Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Truth at the corner of Design and Meaning.

This will likely be a somewhat rambling essay. I'm just trying to think some things through. By "design" here I mean, I guess, composition. Perhaps I mean it as the result of the process of composition or something. I feel like saying "design" today, rather than "composition" in any case.

Most fine artists have direct control of the design. The painter puts paint wherever he or she wants it, the sculptor removes marble or welds on steel similarly. Where randomness is used, it is used on purpose. The dancer may not be fully aware of her eyebrows, but has certainly spent a great deal of time developing such awareness.

The photographer is stuck with what's in front of the lens. You'd think that a still life photographer, like me, would be in better shape. We are, but it's not perfect. There are always things in the frame that surprise you. The still life photographer is, perhaps, in the same general area as the actor or dancer. In theory we have total control, in practice we strive for total awareness and fall short. Things turn up in every frame which we did not expect, and did not notice while shooting. Shooting anything but still life moves the photographer more and more into the realm of having to find design, rather than to create it.

What about meaning? Let us consider meaning to be whatever a piece of art communicates to the viewer, and let us assume that as an artist you have some sort of meaning in mind that you'd like to communicate.

In well made art, the design supports the meaning. Design emphasizes the parts that are important, and de-emphasizes the rest. Design directs the viewer's attention in the appropriate ways, to create the appropriate sequencing of what is experienced, and to create whatever sensations are desired.

The painter perhaps places light paint next to dark paint, to create a region of highest contrast, where the most important thing is. The photographer would like to do the same, but must wrestle with the real world to accomplish it. The photographer must wait for the light or the model to behave, or move a strobe. At best, the photographer can manage many of the elements well, and must leave a few to their own devices. Design in photographs tends to approach the ideal, but never to quite get there.

As for truth, we seem to take pleasure in found designs, in design which was not staged. Much of Henri Cartier-Bresson's work gives us this joy. There are whole genres of photography devoted to witty juxtapositions, which is really about truth in design. The dog shaped like the fire hydrant isn't as amusing placed next to the fire hydrant when we learn that the dog was in fact placed there for the picture. We can measure the degree to which we enjoy these designs as found rather than made my examining our ire when it is revealed that something was staged or in any way other than simply found as-is. As with all truth in photography, we're quite irrational about it.

Somehow, it's honest to fashion the design by moving the camera but dishonest to move the objects in the frame. Regardless, we are nearly as annoyed to learn that the design was fashioned rather than found as we are when we learn that the meaning is not literally true.

Photographs more than most other arts balance meaning and design. A poorly designed picture with potent meaning can stand well, like a technically poor singer with great emotional presence. A beautifully designed picture we permit a certain paucity of meaning, like a technically superb dancer who connects tenuously with the emotion of the piece.

The most iconic, the very best photographs, combine all three: design, meaning, and truth.

Think of a great photograph. Was it staged? Is the design excellent? Does it create an immediate and powerful emotional response in you?

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