When I go to an art museum, I always look at the little placard on the wall before I look at the work of art. I know; art is supposed to stand on its own. It shouldn’t matter to me on first viewing whether a painting is a Degas or a Picasso or a Rembrandt; I should take it for what it is, first, before looking into its pedigree.
I can’t help it. At best I glance at the painting, read the placard, and then step back and try to savor it. (Well, usually. Some paintings are downright unsavory.)
I have a similar reaction to photo essays or books: I always read the caption first, and then look at the picture after I know what I’m seeing.
Here’s the thing: a picture, whether it’s a photo or a painting, is a picture of something, made in a particular context. You can appreciate a beautiful picture purely for its own sake, but knowing the context and a little something about the subject can enhance your appreciation…or, in some cases, make it possible to begin with.
Consider the picture at the top of this post. Please take a closer look at it and form an opinion before you read any further.
It’s one I rather enjoy, but I’m in a distinct minority; it doesn’t seem to impress anyone else on first acquaintance. It took it last summer while on vacation with the family; we were in San Francisco, waiting at the ferry terminal to take the ferry to Alcatraz Island for the tour of the penitentiary. They’ve got quite a large waiting area, and a number of exhibits to keep people busy while they wait.
Now, take a look at the picture again; and reflect that it isn’t so much a picture of a diorama of Alcatraz Island as it is a picture of the people stuck in the waiting area until their ferry is called. Does it strike you any differently?