1977).
existing in time to the film. Photographs Photography literature frequently re
are also made instantly in the sense that fers to temporality and photography. Pho
they are made relatively quickly com tographer Wright Morris (1982) euphe
pared to paintings, prints, and drawings. mistically refers to all photographs as
The photographer chooses an instant "time pieces." Roland Barthes's (1981)
when the film will be exposed. He or she definition of photography is inevitably
has several lengths of exposure to choose linked with time: he names the essence
among, but whether the exposure is one of photography "that has been" (p. 77).
sixtieth of a second, 60 minutes, or a Rudolph Arnheim (1974) identifies instan
microsecond, the resulting picture will taneous exposures as a unique character
necessarily be of that time interval, what trait of the medium. Photography's social
ever its duration. This is an empirical critics accuse the medium's rendering
necessity. instants of time as miniaturizing experi
Many photographs are dependent on ence and transforming history into spec
time for their effects, particularly when tacle (Kracauer, 1927/1975; Sontag, 1978)
their exposures are either of a very short and photography of an ahistorical dis
duration, as in Greenewalt's exposure of tortion of reality (Benjamin, 1935/1979;
hummingbirds at one-thirty-thousandth Sekula, 1981).
of a second (Time-Life Books, 1970) or Selectivity and instantaneity are two of
in very long "time-exposures." In these three determinants that variously com
cases the photographer's efforts result bine to make photography what it is and
in new visions in that we can see things that effect our experience of photographs
we could not have otherwise seen. as significantly different from our expe
Painters see what they paint as they riences of paintings, prints, and draw
are painting. Frequently, photographers ings. Not all photographs rely equally for
do not see what they photograph as they their effects on selectivity or instantaneity.
are photographing it, often because of Edward Weston's famous series of pho
the speed with which the subject moves. tographs of peppers, for example, are
Painters paint and paint over, seeing and instantaneous but are not particularly ef
evaluating forms as they emerge and fective because of their relationship to
relate to other forms on the canvas. time. One would garner more interesting
Photographers, however, must learn to insights were one to consider aspects of

70 Terry Barrett

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the results of Weston's selection process deemphasized in favor of seeing the pho
in making these particular photographs. tograph as a transparent and natural
When image makers use photographic reflection of reality made by a machine,
techniques or materials or processes but so much so that the photographic image
deny or ignore the subtractive selection is accepted as nature as well as natural.
process of the photographer and the Several and various discourses sur
instantaneous nature of photography, rounding photography inevitably touch on
their images are not less good or effec issues directly or tangentially related to
tive; rather, they are routinely, and rightly, photographic credibility. Claims of cred
referred to as being more "painterly" ibility were made on behalf of the pho
than "photographic." Also, their images tograph from its inception and continue
are less "credible." to be made throughout its history. Arago
(1839/1980) claimed "exactness" and
"faithfulness" for the camera. Daguerre
Credibility (1839/1980) claimed that the daguerreo
type gave nature the power to reproduce
There is a halo of credibility surrounding itself. Oliver Wendell Holmes (1839/1980)
the photograph which has a significant described photography as a purely me
effect on those who make, use, and view chanical, objective, and passive copying
photographs for whatever purpose. procedure? a mirror with a memory.
Credibility ought to be considered an Strand (1917/1966) held that the essence
essential, distinguishing characteristic of of photography was an absolute, un
photography. People believe photo qualified objectivity. Moholy-Nagy (1936/
graphs, whether for better or worse, 1966a, 1923/1966b) also stressed the
whether with or without proper justifica objective vision of the camera image.
tion. That is, in general, people tend to Henry R. Luce, founder of Time and Life
grant to photographs more credence than magazines, made excessive use of pho
they would to paintings, drawings, prints, tographs in Life to bolster the magazine
or sculptures. In experiencing photo with the authority of authenticity the me
graphs, viewers blur distinctions between dium enjoyed among his readers (Freund,
subject matter and pictures of subject 1980). Contemporarily, issues involving
matter. Photographs tend to be accepted pictorial realism, faithfulness, truth, nat
as reality made by a photographer through uralism, transparency, and related con
the instrumentation of the camera. cepts are current in the writings of sev
There are several complex reasons eral aestheticians and critics. The issues
why we tend to put faith in photographs. and arguments surrounding photo
From the inception of photography and graphic credibility are complex but can
throughout its history, claims of repre be roughly grouped into three major
sentational accuracy and reliability and stances: realism, conventionalism, and
truth have been made on behalf of the social criticism.
photograph. Today, the electronic and The realists (Walton, 1982; Barthes,
print news media, in their particular uses 1981; Arnheim, 1974) grant photographs
of cameras, implicitly claim objective fac special status because of the causal gen
ticity and reinforce the public's credence esis of the photographic image. Photo
in the photograph. The conventions bor graphs are claimed to encode a unique
rowed from painters by the inventors who chemical and optical relationship to real
fashioned the first cameras to fix a certain ity because of the causal interaction of
kind of pictorial image, and the conven light reflected from objects to the light
tions with which photographers work, sensitive materials used in photography.
and the determinations photographers Barthes (1981) asserts that the photo
make in taking their pictures, are all graphic referent is not the optionally real

