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Saturday, August 19, 2006

Appreciating Photographs

by Oren Grad

Thanks to all for the thoughtful comments on "What Message Does a Photograph Communicate?"

Fizzy asked, "If a photograph isn't supposed to convey some meaning or feeling to us (communicate), why do we bother looking?"

I do it because looking at good pictures is enjoyable and satisfying. It makes me happy. That's reason enough.

There's a tendency for photographers who fancy themselves artists, and viewers of photographs who want to think of photography as a fine art, to take the medium much too seriously and to project all sorts of romantic superstitions onto it.

But sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. It's very liberating to let yourself experience photographs in a direct and intuitive way, and not worry about whether you've figured out the secret code.

What about the photographer's intentions? Truth be told, at least when it comes to the experience of viewing pictures, I really don't care about the photographer's hangups. In making pictures, the photographer is scratching his own itches; in viewing them, I'm scratching mine. It's always possible that there is some similarity between the photographer's motivations and understandings and emotions and my own, but when that happens it's purely a coincidence. Such a concordance is neither necessary nor sufficient for a photograph to be successful from an esthetic point of view, or to be worth seeing.

But surely understanding the photographer's motivations and intentions and the historical context of the work is essential to appreciating the esthetic merit of a picture? Well, no. Those are different things, with no necessary relation.

That said, learning about the photographer's point of view and his place in the history of the medium can be a satisfying pursuit for its own sake. And you can discover delicious things, like the fact that it's possible for a photographer to be full of foolish ideas, yet still make wonderful pictures.

Posted by: OREN GRAD


Blogger Michael said...

I've been trying to put photography together with things like explanation (journalism, history, sociology) or interpretation (anthropology, again sociology, history journalism). Where you're trying to explain or interpret, only words will carry the burden. What pictures do is: they show. They do not explain or interpret. So you may see something quite powerful in a photo---man shoots man in head with revolver, taken at moment of impact---but we only know what to make of that because of the many words and thoughts that have surrounded it. Only the words explain or interpret. The photo just shows. It could be the wages of sin, or the horrors of war, or just "so it goes", as Vonnegut might say. We need the words.

What this means is that when we say that a photo 'communicates', we really mean, it really grabs us, it really shows us something. But that communication is not at all like the caption or the story or the explanation that might go with it. We really shouldn't say that a photo 'communicates' or 'has a meaning'. It may do something quite powerful to us, but 'communicate a meaning' is just what it doesn't do. Socks you in the eye, maybe, but doesn't 'speak to you', since photos just don't have words.

Nice to get that off my chest.



4:45 PM  
Blogger thechrisproject said...

Somewhere in this post is hidden the reason that I dislike a lot of the writing on Utata's Front Page. It's still just a little annoyance that I can't quite put into words, but this post struck a chord with me.

I really like the photographs they show, but sometimes everything is just taken a little too seriously for me. Sometimes someone ironing is just someone ironing. Flowery prose doesn't make the viewing of every good photograph better.

4:23 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

"What this means is that when we say that a photo 'communicates', we really mean, it really grabs us, it really shows us something. But that communication is not at all like the caption or the story or the explanation that might go with it. We really shouldn't say that a photo 'communicates' or 'has a meaning'."

That last line doesn't logically follow from what comes before. There's a big assumption in there, that "the word" is the only way to communicate meaning. Words themselves are open to endless interpretations. Why are you holding them in such high regard as the sole transmitters of meaning?

Imagine a picture of the President at a town-hall meeting event. The caption reads, "George Bush talks with his constituents in South Carolina." Does that caption mean anything? What does it say? What does it not say? Does it say that the "constituents" were really hand-picked by the GOP party in SC? Does it say that the "meeting" was really a staged event with staged questions and canned responses? Words can convey meaning, hide meaning, deflect meaning, be meaningless, etc.

There is so much meaning to be had outside the realm of words, to say that this meaning either 1) needs words as a springboard or 2) can only be a complement to word-borne meaning seems to set up a false hierarchy -- to my mind, a hierarchy that simply does not need to be.

Is it not possible to communicate impressions? What about when you look a lover in the eye? Are you communicating? Or are you simply gazing? When you touch your child's hand, are you communicating? When you pet your cat? When you wash your car? When you slice the Thanksgiving turkey *just so* in front of friends and family? Do these actions have no meaning? Do they always have no meaning? Do they require processing into words to have meaning?

