Tuesday, July 27, 2021

To Add Meaning

Here is a piece of the type that seems almost calculated to drive me into a fury. "Seven Ways of Giving Your Images Meaning" sounds really meaty, right? It sounds like something someone who's already figured out how focusing works could really use. It's not.

It starts out strong, with a very very elementary sketch of what meaning might be, but then veers violently and permanently into "Seven Vague Platitudes about Photography." Item 2 isn't even an action a photographer could theoretically take, it's just a sort of dopey observation. The 6 actual things that might be a way to do something definitely do not give any useful guidance for giving meaning to a photo. They're not bad ideas, but they don't "give meaning."

God. Damn. It.

Let's try to correct this a bit. I actually do make photo illustrations on a semi-regular basis, so I have more experience with making photographs that specifically mean something than might meet the eye. Never you mind where.

What is meaning anyway?

Let us go broad here, and say that it's any mental response that occurs as a result of contemplating a photograph (or whatever) which is not literally contained in the photograph.

If we were talking about writing, this would be practically everything. The only thing contained in text is a bunch of lines and dots.

A photograph might contain a mountain, a setting sun, some pink clouds. What it does not contain is "that's pretty" or even just an emotional "ahhhhh!" of relaxation and awe. As meaning goes, a judgement of prettiness is quite thin, so it's immediately obvious that meaning can vary in depth.

Meaning, construed in this way, is something the viewer constructs in their mind as a response to, and on the basis of, the photograph. The viewer is bringing their own mental baggage to bear on the picture, and imaginatively spinning out something new, something built as a fusion of picture and self. The picture works with the mental baggage of the viewer, to form this new thing, this meaning.

You, as the photographer, might like to have some slight command over the results of this operation, to steer at least a little the construction of this meaning. Well, what do you have to work with? There is the highly personal, which you cannot predict (unless you're making your photo for an audience of one (1) in which case, carry on!) Then there are the shared experiences, and the cultural backgrounds. Most of us have been shopping, most of us have seen a sunset. Most of us are aware of certain literary references, movie quotations, cultural tropes.

Long time readers might recall this chap. who made a Yorick reference with a camera replacing the skull. The literary reference is obvious, many people at least in the West are likely to get to "Hamlet" fairly quickly. They're likely to get to the slings-and-arrows speech, which isn't right, but whatever. The photographer did drag out a cultural trope, one many people will recognize, and in so doing opened the door to a construction of meaning.

And thus we see another difficulty. Not only can meaning be thoroughly shallow, it can be thoroughly incoherent. Regardless of whether you get to the slings-and-arrows speech, or the correct speech about vanity and death, it's not really clear what the hell this photographer means here. Is he mourning the lost vanity of film photography, or what? I mean, obviously he's actually thinking about the 10 zillion lights he has lovingly arranged, but what are we to make of it, beyond the cleverness of the reference?

We are aided, as photographers, by the fact that for the most part photographs inspire the imaginative construction of something external without even trying to. It is basic to the functioning of the photograph that we extrapolate a world around the picture, before and after, left and right. We make something of most photos. We read-in to expressions and body languages, we guess about what's going on.

Contrary to the original author's side remark, "street photographs" as a rule are remarkably bad at this. By emphasizing the cute juxtaposition, the interesting shadow, the outré expression, they tend to distract us from the reality of the scene, and thereby suppress our natural meaning-making responses. Not, to be sure, all "street photos" but most of the modern ones.

Back to the mission in progress, however. As a photographer, to consciously "insert" meaning to a photograph, we therefore consciously insert elements that refer to shared experiences (shopping, sunsets) or cultural touchstones (Hamlet, Seinfeld.) We do so, ideally, in a way that is coherent, that might lead to something other than "cute reference." In the work I alluded to above, I am illustrating written matter, so the reference need only cohere with the point of the writing.

If you're making a body of photographs, then perhaps the meanings of each should build upon one another. They might contrast, or support, but anyways fit together somehow.

A single photo, to be honest, seems to really have trouble meaning in this sense. You get one shot at it, you get one gestalt of reference, and you hope for the best. This is why, I think, we see so many landscapes ("ahhhhh...") and portraits ("I see their personality!") and beyond that it's largely farting around with form to no particular purpose.

All of this comes down to this: you need to look at the pictures, and think about them. Do they in fact tickle something shared, or is everything you get pretty much personal? If they do tickle something shared, what is it?

You can do something of this before you shoot, of course. If you're building some still life, you can start even earlier. In the end, though, it's about creating some link to something we have in common, some shared thing that can be referred to visually, and from which the viewer can build.

There is, of course, no rule that says you have to do any of this. Many people, most people perhaps, photograph for reasons other than generating meaning that it broadly accessible.

You might be taking pictures for your own personal delight, and no more. You might be recording family moments, and generating at best meaning that does not extend beyond your own family. You might be testing your lens. It's all ok.

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