I ran across a snarky remark earlier today, suggesting that lots of people make photographs that are utterly devoid of meaning. The remark was clearly meant as a jibe and not as a literal statement, but as these things do it got me to thinking. How would one make a picture that was truly devoid of meaning?
It's fair to say, I think, that you'd have to remove meaning for both the photographer and for most viewers. Some viewers will simply project meaning on to a picture, and there's nothing you can do about that, so let's set those meanings aside. Such a picture would, generally speaking, produce no emotional response, no particular sense of recognition, no particular memory in anyone looking at it. It would be permitted, like an inkblot, to generate some random associations. This is all a little vague, to be sure.
If I point a camera at something and press the shutter button, there's generally a reason for it. I thought whatever it was is worth recording. If I remember that moment, then the picture has a little emotional resonance for me. Perhaps some sort of random process could be introduced to eliminate this? I could simply start the self timer, press the button, and wave the camera around while talking to a friend? Really, I'd have to do this a lot, in many different contexts, and then shuffle the pictures. A randomly selected picture would be an indistinct blur, perhaps, with no particular connection to any specific moment, but only to the experiment itself of trying to shoot something truly random.
A robot of some sort might do it as well. Do traffic cameras take pictures completely devoid of meaning? Except for the pictures in which a viewer might recognize their own car, or a specific incident, I suppose.
It can be done, it's not even terribly hard, but the experiment of thinking through how one might produce a picture with zero meaning is, I think, pretty interesting and informative. Try it yourself! Photographs have power it turns out. However lightly we take them, they trace a moment in time accurately, and the fact that the moment is preserved in amber for us has power.