An interesting debate over at the Online Photographer between the context matters*and the context is irrelevant crowds. I agree with both. But I agree more with the context matters people.

*Mike’s post there is a much better version of my Title and Purpose post. Although, unfortunately, the photo itself is hard-pressed to be considered art.

Context does matter. For all art. The idea that a piece of art should stand on its own is an impossibly high bar. What the no-context people miss is that there is always a context. Visiting Pier 24 still means you’re in an art gallery, that someone has selected the pieces in question, and that there’s an implicit commitment on your part to look. So what if there’s no libretto, someone has curated these and you trust them enough to look.

This is very different than seeing things on the web or encountering things randomly in the street.* The medium is the message and your mindset in each situation is tuned in to different things. People spend hundreds of dollars to hear him perform a concert but will completely ignore Joshua Bell if he’s busking.

*Something a lot of photoblogs seem to miss. Collecting photos and displaying them without any comment is not curation. There HAS to be a point of view.

None of this insistence on context should be taken to mean that context is more important that content. This is where I agree with the context is irrelevant people. Almost all the time, it doesn’t matter how interesting the backstory is if the photo itself is beyond redemption. Art is meant to be looked at and experienced. If it fails to engage at all, it’s not successful.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at, and the web at

10 thoughts on “Context”

  1. The thing that gets me is that the less context is provided, the more contingent the viewer’s experience will be on the background they bring to it. One of the consequences of this can be the creation of a class and/or academic barrier to participation for many people, which tends to piss me off, at least in the context of public-facing museum exhibits. The more subject area knowledge you have, the less important curator-provided contextual information is, and the less likely a lack of context will induce confusion or anxiety or total failure to recognize what makes the thing interesting.

    1. That’s also a great point. Museums are intimidating places. That we should make them even more intimidating by forcing people to use only the knowledge they already have is completely backwards.

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: