Date of Degree
PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)
The "linguistic turn" in early twentieth-century philosophy established that through language we not only live in a world but create it as well. Language, in this sense, incorporates the entire range of media and cultural artifacts through which we create and share meaning. In contemporary post-industrial societies, photographic images play a central role in communicating and creating the world in which we live. In part, this increasingly visually oriented culture is possible because we tend to equate what we see in photographs with what is real. Photographs, however, bring to light a vision of the world, not the world itself. From the inception of photography, traditions of aesthetic interpretation have challenged this dominant view. Here, the created image becomes a vehicle for the artist's unique expression. Proponents of social scientific and critique of ideology perspectives, however, reject the aesthetic view and typically see art objects as social constructs, instruments which enhance and maintain a certain social order. Each of these perspectives ultimately holds that the meaning of photographs can be determined objectively. At the same time, each presents a world view which tends to exclude the insights of the others. Any attempt to preserve the apparent insights of these views must, then, transcend the basic contradictions and incompatibilities between them. Philosophical hermeneutics holds that the presumption of an absolute, objective grounding represents a failure to grasp the nature of the path toward understanding, a path which can never arrive at its destination because it always exists in history. It argues that (1) the photograph cannot be transparent to the world for the world is constituted in our representations of it; (2) art is a creation whose origin and meaning always exceeds the artist's own understanding of it; (3) critique is not the application of universal reason but a reading from a particular vantage point and is always grounded in a tradition of its own. Most importantly, however, it calls us to recognize the participatory nature of all understanding, the universality of language and provides a criterion for assessing the relative value of our interpretations across the entire language world.
Documentary photography, Hermeneutics, philosophical hermeneutics, Gadamer
Includes bibliographical references (pages 219-235).
Copyright © 1992 Gerald John Davey Posted with permission of the author.
Davey, Gerald John. "Understanding Photographic Representation : Method and Meaning in the Interpretation of Photographs." PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) thesis, University of Iowa, 1992.