Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Meaningful Images 3

A street photographer is wandering around, looking for interesting things to photograph. He has no special agenda other than to be recognized as the next Cartier Bresson, someone with a fabulous eye. He looks left and sees a hot dog vendor - the lighting is perfect and there is a shadow in the background that just adds something to the image - a small child is reaching up to take his just served hot dog. In less than half a second the photographer has seen all these elements come together and takes the picture. Because he's been doing this for a while, focus is spot on, exposure is right, he's learned the trick of good hand holding.

The photographer moves on. Someone is sweeping the sidewalk, large clouds of dust kicked up and the late afternoon sun isolates the sweeper from the background. Suddenly a pretty girl walks by in front of the sweeper and he glances up to admire her. Click.

Our photographer spends a few hours out photographing, coming home with a few dozen images, a couple of them he's really excited about. On looking at the images on computer, one of the two good images is trash - fatal distacting elements or too harsh lighting or split second late. A couple of images that didn't excite the photographer at the time show some real promise. In the end the photographer comes up with four pleasing prints and one fabulous image, not the one he expected.

The above is a not untypical scenario, whether applied to a sports photographer, fashion or landscape. But what about meaning?

You might best describe this kind of image in the above scenario as "slice of life". No great truths have been unveiled but the images (if they are good) beautifully illustrate ordinary human existence. It might be hard to see meaning in any one image especially when examined critically and excessively, but when you put together the work of our street photographer over a year - it tells a story of "our town", beautifully illustrating those little moments in life which define our existence. In this way, they do have meaning and purpose and are worth sharing with others.

The photographer may not have had the intention of "doing a project" but in essence by choosing the images he does, by electing to be a street photographer and select a location and work at it repeatedly until both successful and with a body of work behind him, it really ends up as a project.

The photographer thought of himself as "cruising for snaps" as the late Fred Picker described it, but inadvertently managed to produce a meaningful body of work that many an office worker can relate to.


G Dan Mitchell said...

"Meaning" is an interesting notion relative to art. With my particular background I tend to think of it in the context of music where one simple way of dividing things up (too simple, perhaps) is to speak of "program" and "absolute" music.

"Program" music overtly "means something" because the composer intends it to be associated with non-musical things - perhaps to represent something specific, to tell a story, or evoke a particular feeling or experience.

On the other hand, "absolute" music is simply what it is. It is no less significant nor does it create a less significant effect on the listener - it just produces the effect purely by means of the sound resources that the composer uses, without specific reference to any particular "meaning."

I don't see why photography should be any different. Great photographs may come with "meaning" attached - either supplied by the photographer or obviously to be inferred through the subject. But great photographs can also simply be great photographs that are not "about" any specific thing at all.

It works for me.


advman said...


You pretty much describe how I work. I take images in the morning on my way to work, I do it after leaving work, and in the evening I try to find an Image of the Day for my blog. I think some of my images have meaning, no doubt about it, and sometimes it is even not by chance. Others have not, at least not overtly so, but they still may add up.

Overall I think it is best not to worry about it. If you're dedicated, it happens anyway, and even if it is in a way by chance, for the dedicated it will happen more often than to those who don't care.