Explaining a photographs meaning???(help)

Discussion in 'Ethics and Philosophy' started by Rio, Jan 10, 2005.

  1. Rio

    Rio Member

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    Hello to you all. I have a problem. After six years of college and university doing photography, I still find it difficult to explain my work to others. I know what I mean and what I want to portray but I cannot put it into words. I don't know whether its because I'm shy? or simply because I feel silly talking about particular personal projects. Am I the only one who feels like this? I suppose the question to you all is do you think a photographs meaning needs to be explained by the photographer? Baring in mind that I am supposed to be a photographic "Artist"........??????????? Sometimes I feel that mystery goes a long way-but surely I should have the ability to explain myself!!! Why can't I??? HELP!
     
  2. Ole

    Ole Moderator Staff Member Moderator

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    If asked to explain a picture, just say "if I could express this in words, I would have been a poet not a photographer".

    I have problems enough coming up with a title for my pictures, much less an explanation. So that's the answer I give. :D
     
  3. mark

    mark Member

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    Just tell them why you took the picture. I suppose you could use fancy art terms but that would make you sound like a snob.

    I hate talking about the pictures too, but I noticed, at a street fair a couple of photographers had booths. One had really beautiful BW and the other had inkjet prints. The ink jets were more expensive but he sold more than the other guy, as evidenced by the number of blank spaces. I watched him and he talked a lot about the composition and the reason he took the shots. The BW guy said hello then went back to his reading.

    It made me think.
     
  4. David A. Goldfarb

    David A. Goldfarb Moderator Staff Member Moderator

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    Producing art and explaining art are two very different skills. Most writers and artists in "explaining" their work are just providing more material for analysis and consideration. What the artist says the work means is only part of the meaning of the work, and often what is most interesting is what the work suggests in spite of the artist's intentions to the contrary. So this is a much larger problem than what you feel you can say about your own work.

    It's probably best to talk about what draws you to a particular subject or to photography in general, and let the work speak for itself.
     
  5. Jeremy

    Jeremy Member

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    ditto
     
  6. Claire Senft

    Claire Senft Member

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    do not explain

    I do not explain my photos to anyone. if I were asked I tell them the photo means whatever they want it to mean. To this point no one has asked. After all you have already given them a thousand words..."a picture is worth a thousand words".
     
  7. colrehogan

    colrehogan Member

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    I feel like I have the opposite problem. I have read on various forums (and heard in a workshop) how pictures communicate something to some people and I can't figure that out. I just can't see the message. I usually find that I like a picture for what it is or I think, "I would never have thought to take that shot" and it mystifies me. I have no formal training in photography and maybe I've missed something.
     
  8. Bill Hahn

    Bill Hahn Member

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    An example....

    There is a photograph in W. Eugene Smith's Pittsburgh work that I've always
    liked. It shows a full moon thru the trees, with moonlight reflected off the
    river and the city in the background. I liked it, but I couldn't verbalize why.

    On the movie "Brilliant Fever", a short documentary about the Smith's Pittsburgh
    project, they show this picture, with audio of Smith talking about it. And to Smith
    is was a statement about unemployment. Full moon = clear skies = steel mills were
    shut down = unemployment. I never thought about that when I looked at the
    picture, but enjoyed the picture for other reasons.

    So there may be many meanings for a photograph....

    -Bill
     
  9. BWGirl

    BWGirl Member

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    Actually, I think there may be a single meaning to a photograph, but many, many interpretations of maeaning. We each interpret what we see based on our life experiences.

    I guess what I would do is to turn it around and ask the person what they see in the photo. :smile:
     
  10. Rio

    Rio Member

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    Mark, you hit the nail on the head then. I think that is my problem i feel like a snob when i talk art. It makes me feel uncomfortable.
     
  11. Will S

    Will S Member

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    OK, I'm no expert in this stuff, but:

    Post-modernist: The "unemployment" picture is just as validly reinterpreted as a beautiful scenic view of a river symbolizing X to a particular viewer and Y to another viewer and all interpretations are equally valid even though the author had interpretation Z in mind when it was created.

    New Criticism: The structure, composition, and choice of subject matter all lead to a particular interpretation/meaning, and this meaning is that of the author who crafted it in such a manner that its meaning could be seen by the viewers. Sometimes you have to dig into the life of the author (maybe) to figure this out, but the meaning should stand on its own apart from the life of the author or comments the author has made, those facts only strengthening the value of the work.

