Photographs and context

In his essay entitled ‘Photographs and context’ Terry Barrett discusses category displacement in connection with one particular image and goes on to propose a framework for contextualising photographs (Barrett, 1997).

Category displacement

The image in question is Robert Doisneau’s ‘At the Café Chez Fraysse, Rue de Seine, Paris, 1958’.  It was first published as part of the photo essay on Paris cafés in the magazine Le Point.  Subsequently it was published in an alcohol abuse brochure, then in a scandal publication and captioned ‘Prostitution’, it was hung in a Moma exhibition with the usual name/date/title caption along with other works of art. Finally it appeared in John Szarkowski’s book ‘Looking at Photographs: 100 pictures from the collection of the Museum of Modern Art’ with an interpretation of ‘a potential seduction’.


What does this image depict?

Simple cafe life?

Alcohol abuse?


The art of photography?





(Doisneau, 1958)

A framework for contextualising photographs

In his essay Barrett offers a framework for the interpretation of a photograph. The internal context includes the picture itself, it’s title, date and photographer. The external context refers to its ‘presentational environment’ eg what publication it appears in, the other images surrounding it. Finally, the original context which Barrett describes as the physical and psychological environment in which the photographer existed at the time the photograph was taken.


Barrett, T. (1997). Photographs and Contexts. [ebook] Available at: [Accessed 29 May 2018].

Doisneau, R. (1958). [online] Available at: [Accessed 29 May 2018].

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