Friday, February 19, 2010

Do Photographs Have to Have Depth?

I'm busy with the next book and have written more than 50 essays about why particular images work. I have noticed that many of these great images have or create or allow one to imagine a story to the image. A photograph might make you think of your childhood, or galaxies or feeling trapped. Other images are what they are and one isn't directed, encouraged towards or supplied with any kind of story at all. A picture of a flower is a picture of a flower - no nebulae, no sex, no childhood memories, just a flower - but it's a fantastic picture of a flower, made by Mapplethorpe with his 8X10 , the print magnificent in its detail and subtleties of tone.

So the question is: do all really great photographs work on multiple levels or can a photograph indeed be quite simple (not just in design) and yet be magnificient?

"Simple Gifts" is a wonderful tune. Of course, it has been used as a hymn, but I discovered it through Aaron Copeland's Appalachian Spring, and in the movie Witness and I don't have any imagery when I hear it, it just works for me, and apparently a lot of other people. Same story with Amazing Grace. As someone put it it, "a bloody great tune". No complicated mathematics like a Bach Cantata, no imagery like Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony or the moods of the Wagner and Mahler.

Could it be that some photographs are simply themselves, without pretentions of depth and sophistication, yet done so well that they stand on their own?

Elliot Erwitt's photographs are pretty simple - the small dog, large dog, lady's boots image for example.  Many of Cartier Bresson's images are magnificent without having a political, economic or even cultural statement to make (many do, but that's another story). These non involved images are just as revered as his ones of concentration camps and exotic countries and poor people.

This would suggest that extra layers of meaning are not in fact requisite to greatness, that an image can simply be itself and still be loved and admired.

This raises the question then as to whether an image which doesn't have these extra layers of imagery and message needs be that much better composed, more perfectly printed, more interesting in subject and what does this mean for our own photography and does this have anything to do with the discussions we have had recently about "crap" photographs and not getting images?

Perhaps some people don't actually appreciate "a bloody great tune" and choose music you can't hum to in the shower.


G Dan Mitchell said...

George, your music analogies (a subject I'm deeply involved in) perhaps provide an answer. As you point out, music can work on any number of levels. Often more than one "level" is present in a given piece. A complex and sophisticated Bach construction can use very simple and basic elements effectively. Often something that seems quite straightforward at first (take the 5th of Beethoven as an example!) turns out to have layers and layers of stuff going on. Sometimes the music is overtly related to extra-musical subjects and sometimes it is "just what it is."

I'm convinced that a photograph can just be a photograph, and that it does not necessarily need to have meaning attached to it by the photographer. Of course, virtually any image will evoke its own set of conscious and unconscious associations in the viewer, but that is perhaps a separate question.


TotalGibberish said...

I think any image that works needs to make you feel something. It's harder to make a person feel some things than others, so sometimes an image needs more depth to make it work.

I think a good picture of a flower can make you feel happy, but a great picture of the same subject can make you feel wonder, regret, or even different things at different times.


Joe Lipka said...

Depth of field or depth of feeling?

Sometimes I make a photograph just because I know what is front of me will look good as a photograph. No motivation more than just to revel in the joy that it "will look good as a photograph." These are often spontaneous, based on the recognition of a transient situation.

Sometimes an image is set up to fill a specific desire to illustrate an idea or feeling on a specific topic. These are a bit tougher to come by because I there is a lot of thought before the camera is used.

Sandy Wilson said...

The depth of a photograph depends on the subject matter and the message the photographer is trying to convey through the picture. Whether the message is a pleasant or unpleasant one. This is where the power and depth of a photograph comes from and how it affects the person viewing the picture.

On the music theme it is funny how a lot of great photographers were involved or related to music in some way. Example Ansel Adams was an accomplished pianist.

Andrew Johnston said...

The choice of "Amazing Grace" as an example is very telling. I am surprised that it means little more ot you than being a "bloody great tune". To me, it has enormous depth of historical and emotional association, given its genesis in and relationship to the British Empire's slave trade. (Watch the film of the same name for details...)

It's also an interesting example of a tune which has evolved markedly from it's earliest iteration, like someone going back and finding various ways to genuinely improve "A Clearing Winter Storm" or similar. This is something which can happen with music but not with our art - a new photograph is a new image, not a revision of an old one.

Food for thought?

George Barr said...


I first heard Amazing Grace around 1970. Being Scottish by birth, the connection to the bagpipes was important but I have since learned to enjoy it sung and presented in other ways. It was never the words which moved me. Of course, recently, the movie of the same name (which I really enjoy) came out and explained the background to the music but very much after It had moved me.