The Death of Ambiguity

Today came the realization that ambiguity in photography is gone. Once one of photography’s proud trophies, this tactic could lead us on a psychological journey searching through our own mind-data-banks for a resolution. From the earliest of visual understanding we’ve been taught to understand visual imagery as narrative. ‘Dad, Mom and Me live in this house, under this sun, next to this tree’. The photograph has earned so much esteem and pride for existing sans context. When we come upon an image crafted so well as to be descriptive yet ambiguous enough, our eyes hit the malfunction button, the processes of our brain looking for narrative turns back upon itself. We become trapped in the image all of sudden confounded with the details which may, hopefully, give us a reference or clue to what indeed this image is about or ‘trying to say’.

The digital image always has context. The internet (and digital) is built upon photographs. It is the language or the building block of the structure of the web page. When the internet did not have photographs it was limited, boring even, certainly it required a high degree of participation from the user in the form of reading. When bandwidth and connection speeds allowed photographs to be resolved in an acceptable form, be stored, archived, and exchanged with ease, the internet became intuitive, an extension of ourselves because it even could look like us through the photograph.

The issue of ambiguity is that now the photograph always has a context, a reference or the info that leads us to it’s source, intent or even some other intentional or misleading content which works to inform the image. In-fact if the image appears ambiguous online it makes us look outside of the image rather than within it for the solutions to our narrative dilemmas. Source code, meta data, ip, web address, file info, date created, now give us all and any clues to not necessarily find the right answer but indeed an answer, enough to move, give up and click next.

In one fell swoop the ambiguous strength of the photograph is disabled, obsolete(?) and merely a reference to the days of print on the wall sitting misunderstood and a mystery in and of itself. However do not fear many of photography’s other strengths are heightened by their adaption into the internet. Propaganda and it big sister, voyeurism and manufacture.


  1. Posted November 12, 2008 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

    That’s not necessarily true.

    Take a look at my blog:

    Ambiguity galore!

  2. Posted November 12, 2008 at 11:31 pm | Permalink

    Artists know nuance. Audiences prefer ads.

  3. Posted November 13, 2008 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    It’s an interesting point. I think, though, it partially depends on the viewer who chooses whether they are going to be lazy or not about comprehending a photograph. You are right that the amount of (over)information that the internet provides has led us to expect all photos to be in context, but I think true lovers of photography learn to resist that expectation, and likewise good photographers fight the demand for it. I think also that the crossover of documentary work into the fine art realm has polluted true ambiguity as well as the more recent expectation that all photography have a conceptual point.
    I say all this as someone who is a bit of dreamer and enjoys understanding images for what they are and usually ignore the print.

  4. Posted November 13, 2008 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    Call me a romantic, but I think I disagree. I will admit that the digital age can drive a photographer to madness, and it has surely decreased our attention span. Digital post-production on 8×10 negs at 3am makes me want to give it all up. For me personally, I need to balance the unambiguous, technical, and documentary with the experimental and ambiguous. I’m thinking about both modes all the time in order to remain sane. And I think there are others making work that I would consider ambiguous, beautiful and ultimately resistant to the digital age (no matter how the pictures are made). Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison come to mind. Maybe the dire economy will spark a new crop of ambiguity.

  5. Posted November 13, 2008 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

    I do want to emphasize that now that photography is for the most part subsumed into the internet that we look outside the image for clues to solve an ambiguous riddle. Much different than looking for those answers within the picture.
    (Saying all this as also a romantic lover of 8×10 and the lovely print itself, esp. when done by Dave Jordano )!

  6. Posted November 14, 2008 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    Now I see what you’re saying. Many things have changed or been lost in the digital age. The artifact (the record, cd) in music waning with digital downloads. The architecture student who graduates but cannot draw or sketch. Letter writing.

  7. Posted November 14, 2008 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

    But I do think you can construct a Web site that insists that there’s no context to be had. Surely the classic photoblog exists just to do that (assuming ambiguous photos), to offer up each photo surrounded by signs of the absence of context — both in the page design and in the very fact that design is static as the photos change.

    But then I must bring up the demise of the classic photoblog, and you point is proved.

  8. Posted November 14, 2008 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    Joe It’s not exactly about the surroundings/context but the fact that if the picture is presented as a mystery then we have the opportunity to solve that mystery through the digital mediums.
    We might just be able to figure out all the stories and context of the Sultan/Mandel Evidence book. Do I want to? No. But all the same of persecption of the image may have changed to where we go to google first when confronted with ambiguity.
    Certainly my students do.

  9. Posted November 15, 2008 at 7:13 am | Permalink

    I see what you mean — but isn’t that true of all art now, and in fact true of everything in the world? Bar bets and trivia quizzes are changed forever, to give you the most trivial example.

    And that’s a great loss (to both art and bar bets).


    I love that Joel Sternfeld photo of the firefighter and the pumpkin, but I’ve always avoided digging deeper to discover the story behind it. I’m afraid of resolving the mystery of whether it was staged, and if it was staged, how Sternfeld could have arranged to burn a house, and if it wasn’t, hey, what’s up with that firefighter? I’d rather remain intrigued than flatten that experience.

    Maybe The New Context just presents a greater challenge to the photographer. Maybe we have to work to attract viewers who expect and enjoy the ambiguity. And screw the rest of ’em.

  10. Posted December 13, 2008 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    I agree with most of all of this. As a “classically-influenced” photographer (I think I just coined a phrase) I am disappointed with a lot of the new “new” photography. Seems it’s all about “look at me” or “look at my boring life”. To me, photography is an art, if used properly, and documentary if not. I’m not saying documentary photography is bad, just that today a lot of bad documentary photography passes for “art”. In my photography I try to find what everyone else misses. I take a LF photo class at a local community college (to keep photographing and see other people’s work) and we had our final last week (6 prints). I showed color for the first time (I’m usually an 8×10″ BW guy). I got some very nice comments, but I always get something like “you have a real knack for finding compositions in things that other people just walk on by.” In my photographs you KNOW what you are looking at, but there’s a whole lot more to them… classical elements like line, form, tone, abstraction, and now, color. That’s what seems to be missing in today’s photography, IMHO.

    Visit my website and blog and let me know what you think.

Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.