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thing to which an image or sign refers, photography from other media and pho
as in painting or language, but "the nec tographs from other pictures. The inter
essarily real thing which has been placed esting implications of the distinction bear
before the lens, without which there would directly on the interpretation of photo
be no photograph" (p. 76). The conven graphs. Photographs are inevitably se
tionalists (Goodman, 1976; Gombrich, lected from and linked to spatial and
1969,1980; Snyder, 1980) generally agree temporal aspects of real-world situations
with each other in arguing that all realistic by their being causally dependent on light
representations are much less natural reflecting from objects to light-sensitive
and much more conventional than we materials. The credibility attributed to
have supposed them to be. Snyder, in photographs influences viewing photo
particular, adamantly rejects any special graphs in ways that minimize awareness
ontological status for photography. The of the photographer's selective process.
social critics (Berger, 1972,1980; Sontag, But photographs certainly are not the
1978; Sekula, 1975, 1978) stress the in same as the causal real-world objects or
visibility of the medium, as do the con events on which they are, to greater or
ventionalists, but are concerned with the lesser extents, causally dependent. The
political and ideological implications of differences between photographs and
photography as a "mechanically repro their real-world counterparts or referents
ducible image-making technology wholly are crucial to our understanding photo
assimilated to the apparatuses of con graphs. To know that the referent and
sumerism, mass culture, socialization and the photograph of the referent are dif
political control" (Solomon-Godeau, 1982, ferent is to know that one is about the
p. 10). other. It is not the photograph that
Thus, issues of credibility have and "speaks" or reveals or is revealing; it is
continue to surround photographs. To the differences between the photograph
approach photographs and to be igno and its real-world referent that allow the
rant of their natural, or conventional, aura photograph to be about something. Com
of credibility is to miss much of what parisons between the referent and the
makes photographs what they are and photographed referent are necessary for
significantly reduces the richness that the interpretation, understanding, and eval
medium has brought to our experience uation, and such comparisons involve
of existence through pictures. It is neither considerations of a contextual nature.
categorically good nor bad that the pho Three sources of a photograph's con
tograph is imbued with credibility; rather, textual information are its "internal con
credibility is simply a very interesting text," "original context," and "external
given that comes with the photograph, context" (Barrett, 1985). Internal context
that ought to be cause for wonder, re is that which is given in a photograph,
flection, interpretation, and evaluation. As that which is evident. Original context
with any unexamined belief, an unin refers, broadly, to that which was phys
formed belief in photographs might often ically and psychologically present to the
yield effects disastrous to knowledge and photographer at the time the photograph
sometimes ethically detrimental conse was made. Given that the photograph is
quences. a limited segment excised from infinite
time and space, one ought to consider
what may have been beyond the photog
Context rapher's particular, presented frame of
view. Also, to consider the photograph's
Implications follow the identification of original context might be to consider the
selectivity, instantaneity, and credibility as photographer's intent if it is available, the
the unique characteristics that distinguish photographer's biography; the intellec

