Musings on Photography

More on Meaning

Posted in art is a verb, process by Paul Butzi on March 2, 2007

Ok, time to tackle some of this ‘meaning of a photograph’ stuff.  As usual, I will take the long way around to my conclusion.

One of the more interesting experiences of my photographic life was that while I was actively photographing on the Washington State and Oregon coast (making these photographs) I was generally making the trips to the coast with another photographer, David Clarridge.  David and I got along well, we both loved photographing on the coast, and on our joint trips, we were of course at the same places at the same times. 

And yet, somewhat to our surprise, my photographs and David’s photographs, taken in the same places at the same times, are nevertheless different.  I think over the course of several years and God alone knows how many exposures and prints, David and I actually made photographs with the camera aimed at the same subject only one time – an event so rare that it’s fairly memorable.  Amusingly, on several occasions we had tripods set up side by side, but with the cameras pointed in different directions.

And the result was that, when we did a couple of joint shows of our coast work, even though David’s prints and my prints were intermingled on the walls, it was surprisingly easy to walk down the wall, look at each print, and with fair certainty label them a ‘David’ or a ‘Paul’.  Framing, texture, composition – the list of differences is so long it can’t be listed.

Another example – after switching to digital capture, I embarked an a fairly large (for me) experiment, photographing in the valley below my home, all in as open ended a way as I could.  I wasn’t out to depict particular aspects of the place, I was conciously attempting to NOT have an agenda or a destination for the work in mind.  I was just trying to be present, in that place, making photographs – just to see where it would lead.  I put those photographs on my web site (here), and a surprisingly large number of people have viewed them on the web, from places as far away from the Snoqualmie Valley as Uzbekistan.  And a gratifyingly large number of the people who have viewed them have sent me email, much of which comments on how they think I must feel about this place.  And, not particularly to my surprise, almost all of those emails are pretty much right on the mark.

Final example, no words neccessary.  Look here, at Arnold Newman’s infamous portrait of Afried Krupp.

I conclude from this that it’s easy to theorize about whether photographs can carry meaning, and whether the meaning can be constrained in useful ways, and so on.  But in the end, the theory has to confront the facts, and it seems to me that the facts are pretty clear – photographs DO carry meaning.  They carry meaning beyond “This is a tree.”    Different photographers can make photographs in the same location at the same time, and the meanings will be different.  The meaning of the photographs is determined, at least in part, by the photographer.

We might not be able to articulate HOW photographs do this, and that makes how they do it an interesting discussion.  We might not be able to articulate what sorts of meanings can be carried and which can’t and that, too, makes for an interesting discussion.  But the basic ground from which worthwhile discussion has to start is observing that photographs DO carry meaning.  Anything else is just like arguing about the properties of even prime numbers larger than two – an interesting intellectual exercise but in the end arguing about the properties of an empty set.

For better or worse, our photographs are indelibly stamped with our personality.  Call it style, call it world view – it doesn’t matter.    It might not be apparent in a single photograph, but across a body of work, it generally rings out loud and clear.  My observation is that the more experienced the photographer (or, if you will, the ‘better’ the photographer) the more clearly that personal stamp stands out.  It’s also my observation that, as a general thing, it seems that the more deeply the photographer understands (and cares about) the subject matter, the more clearly that personal stamp is imprinted in the photographs.

9 Responses

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  1. Ed Richards said, on March 2, 2007 at 1:01 pm

    Semantics may reconcile the seeming conflict. At least for me, meaning and style are different concepts. One can acknowledge differences in style without having to parse meaning in the images – even if you are man from Mars and only see the images as abstract patterns, the patterns still show different styles. I am less comfortable about meaning, since it would seem to reside in the viewer’s head, not in the photographer’s. Thus it is clear that the more the viewer knows about the subject, the more meaning the photographs will have meaning to that viewer, even if the photographer is not privy to that meaning.

    I think the photographer’s understanding is important, but perhaps more in refining the vision, composition, and subject selection. We have talked about the difference in the images of Hurricane Katrina damage by folks who came in only to take pictures and those of use who know the region and feel a more personal involvement in the disaster. We might see compositions that someone less familiar might not see, and we certainly will go places where someone else might not. But the outsider will also bring an alien sensibility that may produce more meaning for people who do not know the area and do not have our associations. (Of course we might also disagree with that alien meaning, but since this is art, there is no right.)

  2. Colin Jago said, on March 2, 2007 at 1:55 pm

    Hah! I’ve said what Ed said, only worse, and in more words.

    http://www.auspiciousdragon.net/photowords/?p=543

  3. Oren Grad said, on March 2, 2007 at 3:15 pm

    Ed has addressed the style/meaning distinction. Beyond that, I think we will quickly get into semantic confusion around “meaning” and hair-splitting over how much “meaning” a photo has to be able to bear for one to be able to say meaningfully that it’s bearing meaning. (Sorry. ;-))

    I actually think the Newman/Krupp example makes my point about how difficult it is to get beyond cliche. One of the reasons it’s “infamous” is precisely that so many *words* have been spilled about it. But leave aside the notoriety of this picture; if you didn’t knnow anything about Newman and didn’t already know who Krupp was, it’s not clear how much you’d get out of it beyond “the subject may have something to do with heavy industry, and the photographer seems to have wanted to make him look like a goon”.

