Musings on Photography

Meaning, Subtlety, Repetition

Posted in process by Paul Butzi on August 22, 2008

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I have a lot of thoughts all jumbled up together. Reading Doug Stockdale’s recent post both clarified some things and muddled up others. All in all, progress but of a particularly confusing sort, I guess.

A while back, when the world of the photo blogosphere was afire with the whole ‘meaning’ issue, I was left with the uncomfortable feeling that although I thought it was relatively commonplace for photographs to have meaning, I thought it was exceedingly rare that a photographer was successful with regard to ‘deliberate meaning’. That is, I think it’s damn near impossible to set out with a specific meaning and encode that meaning into a photograph in a way that is easily (or even not very easily) ‘read’ by viewers. At the very same time, I have photographs where the more I look at them, the more meaning I find in them. The latter, though, are filled with meaning that I (the photographer) didn’t put there. The meaning was there, in the scene, and all the photograph has done is capture and render static the scene – freezing it long enough for my feeble mind to look at it for a long time and in the process start to see things which weren’t very obvious at first glance. This ability to freeze things and let us take a more prolonged look is part of what lets that subtle stuff come to the surface of our awareness. It’s an artificial tool that lets us expand our attention span.

I’m fascinated by this effect, to the extent that photography is now, for me, not about coming to the scene with a meaning, and trying to arrange the elements of the scene to convey the meaning. It’s about coming to the scene, freezing it in place, and trying to let the meaning emerge over a longer period of time than our usual observational opportunity. Throw in the fact that the images can be made over years or decades, or can be from places widely scattered geographically, and big sets of images give us ways to pick out patterns and meanings that are really hard to get at in any other way. I am the first to admit that I’m easily amused, but I think this is incredibly cool.

There’s another effect with long sequences of images. You start out with one image, and that single image carries lots of different messages. Each viewer comes to that single image and, in all likelihood, comes away from the photo with a different set of meanings. If you show that single photo to twenty different people, they’ll take away twenty-five different meanings.

Move up to two images. Now, we have a sort of classic Venn diagram – each image has a large set of meanings, but the two together have some smaller intersection of meanings – meanings that are repeated in both images. Viewers of the two images are, I think, more likely to come away with one of the repeated meanings than with a meaning that appears in only one of the photos

Throw in more and more images, and the set of shared meanings starts to get much smaller and more specific. It gets more and more visible and harder and harder to ignore. Things which were once so subtle that they were easy to dismiss start to become more visible and apparent.

4 Responses

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  1. Seth Glassman said, on August 22, 2008 at 3:40 pm

    “I have photographs where the more I look at them, the more meaning I find in them. The latter, though, are filled with meaning that I (the photographer) didn’t put there.”

    A good photographer feels the image has meaning on some unconscious level – why else would you be impelled to take the picture? Of course you put the meaning there, you were just thinking about the process while actually taking the picture. Much, if not most, art happens in places other than the conscious. Learning how to get the conscious to relinquish control and get out of the way is fundamentally what the acquisition of technique is about.

  2. Juha Haataja said, on August 23, 2008 at 12:54 am

    As a kind of opposing viewpoint, I feel that there is a type of photographer who has a preconceived notion of the pictures they want to take, and they view the world as a theater stage, and use lighting, elaborate costumes, make-up etc. to produce pictures which create a reality of their liking. But I guess there must be some kind of discovery there also.

  3. […] 22, 2008 In the comments on this post, Seth Glassman writes “I have photographs where the more I look at them, the more meaning I find […]

  4. doonster said, on August 31, 2008 at 12:18 pm

    I get the same issues with photography vis-a-vis developing a view of the meaning and the unconscious versus conscious decision to imbue meaning.

    This might be related to the things that make me tick as an engineer. I deal with the invisible: implied notions of flow and change from limited measurements. I think this is why I like the subtle and the multi-tychs, where one has to work with small clues to get to the deeper message. Not everyone is able to think in this abstracted, implied manner.


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