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tuai, Imagery, and stylistic sources of the see photographs as mirrors, or windows,
work; the relation of the photograph to or the way it was, or as mere mechanical
others contemporary to it, both those of transcriptions unencumbered by knowl
the photographer and those pictures by edge and values. To miss the differences
other photographers and artists; the so between the photograph and the object
cial and political character of the times; or event photographed is to miss what
and the philosophical and religious milieu ever contribution to knowledge and ex
of the times. External context refers to perience the photograph may contain.
what has happened to the photograph
after it was made; how and where it is
being presented; how and where it has Categories of Photographs
been presented; how it has been re
ceived; how other interpreters have Because there is such a diversity of pho
understood it; and where it has been tographs, ranging from scientific to artis
placed in the history of art if it has. tic endeavors, a category system that
Contextual investigations of photo renders this diversity more conceptually
graphs are demanded by the nature of manageable, without diminishing the dif
photography. Because photographs are ferences among photographs, is desir
excised from physical real-world space able. An overlapping category system is
and temporality with mechanical origins presented here which posits that pho
resulting in a high degree of stylistic tographs are analogous to various types
realism that tends to convince, for several of language statements, namely: descrip
reasons one ought to attempt to place tive, explanatory, interpretive, ethically
the segment as pictured back into the evaluative, aesthetically evaluative, and
whole. One needs to do this to under theoretical. The claim is not that photo
stand what the photographer has done graphs constitute a language but that
to the original situation by his or her photographs do function similarly to lan
excision in order to posit what the pho guage statements and that it is intepre
tograph is about. An understanding of tively beneficial to view them in such a
the differences between the picture and way. To ask of a photograph if it functions
the reality from which it was made is primarily as a description or an ethical
essential to understanding the photo judgment is to ask important interpretive
graph. Without these distinctions consid questions, questions more important and
ered, the photographer drops out, the yielding greater insight than those that
photograph becomes transparent, and ask if a photograph is in the category of
the viewer is left mistakenly considering "nude" or "landscape" (Time-Life Books,
the photograph as a real-world object or 1970), "straight or manipulated," "Purist
event rather than considering it as a and Pictorialist" (Ward, 1970), "mirror"
photographer's picture. Similarly, the ap or "window" (Szarkowski, 1978).
preciation of photographs is dependent
on recognizing and understanding the Descriptions
transformations the photographer has All photographs may be said to describe,
made in excising the segment so as to in greater or lesser detail and clarity,
make it aesthetically noteworthy rather within the constraints of various cameras,
than routine or mundane. The viewer who lenses, films, and other technical vari
wants to understand and appreciate the ables, and within the constraints chosen
photograph needs to see what fresh and by the photographer, the surfaces of ob
significant relationships the photogra jects. Some photographs, however, are
pher may have brought about and the not meant to be more than descriptions.
means selected to make them manifest. Paradigm cases of descriptive photo
The cultural tendency, however, is to graphs are identification photographs,

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medical x-rays, photomicrographs, NASA falsifiable in that in cases of dispute they
space exploration photographs, and pho cannot be confirmed or denied empiri
tographic reproductions of artworks. cally. If, for example, Duane Michals as
These photographs are analogous to serts an afterlife in some of his se
statements of fact in verbal language, are quences, the claim would be difficult to
visual recordings of empirical qualities prove or disprove with empirical evi
and quantities, and are meant to be in dence.
terpretively and evaluatively neutral. Their
Ethical Evaluations
makers attempt no more than accurate
recordings of objects and events onto Photographs that function as ethical eval
photographic surfaces. uations always describe, often attempt
to explain, but also, and most importantly,
Explanations imply moral judgments, generally depict
Explanatory photographs function anal ing how things ought or ought not to be.
ogously to empirically verifiable state Most photographic advertisements, for
ments in language. An exhibit and book, example, present us with aspects of the
Exploring Society Photographically advertiser's conceptions of "the good
(Becker, 1981), is a paradigm example of life" or assert what products, life-styles,
the uses of photography to understand and attitudes ought to be desired. The
the workings of the social world. The majority of the work of W. Eugene Smith
investigations, by scientists and artists, may also serve as a clear example, most
include sections of Mead and Bateson's notably his last book, Minamata (1975),
Balinese Character and more recent work with his portrayals of village fishermen
by others of Arkansas prison life, the suffering as a consequence of industrial
travels of migrant fruit pickers, a com poisoning.
parison of a family-run restaurant with a
McDonald's, and the urban assimilation Aesthetic Evaluations
of American Indians. Explanatory pho All photographs can be apprehended
tographs are falsifiable in that they could aesthetically, and many photographs are
potentially be empirically demonstrated made to be aesthetically pleasing even
to be true or false, accurate or inaccurate. though their purpose is to condemn or
explain. But some photographs are made
/nferprefaf/ons primarily for aesthetic appreciation. These
Nonfalsifiable interpretations are another photographs function as visual notifica
type of explanatory photographs. These tion that the photographer deems certain
are analogous to metaphysical claims in people, places, objects, or events as
language in that they purport to give intrinsically worthy of aesthetic appre
information about the universe but are hension; or they function as notifications
asserted independently of empirical evi that the photographic presentation of
dence. Clear examples are several se people, places, objects, or events is wor
quences of Duane Michals's, for in thy of aesthetic apprehension. The works
stance, "The Spirit Leaving the Body" of such masters as Paul Strand, Edward
and "The Creation" (Bailey, 1975), and Weston, Ansel Adams, Aaron Siskind,
most of the work of Jerry Uelsmann and Gary Winnogrand are well-known
(1973). Photographs in this category de and clear examples.
pict an intentionally subjective under
standing of phenomena, often use pho Theoretical Photographs
tographic fiction as a mode of visual Finally, some photographs are not about
expression, and generally yield informa people, places, objects, or events in the
tion about the worldviews of the photog world but are about art or about photog
raphers who make them. They are non raphy. They function similarly to metalan

