A Formula For Making Meaning with Photography

I am just about moved into my new office which while exciting means that I have piles of magazines and books that I have to sort through, organize and get on bookshelves in a semi-logical order. It’s more work than I would like it to be and also means that in the interim I have to hunt for books that I need for reference.

I was recently looking, unsuccessfully I might add, for some books on alternate processes when I came across Terry Barret’s ‘Criticizing Photographs’. I’ve read and reread ‘Criticizing Photographs’ multiple times over the years and struggled each time. I feel that it’s not that complicated and yet continue to struggle. On this visit I found an interesting equation buried in one of the chapters:

Meaning = Subject Matter + Medium + Form + Context

While I’m not going to argue whether this is right or wrong it’s useful to occasionally stop and think about how the choices that we make as photographers influence what we’re trying to say with our photographs. There are a couple of takeaways for me from this that mostly relate to context and medium that I want to dig at a little here.

By my own estimation much of the photography that I deliberately look at is in that collected in books. While this should have rung some bells for me it took the above equation for me to realize that the way that we present our work will have a significant impact whether we fully realize our intent for it. A single image from a series may work just fine but may not have the impact if it were seen as part of the larger project presented in a book. It also struck me that regardless of how you arrange images for a gallery show there’s still not the same strong physical connection between images that can be achieved by placing images on facing pages in a book. It’s not necessarily better, just different and certainly worth paying attention to as you’re developing projects.

The message is in the medium or not. Perhaps as much or more than most I can get sucked into the technical aspects of photography and forget that you’re supposed to actually be saying something. At the end of last year I took a brief detour into the world of photogravure. Even though I had read Brooks Jensen’s piece on testing the quality of inkjet prints against traditional photographic prints including photogravure the tactile experience I had with the Norman Ackroyd print I had recently acquired drew me on. That and the fact that what I knew about photogravure seemed to me to be ‘real’ printing and involved an element of craft that I had come to believe that making an inkjet printing lacks. I even went as far as meeting with a local expert to discuss how my photographs would translate to photogravures – her answer they wouldn’t. Too much open white space. The nagging feeling that I was chasing a gimmick pushed me to abandon the idea and focus on finishing something – any of the various things that I’ve started would be a good idea right about now. I wonder how many other people get sucked into a similar technology vortex, chasing something that doesn’t necessarily add to what they are trying to say.

I’d be delighted to hear what you have to say – add your voice to the conversation in the comments

Looking at Looking

After talking about what’s behind the creation of work and understanding where it fits into the universe of other creative works I started to think about how I look at images. It’s one thing to be told the secret and another to be able to unlock the secret yourself.

I’m sure that there are ways to look at images in a meaningful systematic way, I find that I’m systematic, I do the same things over and over again, but perhaps not meaningful. In essence I’m running through a mental check list, a process that happens quickly:

  • What’s this a photograph of? What is the photograph about?
  • Have a seen something similar before? Where? By Whom?
  • How was this created? What was the pov? What lens was used?
  • Any other creative effect? Filters? Shutter speed? Depth of field? Focus?
  • How has space been used in this image? Foreground, middle and distance?
  • What about balance? Where is the visual mass, how does this draw the eye?
  • What about light? How does it contribute to the information in, or impact of, the image?

When I’ve eventually exhausted the initial run through I then turn to what has been churning away in the background:

  • What does this make me feel? What are my thoughts? What associations does this image bring to mind.

How about you?  Do you have a way that you look at images?  What works for you?  I’d love to hear about it.


The On-Going Conversation

“The opposite of talking isn’t listening. The opposite of talking is waiting.”

― Fran Lebowitz

Joshua Wolf Shenk has a new book out ‘The Powers of Two‘ that examines what he considers to be the myth of the lone genius and the power of creative partnerships. His interview with Jonathon Fields is a good overview of the themes in the book.

The role that partners play in the creation of work is something that I’ve been exploring more deeply in the last few weeks. Whether those partners are members of an artist’s group or part of an acknowledged partnership, such as the example of Lennon and McCartney that Schenk uses in his book, doesn’t seem to matter. What does matter is the presence of that dynamic. Where you are pushing and being pushed to test the limits and explore new ground. Shenk argues convincingly that even periods in your life where you have experienced this dynamic can profoundly impact you and your work. Indeed, it sounds as though even when Lennon and McCartney weren’t working with one another they were such a clear voice in the others head that it was if they were in the room.

In listening to the description of Lennon and McCartney I was struck by how the interaction was perhaps a little like the interaction that actors and comedians have when they are improvising. They try to leave the door open for others in the group to continue, avoiding ‘No’ or ‘Okay, but …’ in favor of ‘Yes, and …’, generally ending up somewhere that none of the group had imagined. I think that’s what we’re hoping for with our work to end up in a place that we hadn’t expected and wouldn’t have been able to get to alone.

That Lennon and McCartney continued to respond and react to each others creative works in public through production of new material should be no surprise. While the public interaction of Lennon and McCartney during this period leaves something to be desired I believe there is a place to respond to work that is out in the world.

We do not exist in isolation but belong to the larger world, as we put images out into that world it is useful to understand or at least recognise that we are joining in the conversation, adding to the mosaic that is already existing.

Engage in the game of ‘Yes, and…’ and see where that takes you.