    Historical/Traditional: In order to understand the photograph you have to study every aspect of the author's life and the circumstances surrounding the creation of the photo, including whatever the author said about it and anything else the author ever said or did. Who did they borrow from? What are their influences. And their shoe size. Shoe size is very important. You must start with this study and then, only after digesting it all, go look at the actual work of art to be able to understand it.

    Societal: What does the photograph say about the people who are in it (or who live in the place where it was taken)? How is the author reflecting/strengthening/challenging the society in which he/she lived and took part in? What did it cost for a photographer to live and photograph in Pittsburgh? What types of audiences was he/she trying to reach.

    Gender: The sexual orientation/gender of the photographer is a characteristic that imbues meaning into all of their work. Consequently, rivers mean women, factory smokestacks mean penises, etc., etc. (I know I'm trivializing, but this sort of work is so abused it needs some trivialization. Not that it sometimes isn't valid, but every upward rising cadence in Tschaichovsky doesn't necessarily figuratively symbolize an ejaculation, if you know what I mean.)

    I'm sure there are others...

    While I'm willing to accept post-modernist criticism on its surface I find new criticism (which I think was invented at Yale in the 50s so I'm not sure why it is "new") more insightful and thought-provoking. Especially when it is coupled with some historical study of the author, especially that surrounding the creation of the work itself, and some historical understanding of the societal underpinnings. And I think New Criticism will draw on any method of interpretation as long as that method can be supported by something in the work itself. The craftmanship of the author is just as important as the societal influences, the sexual influences, and the historical influences.

    As far as talking about your own pictures, to quote Louis Armstrong "if you don't get it, man, you ain't never gonna get it."

    :smile:

    Will
     
  12. mark

    mark Member

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    Rio

    Me too. I just talk about lines since I love lines and geometric shapes. I would never see the connection between a full moon and unemployment. Not in my photographs or anyother person's.

    My wife got "Calendar Girls" for Christmas and in it they advertise for a photog. One of the photographers is explaining his work, Funny as hell.
     
  13. smieglitz

    smieglitz Subscriber

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    I've always noticed the split between the visual and verbal. I don't worry about it any longer.

    Pay attention to how people talk sometime. Visual types say things like "I see what you mean" or "I'll try to focus on the problem" etc., while musicians "hear what you're saying" and the hands-on types "have a bad feeling about this." The visual and verbal require two different skill sets.

    I recently had a major surgery that affected my memory and verbal skills so I'm much more aware of the dichotomy now. Fortunately, it left my visual skills intact and I'm very grateful for that since I'd rather see it than talk about it.

    There are images that I'm attracted to for who knows what reason. One in particular by a Spanish photographer who's name escapes me at the moment is a very simple photograph. A 4-of-clubs playing card lays face up in a dark field of clover leaves. I'm overwhelmed by this picture for some reason (and am aware of the shape similarity/visual echo) but have never been able to express why verbally. Lots of pictures are like that, and that's OK.

    Joe
     
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  15. donbga

    donbga Member

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    Duke Ellington once said, "If it sounds good, it is good."

    To paraphrase for visual arts, "If it looks good, it is good."

    Don Bryant
     
  16. donbga

    donbga Member

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    "I'm a photographer, not an intellectual!" - Helmut Newton

    I used to attend critiques for about two years, but finally after going regularly showing work I realized that most critiques are bullshit. Some people really like to yak about cruddy work, those that produce interesting pieces don't talk so much. I think that says a lot about public discussions. Critiques aren't worthless, often they can help you clarify your own thoughts, but just as often take what is said with a grain of salt as most of it is impulsive reactions and not deeply thought out. I think that writing about your work can help break the verbal block about expressing what you are doing. Writing like this can start out as a ramble but eventually your thoughts will become more refined and truthful.

    My 2 cents,

    Don Bryant
     
  17. WarEaglemtn

    WarEaglemtn Member

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    I don't think you can really explain a photograph. You can say what you did, why you did it, where you did it & reasons for taking the image. What you hoped it would be for you before, during & after you took it as well as through darkroom to finished print. What excited you so you put in this effort. If you can communicate that you can get the excitement you felt when you originally saw what made you stop & set up the camera. But you still won't 'explain' the photograph though you will communicate what you did & partly why you did it. The audience or person you are talking to will supply their own meaning no matter what you say... unless they are lacking in imagination.
     
  18. bjorke

    bjorke Member

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    Explain to WHO?
     
