Conveying more meaning in mine has been on my mind for some time, and a frequent source of frustration. Maybe this was chasing the wrong goal all along, though.
Trying to analyze the “value” of a photograph is probably futile. But that’s how my mind works, and I need to formalize ideas in order to better integrate them in my work and life.
To my eyes, a photograph’s value comes from its production value (camera, lens, PP, print quality if printed, …) the meaning conveyed by the image and the personal style of the author. And whether the 3 are cumulative or work as a product is an important question: would a high production-value photograph with great style and little meaning have close to zero value for a viewer, as a multiplicative model would suggest? Or would the first two components still grant it good value?
My line of reasoning has leaned towards the first option. Pretty photographs that didn’t make me think felt flat and not worth the hard drive storage they occupy. Since that describes 99% of my best photos, it was an issue 😉
That way of thinking is not without its own flaws, however.
First of all, photojournalism typically produces the images with the most meaning, and is still one of my least favourite genre of photography. They are of utmost importance as testimonies, but often uninspiring to look at. And photojournalism with a strong style and high production value is deeply disturbing to me, as if those components cannot mix well. There’s something almost obscene about making a beautiful object from the suffering of others (which constitutes a large chunk of photojournalism).
Worse, I can’t help thinking about how misleading many of them can be, as well. Having seen images of protests I witnessed first hand, I know how a selective shot can convey a very different feel to what the event actually was. Whether that is a deliberate choice by the author or not changes nothing to the fact that meaning cannot be transferred objectively from author to viewer. Meaning should only be conveyed through objective forms of communications, such as essays. Not in an artform that enables a slight change of framing to change the idea completely. I think there might be meaning in the mind of the photographer when he/she shoots, and there might be meaning in the mind of the viewer, but those two meanings can rarely be the same.
And then, there’s the matter of trends and fashion in meaning.
What we find important today will be trivial, or poo-pooed, in a few years time. Who knows who will find the photo above racist, sexist, misogynistic, anti-American, or anything else, in a few years time, when all I saw here was a fun juxtaposition?
Meaning really is too fickle, and often dictated by herd mentality, to be a worthy goal for any self-protecting author. Today, I believe that looking for evocative images is far more important. You can convey fake meaning and short-lived, manipulative ideas, but evocation is here to stay.
While meaning comes from the author and will only be accepted by viewers with the same worldview, excluding others, evocation builds a bridge between the viewer and the author as soon as both see something in the image. It doesn’t have to be the same thing. But the same image evoques thoughts in both. I suppose evocation is the first step towards meaning, after which everyone’s worldview superimposes a personal layer of meaning. The important thing to me is to get the viewer’s mind interested in finding a story that fits the image.
The title above imposes a meaning on the photograph. It’s all about me again being grumpy about the impossibility of photographing human faces without consent in France. Had the title been “enjoying the view”, or “need a smoke” you might have seen the image in a different light. All of those options feel lightly manipulative. And all feel inadequate because the photograph doesn’t achieve a goal without accompanying text. I strongly believe images should work alone.
If, however, you feel some interest in the images on this page, and they make you want to fill in the blanks for yourself, that is much more positive. I obviously saw something noteworthy in every scene. If something makes me want to agitate electrons in my camera, and makes you want to look and interpret, that’s good enough.
And this is where I believe the other two components in my equation come into play.
Post processing and style, both very subjective qualities, have little to do with meaning, objective by definition. But both can contribute to the evocative power of a photograph.
Both serve to reinforce the photographer’s vision. And, therefore, to reinforce the visibility of whatever it was that caused a finger to press the shutter. The framing, the composition, the contrast, the saturation, …, all contribute to make that initial thought, whether formalized in the author’s mind or not, more evident to the viewer.
So, I initially thought the mistake in my equation was to use a product instead of a sum (so to speak). It felt like a meaningless image with high-quality PP and strong style could be of interest to the viewer. But I think this is wrong. My mistake was to use meaning, rather than evocative power, in the product. Todd Hido writes “Photographs should raise more questions than they answer”, and I agree entirely. Meaning isn’t a goal. Ambiguity, suggestion, inspiration, evocative power … are far more useful to elevate a shot from pretty picture to masterpiece.
Yes, to me, a photograph with strong style and great PP, but not evocative power, offers very little value. This feels consistent with the idea that “valuable” images are those we look at the longest. Of course, this has nothing to do with collectibility. By value, I mean the positive impact the photograph has on the viewer, not anything financial, which was never what photography was about. Case in point: abstracts. Often fascinating (turn to any of Nancee Rostad’s post for vivid examples of this) and yet conveying zero meaning, they are in fact pure evocative machines.
And another point in favour of evocation, is that it can be light-hearted. Meaning almost has to be intense. Whereas an image can evoke something as simple as “I’d love to spend an hour on that roof terrace with a cold drink”. Or “In how many roof hops can I get from the terrace to the church” 😉
What say you? Those are my personal reflections, and I know that not everyone agrees. Firs of all, do you believe photographs need to create value for the viewer to be successful? Or is a photo good enough if it pleases its author? And secondly, how do you think either can be achieved?
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