Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Meaningful Photographs


you think of yourself as a photographer artist or at least a 'Serious' photographer, someone who wants his or her images to mean something. You are looking for your next photographic project. What on earth are you going to pick for a subject so that you can be taken seriously as a photographer.

You decide to look at some current magazines for ideas on what others consider 'Serious' photography. You look at the latest Silvershotz - pictures of lightbulbs, hmmn... You flip over to Phot'art and half the pictures are more or less fashion shots, many of the rest odd quirky images highly dependent on gimicky technique - gee, this is getting a bit discouraging. You look at the latest Lenswork, at least here you see many portfolios showing the traditional values of image craft - well made images beautifully printed - subjects are pretty traditional - cathedrals, nudes, portraits, grain elevators?

In the end you really aren't any further ahead in finding a subject - either it doesn't appeal, looks kitchy or its a great idea but someone just did it and published it so not much scope there - at least for now.

Perhaps if we stop and think about what meaningful actually means, when referring to a meaningful collection of images. Well, I think right off that the whole point is for the images to be meaningful to you the photographer. You have not the right, privilege or ability to pick what is meaningful for me, the viewer. That's up to me to decide. Frankly after looking through the latest images in Phot'Art, my response is 'not too many images are meaningful for me'.

So the images have to mean something to you the photographer, and you don't have to make any consideration at all to whether they are meaningful to me the viewer. Of course doing meaninful work and doing work that is likely to get recognition are two entirely different subjects, though I do think the better editors can see when images mean something to the photographer - there is an intensity, vision, direction, message, or style that says this subject meant something to the photographer and he put his heart and soul into doing his best with it.

I'm guessing that Ann Geddes makes a lot more money with her cute baby pictures than say Michael Kenna, though I'd bet on Michael being remembered far longer.

Anyway, getting back to the subject and the images meaning something to the photographer you can see where the problem lies - the harder you have to think of a subject to photograph, the less likely it is that it's going to have deep personal meaning for the photographer, the more artificial the idea of what to photograph, the greater the chance that in choosing it, you have inadvertantly slipped back into trying to decide what will be meaningful for others.

What if it doesn't work that way? What if the meaning comes after you have been photographing a subject for a while and it starts to fascinate you and you find yourself going back and back for more, trying harder and harder to get the best out of the subject? What if it's the actual process of exploring any subject that makes it meaningful? This might explain why people who flit from subject to subject, never really exploring any one subject, don't tend to make any meaningful images - perhaps the very definition of meaningful precludes little of this little of that type photographers from creating meaningful work, or at the very least makes it a whole lot less likely.

Virtually every photographer I admire put a lot of effort into exploring his or her subject - whether it's Edward Weston's nudes or the quiet landscapes of Paul Caponigro, the native portraits of Phil Borges or the misty elegant and simple landscapes of Michael Kenna, they all spent a lot of time working on their chosen topics. Of course Ansel took grand landscapes - he hiked thousands of miles and was out in the wilderness for weeks at a time - probably putting more wilderness mileage in than 100 average modern tree hugging landscape photographers.

So, perhaps in the end it doesn't really matter what you photograph next - pick something, anything, and see where it leads you. Perhaps you'll get one or two nice images, but just maybe the subject will affect your dreams and drive you crazy and make you burn midnight oil and appreciate people you wouldn't normally give the time of day to. Just maybe the meaning is in the dedication and the dedication is in the meaning and it just happens, or not. If it doesn't happen, then you move onto the next idea.

Perhaps I'll write next about what to do if none of your ideas turns into dedication or meaningful images - does that mean your ideas aren't clever enough, or does it say more about your own attitudes and curiosity and energy?


Alan Rew said...


Another excellent article, filling a gap in the literature about the learning/development process.

In my own (slow, painful) development process, due to the usual amateur photography constraints of finding time between doing a full-time job, I've recently started taking some photos that are personally very meaningful but which seem to mean very little to anyone else. At first I thought this was quite scary, because it means I have to be prepared to accept that, even if I am doing 'good' work from a personal point of view, this work may never have any audience apart from myself. It also means I have no objective frame of reference for measuring progress.

Having had more time to read other people's accounts of the learning process, and this article, I think I'm prepared to carry on with ploughing my own furrow without worrying so much about it. Apart from anything else (a) it gets me out taking photos, instead of fruitlessly trying to think of locations that would produce photos that _other_ people consider as 'good' and (b) it might develop in interesting directions, enabling me to discover new subject matter or new ways of presenting it. I'm also making a point of going out with my SLR with one (zoom) lens on it, leaving the tripod and other lenses at home, so I can concentrate on composition.

In a thread on The Online Photographer blog about the benefits of attending workshops,

'Mike C' added the comment
"I did it [i.e. attended a workshop] four or five times, but eventually learned the Noble Truths well enough not to need to go back (i.e. that you're looking for a truth in your work that belongs to you; no-one but you can find this; finding it is hard work; the hardest work is ruthless self-criticism; even if you find "your" truth, no-one but you may care about it)."

At first I thought this sounded very negative and pessimistic, but I can now see some sense in it.



Alan Rew said...

I'm not sure if the URL in my previous post shows properly, so here's a shortened URL that redirects to it:


Jonathan said...

Certainly, I think it is possible for me to predict what photographs will be meaningful to my friends and family. If my primary goal is to produce images, not for a wide audience, but for a confined one that I know intimately, I think I have a very good change of contriving to create images that will be valuable to those people.

Are they art when they don't appeal to a wide audience? That's a big one. However, they're certainly enough to put a smile on my face and make my work seem worthwhile to me.

My Camera World said...

A very well written and though provoking article George.

My own views on finding meaningful projects is to first not thing about photography.

Think about things that excite you and them list 10 or even 5 things that inspire you or you are passionate about.. It could be physical things like cars, old buildings, and special nature areas. It could even be abstract items like love, friendship, God etc.( These examples are meant to be very generic).

Then decide if you where to take one of your passions, how would you capture the essence of this in photos.

I also a while ago wrote an article on creativity which has a few other methods to get you exploring other directions.


Niels Henriksen

My Camera World said...

It seems to truncate long urls
I'lll try in 2 parts


Alan Rew said...


"My own views on finding meaningful projects is to first not [think] about photography"

Thanks for the useful tip. I agree that if a _subject_ doesn't inspire you or 'grab' you in some way, it's unlikely that you'll produce good photos.

As a corollary of this - one problem with looking at other people's photos is that you're primarily seeing _their interpretation_ of a subject, instead of seeing it through your own eyes. This means that it's important to go out and look at subject matter yourself, without having somebody else's images in your head. Mentally blocking out other people's images can be very difficult, especially if you've been inspired by their photos.

Interesting blog site - I've added it to my web browser favourites.

BTW if you need to shorten a URL, then the http://tinyurl.com/ tool can be very useful.