Likewise, does a Salgado print communicate nothing about the human condition? About the world? Does it really require commentary to gain meaning?

4:55 PM  
Blogger Steve said...

Chirs said

"Likewise, does a Salgado print communicate nothing about the human condition? About the world? Does it really require commentary to gain meaning?"

Lets not forget one very important thing, relativity. To use Salgado again, take the photograph of the train station in India (Bombay, was it?) where there are massive crowds of people moving into and out of the station and the trains. What does this say? Well it depends. I looked at that photo in awe, but I'm from a relatively small city in Australia. Show that photo to a resident of Bombay and they'll most likely say, "Huh? Yeah, that's normal. Nothing special". So, what it "says" about the human condition is really dependant on the viewer and their own experiences and life situation. It is relative. Perhaps that Salgado print does say something about the human condition, but what does it say? It's tough? It's awful? It's beautiful? I dont know what it says I only know what I feel when I see it. So, I think what Michael was saying (Michael, feel free to step in and tell me I'm wrong) is that a photo cant be relied on to communicate an absolute truth or the absolute intention of the photographer. It shows and image and the viewer will take from that what they will but what they take will be different from what others take. When I view photos of country towns in Australia I often have an uncomfortable feeling which comes from thinking about having to live in such a place which does not appeal to me. Someone from that town might feel very nostalgic and happy. It's relative, not absolute. If you agree that communication is having a message that you want to pass to someone else accurately and know that that they got the message exactly how you intended it, then photography is not a very good vehicle for that. It is, I believe, a very good vehicle to provoke contemplation and emotion.

5:37 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Chris makes a good point in saying that words cannot do the job alone (any more than photos). Both need a fertile setting, a hearer's / viewer's / listener's imagination, and both are subject to (mis)interpretation.

Chris goes on mention a Salgado print, asking whether it would communicate nothing about the human condition. I tend to think of those shots in a Brazilian (gold) mine, and particularly the one with masses of muddied men toiling across a vast slippery face, and that surely grabs the eye, the imagination, and the heart. But just what it communicates is anything but sure or explicit. To those of us who have lived a mild and comforting life it may seem the embodiment of misery. In a dark moment it might capture for us the entire human condition as such. Or in a sunnier moment we might think that even here there is silvery edge of hope. And I think I have known people who would recognize that the print has force, but not that it has anything to do with their condition or any general human condition.

So I think what I'd want to say is that the Salgado sure as hell makes us look at it and keep looking at it, and makes us buzz with thoughts and speculations. But there's no telling where those thoughts may go. And that's why photography is so compelling.


6:42 PM  
Blogger Andy Smith said...

I think there's two different discussions going on here.

When I reread Oren's post, he's noting that he doesn't need (or care) to get a communication about the PHOTOGRAPHER'S feelings.

In this case, I agree. That doesn't necessarily imply, however, that a viewer of a photo doesn't want or care about the feelings (or other communication) from the subject of the photo.

Two different things.

If I see a photo with a mother holding a child outside a burning home, the expressions on their faces could very well express a feeling to the viewer that makes or breaks the photo. (In fact, that feeling expressed visually could possibly communicate much better than any choice of words ever could.)

I could care less about the photographer's feelings, perhaps, but I could care a lot about the feelings expressed by the mother or child.


7:25 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

I thought we were talking about "meaning", not "truth". That's a whole other ballgame, no?

The problem is that we are expecting that the "meaning" of photos has to be of the same quality as the "meaning" of words, but there is nothing that says this must be so. Again, to take an example from human behavior, when a woman isn't interested, I get the message, even if it is not conveyed verbally. Do I need to know the absolute reason? I get her meaning.

Much knowledge can be gained from inference. If I see a car brake suddenly ahead of me, I can reasonably infer that something ahead of that car caused them to brake. If I waited for an absolute understanding before I myself brake, I might be dead. In this case, a non-absolute understanding of the truth of this situation is preferred to an absolute one (even if it somehow were to exist). But a meaning and a message has definitely been conveyed by the brake lights, no?

