Monday, March 24, 2008

More On Meaningful

I suggested the other day that meaningful relates to the photographer, not the viewer and went on to suggest that perhaps meaningful might well not become apparent until well into a photographic project, and that photographers who shoot a little of this, a little of that, might never reach the meaningful threshold. There are photographers who do produce some lovely work, simply trying this and that. Kertesz comes to mind as someone who didn't seem to have specific projects yet Chez Mondrian is one of my all time favourite photographs so I guess I'm arguing against myself - mind you kertesz took a lifetime of photographs and is known mostly for a dozen or so images and although I think Chez Mondrian exquisite, I'm not sure that I'd call it a meaningful photograph.

This raises the question as to whether a photograph even has to be meaningful. Perhaps it's like a lot of other common characteristics of good photographs, it helps but is neither essential nor sufficient to make a great photograph - it's just one of many things that could be included to make a great image.

It's quite possible for a photographer to select a subject that he or she thinks will be meaningful to others. This seems to completely contradict what I said in the first article on meaningful. But bear with me.

As a photographer I could choose to photograph one of the "hot" topics - poverty, disease, pain, war, pollution and so on. One could make the argument that this is what Burtynsky did, but when you read about Edward Burtynsky, you find out that he's been photographing the effect of the environment on the landscape since the mid 1980's, long before environment was popular and certainly before he could have reasonably predicted that he'd make big bucks off of selling images of tire piles and rust and what not. To stick with a project for 23 years means that you are involved in it at a fundamental level - it has meaning for you - you are dedicated to it - you are willing to see it through slumps and doubts and failures. Is it any surprise that after this much effort, we can see the meaning in his images.

I think that one could pick a "hot" topic and the quality of the images, the meaninfullness of them is likely to be tied to the comittment made to the project. After all, war photographers clearly choose to go into danger and can produce meaningful work. What I suspect doesn't work very often is to decide at 3 pm to shoot poverty, head down town and onto the wrong side of the tracks, cruise the back alleys, shoot a few bums and come home proclaiming meaningful images.

To me, meaningful goes along with understanding of your subject, a sympathy for it, or at least for the problem it illustrates, it's tied to caring and trying and enduring and repeating and making an effort and sticking to it through thick and thin, then the images can be thought of as meaningful.

Sure I can casually go shoot a bum, but really - what are the odds of showing you anything new or meaningful in such an exercise - it didn't mean anything to me, why should I anticpate you are going to fall over yourself exclaiming it's deep meaning.

Even if you do choose to thoroughly explore one of the more "hot" or "classic" or "politically correct" or "controversial" topics, you can't know who's going to respond or how - you might make predictions about how likely it is that some people will respond to the images, but can't make any prediction about how any one person will perceive them. This is something to be well considered when submitting for publication - in general you are hoping that one person will see something in your images that makes them meaningful for themselves. Given that many people are hitting them up with "meaningful" subjects such as the starving and aids victims and so on, maybe you really don't want to do the obvious and just perhaps your chance of making a difference, of getting published, of creating a powerful body of work will depend on you finding meaning in your project.


chuck kimmerle said...

One of my biggest complaints over the past dozen years is the plethora of student photographers who feel the need to spend their summers traveling to third world countries with the intent of supplementing their portfolios with images of the damned and downtrodden. It's so blatantly superficial and cliche. There's no message, no feeling and, unless you count portfolio padding, no real purpose.

I agree with George on this one. Shoot what is meaningful to you and ignore what everyone else is doing. Avoid those sad cliches and be your own person. If you feel that following the crowd is the best course of action, then you're probably not destined to be an artist.

That being said, if your true calling IS photographing in third-world countries or war zones, then by all means follow your dreams. Just be sure you're doing it for yourself and not your portfolio.

mkinsman said...

"To stick with a project for 23 years means that you are involved in it at a fundamental level - it has meaning for you - you are dedicated to it - you are willing to see it through slumps and doubts and failures."....
What if he just couldn't think of anything else to shoot....wouldn't that be a surprise to us all!
On a more serious note... I agree that you may find yourself drawn to pursure a subject almost in an unconscious manner - visiting it again and again before some deeper meaning defines the pursuit. If it's really from the heart and soul, you'll know it sooner or later.
I know a few well established photographers who take technically great images, but seem to have lost the artistic spirit that drove them to photography in the first place.

George Barr said...


you have a good point - there are a number of well known photographers who continue to create images which to all intents and purposes are so similar to work of 20 years ago, you have to wonder what the point is.

That said, Burtynsky's work shows sufficient variation that I don't think he's stuck for a better idea.

mkinsman said...

I do agree with you regarding Burtynsky clearly having a vision for his work. To me, the spirit of his work is reminiscent of work from the photographers in the 40's for the government sponsered projects, except on a global level. I think the emotions evoked by his work are hauntingly beautiful.
As to those who appear to repeat their own past - a few I know are caught up in making money, at what appears to be the expense of the Art. That is not necessarily a bad thing - we all do have to eat. However, I prefer to NOT make it a "job", but keep my photography a passionate, creative means of expression.

George Barr said...

So right, when I was selling at the market, I fell into thinking about what would sell when I went out photographing - and had to consciously avoid choosing subjects based on popularity. I understand there is considerable pressure by their publishers and galleries to produce more of what sells.