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guage in verbal language or metacriticism cative media and objects of media share
in art discourse. They generally are made commonalities and belong to a large con
to address issues about photography, or tinuum. This study recognizes this but
issues about photographs, functioning as attempts to do another task, one of point
visual commentary or as visual art criti ing up differences between photography
cism. More simply, they are art about art and other media, and photographs and
or photographs about photography. Mak other pictures. The attempt has been
ing Chicken Soup (1972), for example, is made to find and point up differences so
a visual cookbook by Les Krims which that the characteristics of photography
is dedicated to "concerned photo that distinguish it from other pictorial
graphs," a term usually designating con media are not obscured or diminished.
cern with social issues. Krims is engaged The effort has been to show that pho
in elaborate critical sarcasm pointed at tography is different in kind from other
those who would attempt to solve social
pictorial media. Certainly photographs
problems with cameras; in Krims's view,
share some conventions with other pic
as useless an effort as making chicken
tures, but photographs are not the same;
soup to cure physical infirmities.
to see them only as items on a vaster
Although these six categories are def
continuum is to miss what photography
initionally discrete, photographs overlap
provides and how it provides it differently.
them. This overlapping category system
There are three main conceptions in
is not meant to be used to end thought
the text: the identification of selectivity,
and discussion of photographs through
instantaneity, and credibility as the distin
pigeon-holing; on the contrary, it is to
open discourse about photographic guishing characteristics of photographs,
meaning in order to increase understand and an exploration of how these matter;
a recommendation based on the nature
ing and appreciation of photographs and
of the variety of statements photography of photography that photographs be in
carries and delivers. It should be used terpreted contextually; and that photo
as a heuristic matrix of questions with graphs fall into overlapping categories
which viewers could interpretively ap when they are seen as functioning anal
proach any photograph or group of pho ogously to language statements. These
tographs and question, for example, conceptions may be used heuristically as
whether a press photograph is descrip guides to interpreting any photograph,
tively accurate or whether it is subtly from family snapshots to social docu
imbued with negative value judgments. ments to artwork.
To place any photograph in a category, In following the logic of the text, one
even those paradigm examples cited here, might approach an exhibition of photo
requires decision making backed with graphs, for example, and experience the
evidence of a contextual sort. The place photographs as photographs by attempt
ment is always open to dispute, calls for ing to distinguish them as a class from
argument, and is open to counterargu other classes of pictures. One might look
ment. To engage in thought and dis at the pictures as if they were windows
course of this nature regarding a pho in the walls of the gallery and thus see
tograph is deemed eminently more through them to the world beyond which
worthwhile than comfortably labeling it they depict, initially accepting them as
"documentary" or "a portrait," "inter credible, natural, and transparent. One
esting" or "beautiful." might examine how and why it is that
they can easily be seen this way, and
Conclusion one can then go on to recognize the
highly selective input of the photographer
Sometimes it is beneficial to see that all in choices he or she has made regarding
representational, expressive, communi the rendering of space on a two-dimen

Understanding Photographs 75

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sional plane, as well as his or her manner study is more directive and more edu
of working with temporality in a still me catively sound than asking for "beautiful"
dium. One would seek to know how as photographs, and it offsets the inordinate
pects of time and space have been se concern for technique and equipment
lected to present more or less credible that plagues the field of photography and
pictures. photography education. To have students
To consider any of these aspects re make and consider photographs signifi
quires comparisons ? of these photo cantly about something significant enough
graphs to other pictures, and of these to invite interpretation and contemplation
photographs to the original subject mat is a worthwhile goal for photography
ter they depict--in order to begin to education within art and aesthetic edu
posit what the photographs might be cation.
about (Danto, 1981). The viewer could
mentally run the photographs through the
categories and combinations of cate References
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