Third effect: When sense becomes nonsense

Roland Barthes wrote in his seminal book Image Music Text:

As for the other meaning, the third, the one ‘too many’, the supplement that my intellection cannot succeed in absorbing, at once persistent and fleeting, smooth and elusive, I propose to call it the obtuse meaning. The word springs readily to mind and, miracle, when its etymology is unfolded, it already provides us with a theory of the supplementary meaning

Working with the everyday and generic found photographs, in itself doesn’t cause much concern for interest. However, with the collage works I have most recently received feedback on, the same comments kept coming up. People commented on the fact that the collages were humorous, playful, sometimes a little dark – but they were not entirely sure why as the imagery used was already familiar to them. Separately, a catalogue photograph of a plant is indeed just that, a photograph of a plant. A photograph taken from a bowling technique handbook is under most circumstances, quite a dull image. When paired together, these original, intended meanings still exist but a new, third meaning comes into play. This is the case for a lot of photographic images that are presented in an art context. William Eggleston took a colour documentary photograph of a tricycle from a low angle. I know what the purpose of the trike is, a child’s play thing, and I can understand why Eggleston chose the subject matter for its colour and shape, a nod to childhood and nostalgia perhaps (the obvious meaning). Portraying such a photograph in a gallery at, say, 3ft by 3ft rather than the 6×4 prints we are familiar with in albums, opens up the audiences’ mind to search for a third meaning where they can look beyond the intended narrative and begin to unravel the photograph for themselves. For me, the trike photograph in question not only makes me recall a memory of falling off a trike quite similar and putting all my bottom teeth through my lip, but makes me think of the trike’s owner. Where was he when this photograph was made? Was Eggleston aware of the owner or was it seen in passing? Had he in fact fallen from the trike and sustained the same injuries that I did? Okay, so attaching memory to a photograph isn’t quite what Barthes had in mind for the third meaning but my interpretation of the photograph has taken place because I am presented with such familiar information removed from its original context, in turn creating a third meaning. If you were to see the same image in a family album in the loft, you would probably glance past it as quite a banal image. Documentary photography that seems mundane and dull actually possesses a strong will to draw the third meaning from its audience, enabling them to look round the subject matter, behind the imagery and into the supplementary meaning, due to its more obvious stature to start with.

John Walker writes about the ‘third-effect’ meaning in his essay Context as a Determinant of Photographic Meaning in relation to text and image within advertising. Having a strong image and adding a carefully selected pun or witty comment can entirely change how the audience views the advert- creating a third meaning from the juxtaposition of the two elements. Habitualisation of elements of life, reinforced by the media and messages we receive make us feel conditioned that things that happen do so through a natural order of things.

When this natural order or tacit knowledgeis disrupted, the mind creates other solutions, other meanings. The collages I create do just this, people should be familiar with plants, and with imagery of people from the past yet they are not familiar with the juxtapostions that the collages become, making them an object of the absurd, turning sense into nonsense. Creating an artificial world is something that photography and art excel at, and begs authors and audiences over and over to question what they think their reality actually is or whether it actually exists in imitation, reflection or stark contrast to our ‘non-artificial’ world and the relationships between. Filip Hotovy discusses the notion of photography’s reputation for representing the real, which was once it’s key selling point. We look at photographs and see a moment we insist on believing that has happened- a connection to the non-artificial world at some stage in time. However, this means we discard the immobilised objects and faces, discard the fact that the world is not in fact black and white and that the photographer’s intentions were intended to be innocent. Where does the realism lie when all this is removed from the interpretation? Contemporary photography has addressed this through embracing the artificial worlds that it can create, leading to a boom in collage and manipulated imagery from Broomberg+Chanarin, Stezaker, Henner and Gordon taking over centre stage from the likes of Capa, Frank, Arbus and Friedlander.

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