Kevin Bjorke
Kevin Bjorke
3 min read

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Pictures Have No Meaning

(©1957 The Richard Avedon Foundation)

I have long admired this photo, made by Richard Avedon in 1957, and you should too.

Roland Barthes wrote in Camera Lucida that “great portrait photographers are great mythologists” and that’s certainly been true for most of the celebrated ones.

For all the deserved accolades, in this brief post I’d like to assert that this picture, and really nearly all pictures: photo, painting, AI or alabaster – are meaningless.

Avedon: “There is no such person as Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn Monroe was an invention of hers. A genius invention that she created like an author creates a character.”

A photo like this starts to peel-apart the casual notion that a photo is real and that it has a particular meaning. It’s a little bit consoling to think that a photo is intrinsically true – it’s hard to argue against the ideas that a certain number of photons bounced here, were refracted there, caused such-and-such a chemical reaction inside Avedon’s Rolleiflex.

Yet beyond the simple and obvious identity of the moment – that Norma/Marilyn was there on this day and was exposed correctly – the interpretation of the photo confounds the viewer, the reader of commentary, the press agent, the fan.

The deuce of it is that the meaning – whatever it really is – is in the mind and reactions of the observer. A great picture is less a statement than an arbitrary expression that engages you, the viewer, in the process of assigning meaning. The meaning comes from the collision of that picture and your self.

If we think of images this way – as a mechanism for unlocking meanings in the viewer, rather than as containing meanings – then it’s much easier to see a commonality between all images, between all arts.

This idea doesn’t require that we ignore the differences that come from specific production methods, era, or medium. Instead it lets we the viewers accept those attributes as merely contributing factors for the creation of meaning within our own hearts.

And the artist: not as someone who forces meaning into an image, but as someone who through craft or accident grants us the gift of seeing for ourselves.

Paul Klee once said “Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.”

When you looked at the photo above, what had reached your eye, physically, are lightrays from a screen, assembled by a computer program from data sent via some local CDN and further on across the network to the datacenter that contains, which in turn is filled with pixel values that I found on the internet courtesy The Richard Avedon foundation that digitized them via unspecified methods from a print made in the 1950’s of a black and white negative on Kodak film inside a German twin lens camera, lit by bulbs of some sort whose own light rays reacted with Marilyn’s skin, emitting a radiance that we normally associate with her, even here.

You already know this. Okay, so, which part of that chain understands the photo? Do JPG algorithms understand it? Does Tri-X?

I ask because these questions of understanding hew very close to John Searle’s famous Chinese Room Argument. In his philosphical imagination, Searle proposes someone alone in a room, translating lone Chinese characters into English or vice versa, by simply following the instructions of a computerized dictionary. Does the person… understand Chinese? English? Does the computer? This puzzle challenges our understanding… of understanding.

(For myself, I think that a small level of understanding is required in Searle’s puzzle – an understanding that a certain kind of mark on paper should trigger a series of steps which will result in a new mark or marks on a different piece of paper. This is a question, and has a response. It is a tiny language of its own. The need for additional meaning comes not from the hapless translator, but from the philosophy professor in the next room.)

Which leads me back to Marilyn, to meaning, to photography and AI (this is, after all, An image: still, silent, devoid of agency, is up to you the viewer to interpret. How it was made is only a part of how an artist might use their crafts to bring you a chance: to see something beautiful, terrifying, grating or elegant. It’s your eye that chooses if it will see.

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