    Here’s one nice example of Newman telling the story of this picture:

    http://www.wac.ucla.edu/bishop/People/Arnold%20Newman/Adams.pdf

    (Caveat – the pdf is several MB.)

    Interestingly, in this account Newman himself is at pains to question just how much can be loaded on to a picture, and to characterize this particular situation as something of an outlier in that respect.

    Anyway, thanks to you and Colin for an interesting and enlightening discussion.

  4. David Grundy said, on March 2, 2007 at 5:50 pm

    I’d just like to admit my ignorance: I “didn’t knnow anything about Newman and didn’t already know who Krupp was” (still don’t, as I’m resisting looking anything up for the moment). The reason for admitting ignorance is to be able to report that my ignorant response to that linked photo is basically exactly as Oren described. I have no idea what this photo means; all I could say is that I suppose the subject wants to appear thoughtful, while the photographer preferred a slightly more sinister implication. And both like the suggestion of power. Now I’ll go and follow Oren’s link and see whether I should be embarrassed …

  5. Paul Butzi said, on March 2, 2007 at 6:09 pm

    Ok, I’ll just point out that Oren seems to be making the claim that the amount of meaning that can be embedded in a photo is so small that it falls below some (unknown to me but presumably clear to Oren) threshold, so that it’s so small that the photo can’t really be said to carry any meaning.

    He then describes what he sees as the meaning of the photo, and says that it’s hard to see how much you could get out of it beyond that.

    Fine. The ‘meaning’ content of the photo is finite. I never said it was infinite, or even large.

    But the fact is, Oren cites a ‘meaning’. David, unaware of the history of the photo, gives his version of the meaning. I think, actually, that Oren’s ‘minimal meaning’ and David’s meaning are not so far apart. I could certainly mount a sensible argument that they are in some sort of rough agreement about what the photo means. And I could mount a sensible argument that this meaning does, indeed, fall above the threshold – two people have ‘read’ roughly the same meaning from the photo.

    QED.

    (It would be helpful if people would differentiate between the statement ‘a photo can carry meaning’ and the statement ‘a photograph can provide an error free communications channel that delivers a message conceived by the photographer and unambiguously read by the viewer’.) It’s art, for pity’s sake, not telecommunications.

    And bear in mind – there is meaning inherent in the art object. Then, as a separable thing, there is the interpretation of that meaning by a viewer.

  6. David Grundy said, on March 2, 2007 at 6:24 pm

    I was neutral previously on the question of whether photos have meaning. Now I have read the article linked by Oren, and I think it’s reasonably clear that this photo does indeed convey to me something more-or-less in line with the photographer’s intent, although without all the nuances. So certainly at least this photo has meaning. But as mentioned, this photo is very well known, presumably because it does convey its intended meaning unusually well.
    So from where I stand now it seems photographs can have meaning, but I don’t expect to reliably convey any sort of meaning through mine, and I don’t expect to understand the meaning of the majority of photographs that I see since my mental framework (which shapes my response to the shot) is probably different from the that of the photographer who framed the shot.

  7. Oren Grad said, on March 2, 2007 at 7:03 pm

    Ok, I’ll just point out that Oren seems to be making the claim that the amount of meaning that can be embedded in a photo is so small that it falls below some (unknown to me but presumably clear to Oren) threshold, so that it’s so small that the photo can’t really be said to carry any meaning.

    Yes. This is de minimis; at best, it doesn’t reach any further than simple stereotype.

  8. Paul Butzi said, on March 2, 2007 at 7:21 pm

    This statement:
    One of the reasons it’s “infamous” is precisely that so many *words* have been spilled about it.

    and this one:
    This is de minimis; at best, it doesn’t reach any further than simple stereotype

    would seem to me to be a contradiction. If the ‘meaning’ is a trifle, so small as to not be worth noting, then it would seem that no one would notice it and discuss it. And yet, you claim that an extraordinary number of words have been written about this one image and its meaning.

    Either it’s a trifle not worth noting and discussing, or it’s noticed and discussed extensively and thus not a trifle. Paul’s exclusion principle states it cannot be both simultaneously.

  9. Oren Grad said, on March 2, 2007 at 8:02 pm

    Paul’s exclusion principle states it cannot be both simultaneously.

    🙂

    And yet, you claim that an extraordinary number of words have been written about this one image and its meaning.

    I think the ink has been spilled not because the meaning is deep, but primarily because of two things: the vicarious Nazi-bashing pleasure of it (he certainly deserves to be seen as a goon), and the way it plays into the romantic stereotype of the portraitist as revealer of deeper meanings. Yet even in this supposedly paradigmatic case, all we get is “looks like a goon!” If you look at the rest of Newman’s work, most of the time it’s hard to extract even that much. And again, Newman himself rejected the stereotype and considered this picture exceptional.

    You are right, I should acknowledge a shred of meaning here. To the extent that meaning in photographs runs no deeper than this, it is an impoverished concept and no material part of what it is that makes the medium uniquely worth having.


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