  19. rbarker

    rbarker Member

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    "Explanations" fall under the heading of marketing, I think, and the vocabulary used is probably best tailored to the character of the person to whom the explanation is being given. Save the art terminology for critics and gallery owners, use Jungian/Freudian terms with the doctors in the crowd, and conventional English for everyone else. You might, for example, discuss how the particular image relates to your overall vision, and how artistic vision relates to your philosophy of life, etc.

    In other words, if they didn't "get it" immediately, try to give them a reason to buy it. :wink:
     
  20. Jim Chinn

    Jim Chinn Member

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    Good photographs need no explanation. A good photograph will catch the viewers attention and allow them to project their own interpretation on to it. That interpretation may be the same as yours or 180 degrees opposite. Why does the meaning really matter if people enjoy looking at it.
     
  21. oriecat

    oriecat Member

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    This is an interesting discussion. I have often wondered too about this. I volunteer at a local photography gallery and every month I see collections of work by photographers and their 'artist's statements' and I often wonder if I was to show my own work, what would that piece of paper on the wall say? I have no idea. Sometimes I find the statements interesting and even if I don't like the photographs themselves, it helps me to understand what an artist is trying to do and come to at least respect the photographs in that way, and other times it's just a bunch of art talk hooey and I find myself thinking 'oh please, where are you coming up with this stuff?'
     
  22. Thomassauerwein

    Thomassauerwein Member

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    I think titles can give insight but they don't have to explain. Usually things are not as they appear. A title is an additional hint into what the "artist" has in mind.
    as far as what is written by the person creating or capturing the image, I'm not sure. Over a body of work or a long period of time working to accomplish a cohesive effort for a specific group of images I think the original idea changes and evolves. So what they say in the beginning,then the middle and the end probably sounds very different. Though the fragments of the original concept are still in tact, life and learning usually help to evolve further revisions and new opportunities within the idea. Maybe after someone goes through this process they grow the confidence and understanding necessary to be able to talk about their efforts.
     
  23. David H. Bebbington

    David H. Bebbington Inactive

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    Funny you should say that! My particular favorite from the time when I attended a lot of workshops was a series of pictures of twigs and leaves in mud which was stated to be an "exploration of the Icarus myth". A close second would be a photographer who used some science lab equipment to devise a means of holding a series of Petri dishes one above the other. He then filled these with water, floated individual words torn from an old Bible in them and photographed them from above. This was a statement about the eternal nature of God's word, although due to poor photographic technique the highlights were burned out and the words on the paper were unreadable. The most immediate visual association I was able to make was with used tampons floating in a toilet bowl, which of course just goes to show how stupid I am!
     
  24. MurrayMinchin

    MurrayMinchin Membership Council Council

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    Hi there Rio,

    One day you will not be there to explain your work; therefore it's vital you accept three truths...#1 is one day you will be not be there to ever explain your works again...#2 is everbody interprets the world through their own expectations and accumulated life experiences (they will see within your images meanings completely unexpected by you, but equally valid to your own)...#3 is that considering #1 and #2, the best you can do is pour everything you have into your way of seeing and your prints so you have the confidence to let them live on their own.

    By the way...I can talk the talk...but I'm not sure my own work has the legs...

    Does everybody have "The Portfolios of Ansel Adams" on hand? Check out Portfolio Four, "Northern California Coast Redwoods". Some may see this image as a majestic stand of old growth forest; natures expression of exquisite interdependance, of endurance, of life. Others will recognise it as the edge of a logging clear cut; another piece of remnant rain forest doomed to fall, death soon to be, a requeim. Did Ansel see this image simply as compositional glowing columns against a dark background, or did he know it would have a deeper meaning after his death, or after it was logged?

    As artists we must have the confidence in our vision / art to allow the WORK ITSELF to speak on it's own. Ansel's dead & gone...as we will be...it's up to us to leave a body of work that can speak for itself. This is as it should be.

    Murray
     
  25. Soeren

    Soeren Member

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    Before I started B&W I did slides exclusively. Last Thursday I did a slideshow in my cameraclub. I never imagined it would be so hard to explain the slides and why I shot them. So I fully understand your problem. How do one explain emotions, feelings and so forth. That experience made stop trying to explain my pictures. Ole is right we are photographers not poets (well some may be both)
    Regards Søren
     
  26. TPPhotog

    TPPhotog Member

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    I'm another that never explains my pictures. Many artists throughout history never explained their great works, so why should I explain my humble offerings. It's much more interesting to let someone see your work and listen to what they see in it and what meaning they put on it. I'm not sure if that helps in any way, but please don't feel that it is a failing on your part. As Ole said if you could put it in words then you could be a poet instead and save yourself all the time and energy capturing the light.