I liked the idea of adding "significance" with Photoshop or Lightroom so much that I have taken a little poetic license with the title of this piece. What I mean is something slightly broader.
It seems obvious, perhaps, stated this way. You can't compose your way to significance. You can't push-process, or photoshop your way to it. You can't analyze or explain a photograph to the point that it contains substance. While this is obvious, surely, we see a lot of attempts, through, both from photographers and from critics.
The web is filled with deadly serious photographs of nothing. Landscapes processed lovingly, focus-stacked pictures of bugs, reams of black and white "street" photographs, all basically pictures of nothing much. In many cases, the photographer doesn't have any great aspiration, but in some cases it's clear that the photographer is really hoping to have Made Something.
We see this thing:
which is visually arresting, but ultimately not about anything. It's some cops hustling a protester off the street in exactly the way they are supposed to, in exactly the way that we wish fervently they always would. And so, despite the efforts of the critics, it's not significant.
Compare with this one:
The guy in the background is DEAD, and the guy with the upraised finger just now SHOT HIM. In the west we're pretty confused by this because the dead guy is a Russian (i.e. a bad guy) and the guy with the finger is obviously a TERRIST (i.e. also a bad guy) so the story is not sufficiently black and white for us. Regardless, the picture is and always will have significance. I suspect that in other parts of the world, it's resonating just fine.
Recall the trivial and silly picture "analyzed" on readingthepictures, of the kid "dabbing" as his dad is sworn in. Compare in your mind's eye with the famous photograph of Phan Thi Kim Phuc. In one a kid is mostly likely indicating that he thinks the pompous and silly ceremony into which he has been drafted is pompous and also silly. In the other on a kid is ON FIRE, as a result of geopolitical fuckery of a fairly high order. One of these pictures has weight, the other does not.
The point, here, is that subject matter trumps all in photography. Because a photograph is a record of what was real, that reality dominates. A painting could be of something trivial or weighty, and be great or not great independently. With few exceptions, not so the photograph.
All we can reasonably expect to accomplish with all our composition or our handling of tone and color is to midwife the content
Which leads us around to the obvious question, which I will phrase here as "Ok, smartass, what about Weston and his goddamned pepper?" To which I respond, "well, obviously there's something a bit more going on someplace, eh?" and that something has, I think, to do with artistic intent, ideas, and the expression thereof. I'm pretty sure Weston's picture has weight (and, obviously, it stands in for a whole class of pictures that have weight while also being of trivial things), but I'm pretty sure Weston put the weight in before he shot it. I'm pretty sure he shot 29 others, for starters.
Also, it's a different sort of thing, somehow, than the pictures above.
More on this as I think about it.