When Looking Back Really Makes You Cringe


Alan does not know crap about art.

In my recent presentation on Looking Through The Lens I spent a little time riffing on Errol Morris’ New York Times column Liar Liar Pants on Fire.

Morris leads us down the path to show that the question of “is it true” has no meaning for a photograph that lacks any kind fo caption or context. And how that meaning changes when the context is current

I have often wondered: would it be possible to look at a photograph shorn of all its context, caption-less, unconnected to current thought and ideas? It would be like stumbling on a collection of photographs in a curiosity shop ““ pictures of people and places that we do not recognize and know nothing about. I might imagine things about the people and places in the photographs but know nothing about them. Nothing.

I want to ask a relatively simple question. Are these photographs true or false? Do they tell the truth?

Without a caption, without a context, without some idea about what the picture is a picture of, I can’t answer. I simply cannot talk about the photograph as being true or false independently of beliefs about the picture. A captionless photograph, stripped of all context, is virtually meaningless. I need to know more.

And yet, this idea that photographs can be true or false independent of context is so ingrained in our thinking that we are reluctant to part with it.

He makes a fantastic case for captions, a.k.a meta information a.k.a context.

As I do for shared photographs, as something plopped on flicks with only Image9654.JPG as a title has no context.

So transport to today, when of all things, I am in the mens rest room of the Driskill hotel looking at this Frederick Remington print

(click for full size)

Okay, it is turn of the century cowboys and indians.

But wow, I must have had to go, because I read the caption

Mexican Monte

We take life easy with a will,
Do I and my young foreman, Bill;
Daily we find at every hand
Agreeable methods to expand.

With redskin maidens we romance
We play their brothers games of chance;
For by this means, as can be shown,
Much that was theirs becomes our own.

I’m a bit horrified at this context. yes, on one hand, it was western expansion white man perspective, but thinking again how the world sees America– “Much that was theirs becomes our own.” is not much to be proud of.

But again, Morris is right, without this context, the image has less meaning, and no sense of truth or falseness.

What does it have with the caption?

I’m not even sure why I am taking it this far. I have no desired to demand the hotel remove the print. It is s snapshot of a past mindset.

a past mindset.

A past mindset.


Lost in Austin, lost in art, lost in context

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Profile Picture for Alan Levine aka CogDog
An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at CogDogBlog.com on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.


  1. I was in Austin two weeks ago. When we entered the Driskill, I immediately felt it was way too fancy for my liking. But when I used the men’s room and saw this print (I must admit, it was the second time I’d been there), I turned on my heel and left. The fact they leave this up is disgusting…or maybe it’s not. Maybe it reveals the true nature of the hotel and the people who frequent it, and it pretty much gave me all of the information I needed to make a decision. F*ck the people who leave this up for display as a reminder of who’s really in charge.

    1. I had forgotten about that image and to read my own post. I guess it had no effect if the photo is still there. I’d like to think maybe there is some context I am missing, but still. My hunch is most people in the mens room don’t read the captions.

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