Musings on Photography

Sources of Meaning

Posted in process by Paul Butzi on August 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 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.

There was a time when I would have agreed heartily with Seth. But I’m no longer so sure.

Here’s one problem. On the one hand, Seth is implying that my unconscious mind is busily cramming meaning into the photograph whilst my conscious mind was pre-occupied with technique. (And at one point in my life I would have agreed with him). And yet, at the same time, he states that the reason we learn mastery of technique is so that we don’t need to bring our conscious mind to bear on the problem (and again I would have agreed with that at several points in my life). But either it’s one way or the other. Either our conscious mind attends to the pragmatics and is occupied so that it can’t mess up the unconscious mind getting the meaning in there, or else we’ve mastered the technique, and it’s no longer distracting our conscious mind. But we can’t have it both ways at the same time. Like the whole right brain creative left brain analytical paradigm, there’s a certain amount of prestidigitation that goes into sustaining belief in the idea that the meaning is buried in our subconscious all along.

But more importantly, what I’ve discovered is that the meaning that emerges as I take a long series of photographs and print them and hang them on the wall and look at them over time – that meaning is not something that I knew, and put in the photos in some subconscious way, and later rediscovered through the photos. It’s new stuff – stuff I’ve never understood or noticed before.


When I was in college, I took a lot of interesting courses, including philosophy and what was at that time called cognitive psychology. The cognitive psychologists of that era were confronting the problem that we can’t really examine what happens in our heads very well. We look at a certain configuration of marks on a page, and something in our head takes that visual stimulus, does some very clever things in response, and suddenly we’re not looking at ink marks on a bit of flattened wood pulp, we’re reading, say, Elizabeth Barret Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese.

That’s a very curious thing to have happen. When I show our copy of Sonnets from the Portuguese to my dog, I’m pretty sure he just sees ink marks on flattened wood pulp, and he doesn’t have a clue that there’s more to it than that. And the curious thing is that in the intervening years between my college days and now, cognitive scientists have done some stunningly clever experiments in an attempt to figure out some of what happens between the stimulus of seeing ink marks and having Elizabeth Barret Browning’s words echo in our head, but really there’s quite a lot that happens and we haven’t much of a clue about what it is that happens, or how it happens, let alone why. All this stuff happens inside the black box of our mind, and although we can sit back and theorize about it over a glass of really nice Syrah, and feel good about our theories, it’s awfully hard to get concrete about it.

So it’s perfectly possible that Seth is right, and I’m using the black box nature of my mind to trick myself into thinking that the meaning didn’t originate with me. But I still think that the meaning was in the scene before I photographed it, would have been in the scene even if I hadn’t strolled along, and was not placed there by me.

But it’s very much worth observing that, regardless of whether the meaning originated in the scene or inside the confused and poorly articulated recesses of my subconscious, it’s still the case that the properties of large sets of photos make such sets an interesting way to get at that meaning.

7 Responses

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  1. JuHa said, on August 23, 2008 at 9:03 am

    At some point I was quite taken with the ideas of Daniel Dennett, for example the book “Consciousness Explained”, where (loosely recollected and paraphrased) the key idea is that the person “I” does not really exist, it is just an illusion produced by certain parts of the brain to explain things which happen in our mind.

    Thus, from this viewpoint, the person who shoots a photo and the person who views the photo later on, are not really the same, they are only connected by a history of biological tissue and synaptical connections but not much more than that. From this biological viewpoint the discussion about “conscious” vs. “unconscious” decisions is irrelevant, because consciusness is an illusion produced in the theater of our mind to make us keep our sanity.

  2. […] to indulge in a slight bit of musing. Paul Butzi wrote about meaning in this excellent post called “Sources of meaning”. The other, by William Neill, entitled “Thinking in Themes”. I think that I would have […]

  3. Seth Glassman said, on August 23, 2008 at 1:28 pm

    Perhaps I should have said that your subconscious recognizes the meaning in a scene long before your analytical nature begins to tear it apart. Good technique enables you to take a technically good picture impulsively before you start second-guessing yourself. That’s why viewers can often find meaning in a picture the photographer didn’t see – he did see it, but when he turns off the impulsive (intuitive?) part and turns on the analytical part he only sees what his conscious allows him to see. I’m a musician by trade. Music performance in real-time happens much too quickly for any sort of intellectual control – you have to go on instinct honed by years of training and experience. Only later can you evaluate whether you did well. And on occasion I think a performance was mediocre and the audience loves it. Out of arrogance I used to assume that was because the audience didn’t know enough to see that it was mediocre – now I realize they don’t let hangups ruin their enjoyment like I do.

  4. Andreas Manessinger said, on August 24, 2008 at 2:30 am

    Hmm … I probably think a little more and write something about it on my blog, but I think it’s fundamental to note that the whole concept of meaning does not make sense without communication, even if the communication is only between you and yourself. Meaning is either shared meaning or it is not at all, and when you think about it, that has quite a tail of consequences, e.g. that meaning can’t simply reside in configurations of objects. It needs a thinking mind.

  5. Andreas Manessinger said, on August 25, 2008 at 12:00 pm

    OK, I did it, I wrote about my view of the sources of meaning on my blog.

  6. John Taylor said, on August 31, 2008 at 11:57 am

    Sometimes the meaning may be there for us to find, if we look and so over time as we grow… well more layered shall we say, we may see things that we did not see in the past. But looking sometimes confers meaning, that is meaning is sometimes the intersection of our being and what we encounter with our eye. Our choosing/framing an image with a camera is an attempt to record that intersection. I’m am leary of the black and white dictates (pun intended, i am a photographer after all)of ‘either or’ because again an eye, not ours, may now may intersect that moment in our image and create a new layer of meaning.

  7. doonster said, on August 31, 2008 at 12:26 pm

    There must be an aspect of learning in there, too – some of the “cultural baggage” – for us to find meaning.

    An example – we are taught that the black squiggles have certain meaning and that is what we bring to be able to read the words. having just returned from India, Hindi is just pretty squiggles on the paper – i can derive no meaning from it in any way 9heck, I still don’t know if it reads R-L or L-R). That is my lack of learning.

    Thus, surely, we bring the same thing to photographs. over time our learning develops and we can bring more to the viewing of our old work than we did when the image was captured.

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