Let's suppose I went to Butte Montana to photograph the place, and let's suppose I brought an elephant along and shot the elephant all over Butte. You might deduce, reasonably, that I have no ideas about Butte, and that I am actually shooting an elephant, not a town. Now, let's suppose that I only put the elephant in a few of the shots.
At this point you might reasonably be puzzled as to what on earth I am doing. Is this an elephant shoot or a town shoot? Does Andrew just happen to have an elephant in his pocket that he pulls out from time to time?
Hold on to that though, and now ponder Dan Zvereff's skateboarder journeys in the East, say this one, or this one, and also consider Michele Sons "Feminine Landscape" series. All these bodies of work operate by going to exotic locales, and shoving something into the frame that is out of place. They're all elephants in Butte, only prettier.
I am on the record as not liking Zvereff, but liking Sons. Let's try to step away from the political implications of Zvereff's trips, and the general appeal of attractive young women. Even so, I still like Sons and I don't like Zvereff. It's possible this is based entirely on trivialities, or personal tastes, but I feel like there's another thing in here.
Zvereff drags his elephant out every now and then, but often he's just shooting the location. Close-up portraits of the locals, architecture, landscape. Every now and then he throws in a photo of a skateboarder. The result, I think, is that one can't really tell what the hell he's shooting. Is he shooting skateboarders? Or is he shooting Kazakhstan? Michele Sons, on the other hand, is very consistent. She's shooting women in flowing dresses in exotic places, every time. There's an "elephant" in every frame.
When the visual motif, the raw "what am I taking a picture of" is clear, then there is room for meaning. You can project anything you like onto Michele Sons' portfolio. Is it a metaphor for women isolated in a man's world? Does she just love Emily Bronte? Is it a fantasy of.. something? It doesn't matter, really. We can believe there is some sort of meaning and we can imagine whatever we like for it.
With Zvereff it is not clear, at least not to me, what he's taking pictures of. I'm sure you could say well, it's just docu, innit? but that's a bit of a cop-out. What's he documenting? He's choosing frames to show us, after all, but there does not appear (to me) to be any rhyme or reason to them.
Now, one needn't hit a single visual note over and over, either. With something like, say, American Photographs, we can discern patterns, contrasts between patterns, differences. Evans shows us the same thing several times, and then another thing that's similar in some ways and different in others. Again, there is room for meaning. We can imagine what Evans might have had in mind, selecting these pictures in this sequence. We can feel that he had some opinions about America, and some specific things he wanted to show us, maybe even pound through our thick skulls.
Possibly if Zvereff gave us three times as many pictures, whatever he had in mind would shine through, but as it stands it looks a lot like he shot a bunch of pictures of whatever caught his eye, and then just gave us a sort of highlights reel that covers "the best shots" and maybe a little narrative "gotta have a train pic" but without any specific ideas that he wanted to convey.
See also this post from Allen Murabayashi at photoshelter, He points to two different photo essays from the Rio Olympics, and makes some remarks, judging one to be better than the other (and by the way, Allen, good on ya -- we don't see enough actual criticism out there, and criticism includes judging, damn it). While Allen does make some excellent points, it is worth noting that both photo essays are terrible. Neither one is an essay at all, both are simply jumbles of Greatest Hits photos. The NYT collection is more subtle and balanced, and uses better pictures, but it's not an essay at all. It says nothing, it shows us nothing new. It's the same fucking pictures from the same fucking Olympics with a slightly different color scheme and a few new athletes. Ho hum.
There's no opinion expressed, in the first place, and perhaps more important it does not have any room for meaning. You can't imagine any meaning for a jumble of highlights. There's no place for you to imagine what the underlying idea might have been, there's no place for you to hang your own ideas about the Rio Olympics. There's no room for "dialog" or for you to expand you mind, your thinking, there's nothing for the viewer to even react to. I guess you can say wow, Michael Phelps. wow. but beyond that it's gettin' pretty thin. It's just some pictures to look at.
You might reasonably say that, well, if Zvereff is by your own admission, Mr. Molitor in the same company as the NYT photo editing staff, then he's doing OK. I am going to put my critic hat on extra firmly and make the bold assertion that, no, they both suck.
This is, basically, why I think having a clear concept as you shoot, edit, and sequence is so important. Whether your idea particularly reads or not. Simply by making the final result contain your idea, you have proven to an extent that it can contain an idea. You have at least built a vessel that has some room for meaning inside it. And maybe, just maybe, some traces of your idea will remain when the viewers fills it back up. That would be nice, eh?
Leave room for meaning.