Why must a photograph rise to a level above that? Items we percept visually convey meaning all the time. A raised arm and a glint of steel in a crowded nightclub might convey danger to us. Do we need to have any understanding beyond that in order to have received a communication, to have inferred meaning? Someone desires to kill me or others. That's all I need to know. If, five seconds later, my understanding is shown to be incorrect, I'll be smiling as you pull me out from under the nearest table.

To say that a photograph does not convey meaning, you would have to show, given that visually percepted phenomenon can convey meanings, why a photograph is excluded. (And what if the photograph is a photograph of words? Are those words rendered meaningless? Is the communication link somehow broken?)

Are there no realizations to be had from a photograph? No meanings to be inferred or derived? No messages to be caught?

Well, if you are looking at a photograph searching for an absolute truth, then you are probably going to search in vain. But you should also apply this degree of inspection to words as well. You will probably find your search there equally fruitless.

But if you are looking to a photograph for communication, all you need to is look. The messages are there, just as there is a message in a raindrop, a sunset, a brake light. Is it a "perfect" communication, conveying absolute truth? Probably not. Why should it be?

7:27 PM  
Blogger Lux said...

I totally agree with Michael and Steve. Photography is not a language, it's an art or it's a recording tool. Recorded pieces of reality, images as documents, have no intrinsic meaning, it's us humans that attribute meaning to things, events and recorded images of them. And as others have said those meanings that we attribute are subjective, personal, relative to our culture, experiences, mentality, individually accumulated conditioning. A language can be articulated in precise ways and there are institutions that guard its coherency for collective use. Think of dictionaries. There's nothing like that about art, nothing like that about raw facts even if recorded as two-dimensional images. In both cases photography creates objects that are empty of intrinsic message or meaning, other than that attributed by the author and/or by the viewer.

9:11 PM  
Blogger John Roberts said...

I agree with the sentiment that a lot of "seriuous" photographers need to lighten up a little bit. We do tend to take all this a bit too seriously at times. I can't speak for everyone, but I originally got interested in photography because I thought it was fun. I still do. No matter how serious I get about my hobby, I hope I never lose that aspect of it.

5:49 AM  
Blogger Will said...

I'm wondering how your approach to this subject differs from that of Steiglitz and White (and others). For an example, see Minor White's article



8:42 AM  
Blogger oren said...

Will -

Thanks for the pointer to that article. I will write something about it, but it may be a few days before I can get to it. Stay tuned...


11:13 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

My first responses to Salgado's Brazilian gold mine photographs were much more basic than any thoughts about the human condition. I just wanted to know what and where it was--what in the world all those people were doing and for what reason. In other words, the most important thing to know about the Brazilian gold mine pictures is that they're pictures of a Brazilian gold mine.


11:27 AM  
Blogger James H Egbert said...

I like to fancy myself both an artist and a photographer. I do believe the two are inseprable in my vein of study. While it is true that the camera will record what it is pointed at and the process is mechanical, but the same can be said of sketching or painting. In every study of art there is the mechanical aspects, and then there is the expressionist points.

All of the Fine arts use the same basic compositional rules and in painting there are the mechanics of brush selection, canvas selection and the right paints.

I do belive that a photograph can communicate. Photojournalism is a testiment to that, the only problem of late is that photojournalists have not been as honest with what they communicate. As a former photojournalist I tried my best to not only accurately depict a scene, I also tried to make the image encompass the entire story. Dorthea Lange was a inspiration to me in that.

To say that a photography cannot say soemthing to me is ludacris at best! Photographs from my contemporaries during the first Gulf War told stories of war and death clearly. Photographs from Ground Zero in New York were very accurate in capturing what I felt words failed to say.

We for the most part live in a visual world and words when written are a visual media still fall short of what a photograph can express and say.

As an artist I feel much the same and when a buyer or viewer recounts to me what they saw in one of my photographs that I did not provide a caption for accurately what I wanted to communicate, my point is proven every time.

Do I think it is 100%, no, but that is perfectly ok with me. "While there is perhaps a province in which the photograph can tell us nothing more than what we see with our own eyes, there is another in which it proves to us how little our eyes permit us to see." ~ Dorothea Lange

I will also refer you to my own Blog on the life of a Nature Photographer and other instructional articles I have written.

1:41 PM  

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