Interpreting photographs

(About understanding photography rather than language. Warning: high sexual content.)

Interpreting what’s going on in a photograph can be quite a task, especially if the photograph is untitled and uncaptioned, or provided with only a minimal title (“Miami Beach, 1985” or the like). Sometimes the interpretive task rivals that of discerning a narrative in projective tests that use visual materials, like the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT). (Other visual art can present similar interpretive challenges, especially if the art is unmoored to the rich matrix of historical, social, classical, and Biblical allusions that informed most Western art for centuries.)

In an exhibition, photographs can supply clues to one another, but if you’re looking at one photo in isolation, you don’t get that help. It can also help to know who the photographer was, so you can try to relate one photo to what you know about their work; knowing that the photo came from, for instance, Diane Arbus, Weegee, Garry Winogrand, or Gordon Parks can be helpful.

But without such context, you’re on your own. An example follows. One photo, out of context.


One man, apparently lying down, his eyes closed, one arm behind his head, with a second man staring at his face and three other men staring at his body (possibly his crotch). As far as we can see, the men are naked, and the three we can see most clearly are muscular hunks. Two of the four watchers have some sort of amulet visible on cords around their necks, and the other two probably have amulets as well (we can see the cords). In the background: lush tropical foliage and something that looks like a tiki torch.

If the men were dressed, and not in a tropical location, we could be looking at some sort of examination of the man lying down — perhaps a professional consulation about him. But that’s unlikely, given the jungly nakedness.

Some kind of ritual? Worship? Sacrifice? Given that we’re dealing with naked muscle hunks, and that the image comes from me — there is some relevant context after all — the encounter is probably sexual.

Compare this with a TAT image:


Ambiguous like #1, but in a different way. The physical setting and the clothing are as open to multiple interpretation as the physical setting and the lack of clothing in #1, and in neither case is it clear what’s going on.

The full image for #1 can be found in my AZBlogX posting of 7/13/13 “More group sex” about the gay porn flick Cross Country Part 2 (where it’s #1). From that posting:

Erik Rhodes with his dick as the focus [this has been cropped out in #1 above], then Maxx Diesel handling it, with (from left to right) Derrick Vinyard, Alex Rossi, and Joe Sport giving it their rapt attention. This looks like it’s the beginning of a dick-sharing scene (everybody taking turns at sucking Rhodes’s cock [a gangsuck; see here on these), but turns out to be a prelude to a gangbang of Diesel by the other four guys plus Mike Powers. Sometimes you can’t tell where a group sex scene is going to go.

The back cover of the DVD is in that posting (as #2). The front cover (featuring a naked but not genitally nude Erik Rhodes) is #1 in “Three sex workers” of 7/14/13 on this blog. From Falcon Studio’s press notes:

Two parts… ten scenes… twenty three unforgetable men. Rise to the challenge! The movie event of the year is here… Falcon’s Cross Country is a must-see epic destination movie filmed on location in breathtaking New Zealand.

The story picks up from Cross Country Part 1. On their journey to return an ancient Maori totem to Roman Heart, Matthew Rush and Erik Rhodes quickly learn things aren’t as simple as seem. They come face-to-face with a sex-crazed cult that worships the flesh, a mysterious Maori guide and more.”

So both a sex scene and ritual worship.

One Response to “Interpreting photographs”

  1. Gang showers | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] presents many of the interpretive problems I mentioned in this posting: what are we to make of […]

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