Here is a common theme, a common refrain, a common complaint: How can I make pictures that I like? Everything I shoot is banal, or stupid, or a copy of something else. Nothing I shoot satisfies me, it all sucks, is sterile, is empty. What can I do?
For the purposes of this essay, the word meaning will be used in a pretty specific way. Meaning is simply the overall emotional and intellectual experience of a piece of art. It's everything that's not technical. It doesn't have to be expressible as a neat paragraph of text "this picture expresses man's inhumanity to man" nor need it be renderable in words at all. Sometimes it's just emotion, sometimes it is words, sometimes it's a lesson. It can be anything, really, outside of the technical details of the work. It's what I, as a viewer, experience when I look at the piece, whatever that reaction is.
Of course, this essay is ultimately about my process. It works for me, after a fashion, laboriously and slowly.
For our purposes, we will simplify the lament of the frustrated photographer to be: How can I make pictures with meaning, meaning that satisfies me. There might be a side order of dissatisfaction with visual ideas, or with design ideas. We will assume that there are basically no technical issues, however. This isn't about how to focus your camera.
There is here a pretty strong parallel with music, especially classical music. Lots of people are happy just being able to play music as notated. I certainly would be delighted to be able to play more than simple pieces, as notated. However, the problem of playing the notation is essentially pretty simple. You just take the time, you learn how to do it. It is somewhat analogous to learning how to use a camera, although quite a bit more difficult. The person who aspires to play christmas carols as notated is perhaps roughly equivalent to the person who wants to take nice pictures of her children, or wants to make passable imitations of Ansel Adams photographs.
Most of what music school is about, though, is not about playing the piece as notated. It is about how to interpret the piece in a meaningful way, within the notation given. It turns out that even a tightly notated piece of music allows a remarkably wide range of interpretation. Melodic lines can be brought forward or suppressed. Small crescendos and diminuendos can be inserted (indeed, must be, to avoid a ridiculously flat and tedious reading) at will. Timing can be altered subtly, within passages, and overall. The notes within a single chord, or a progression of them can be weighted subtly differently, for various purposes.
The problems to be solved here are: How can I play this music so that it sounds like me, how can I play this music in a way that pleases me, and how can I play this music to express my concept of how the piece should feel, should be experienced, what the piece should "mean" in the sense given above.
This is essentially the same problem that the stymied photographer faces, but I am not aware of any dedicated institution of learning devoted to teaching you how to solve the photographic analog of these problems. Music conservatories, on the other hand, are almost completely devoted to this.
There are really two major starting points.
In the first, you have a pretty clear idea of something you want to express, the problem is how to express it. You want to express, say, how the dot-com technologists are ruining the San Francisco Bay Area, or you want to express the way you feel when you look at Half Dome. This is essentially a pre-visualization problem, and I have written my thoughts about that at some length here, and in a couple of follow-on essays.
The second potential starting point is that you have no idea of what it is you want to express, you wish only to express something. You find your pictures banal, uninteresting, devoid of meaning, and you want to fix that. In this case, I employ this rough analogy: the world, the stuff in front of the camera, is a score. You're seeking to find an interpretation of it with meaning, which satisfies. This isn't the same as Adams' tired saw about the negative being the score and the print the performance, although there are similarities.
The general procedure is something like this, more or less by necessity. Pursue what ideas you have. Do you like a certain subject? Do you like a certain visual effect in your editing software, or at the enlarger? What ideas appeal to you, be they visual ideas, ideas about content, ideas about where you like to visit, anything? Pursue those. This part is obvious, since there really isn't anything else to do, is there? This is what you've got, so go work it. Push it quite far, keep pounding on these individual ideas, no matter how small or superficial. Your goal is ultimately to force, to nurture, to induce, meaning to emerge.
Keep an eye on the bigger picture. Is something bigger, something more satisfying, starting to coalesce? If so, keep going. If not, or if something that felt like it was coming together no longer feels as if it is, back up. Pursue some other idea, possibly just the opposite of what you were doing. Change something, anything.
This is by analogy to working an interpretation of a piece of music. You may simply like a certain melody fragment, you bring it out, articulate it clearly for a few passages. It sounds great. So you carry on through the whole sonata, bringing that melodic fragment to the fore every time it appears in the score. At some point you find that it's not working out, now the sonata sucks and is boring. Back off, try something else. Maybe the sonata is about the interplay of the fragment you like, and some other fragment that you don't like. Maybe that first passage is great, but the next passage needs to bring out a different motive -- but articulated in the same way. Maybe the key here isn't the fragment, but they way you've brought it out, articulated it.
In the same way, fiddle with the ideas you have, nurture them and invert them by turns. See what other ideas they spin off, until you have a whole set of ideas writhing about trying to assemble themselves into a plan, a structure, a bigger idea. Periodically ask yourself if there is something bigger trying to reveal itself.
Perhaps your ideas are all visual motifs, so you now have a collection of inter-related visual motifs. Is there a larger idea, a larger meaning, that could be carried by this family of visual ideas? As some point, with some luck, you'll have an inspiration of sorts. You will realize that these visual ideas, these design motifs, together with the subjects you've been shooting, are doing a little bit of a decent job of expressing something about God, or Beauty, or Sex, or Nature, or whatever. There's no reason you need to even be able to put words to the larger thing, just that you can feel its presence. Now you have a larger theme that you can pursue, and a set of tools you can use to pursue it.
What other subjects that you had not considered, could you apply these visual motifs to, to more fully express the larger thing? Or, if contrariwise the subjects have been carrying the water, what other visual motifs could you apply to the same subjects, again to more fully express the larger thing?
In this way, meaning can be teased gently out of some smaller beginnings, and can emerge into a portfolio with some weight. More importantly, it can emerge into a portfolio that you like, that satisfies.
If you just wanted a single picture that you like, a single picture that satisfies you, now go back to the portfolio and find the picture that best expresses the thing you like. If you can't find a single such picture, well, you just spent days or weeks or months or years making a portfolio of work. You should have the tools and ideas necessary to go and make that single picture that says what you have found you want to say.
Go make that picture.
Nobody ever said it was going to be easy.