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.