GRAYnomad Nature Photography :: Essays :: Meaning

Can photographs have any meaning?

NOTE: This article was originally part of a book I was asked to write about B&W landscape photography. The publisher went broke and the book is on hold but that's another story. The two photos by Bruce Barnbaum and David Moore referred to in the text were to be included in the book to illustrate the article, both Bruce and David gave me permisson to use thier images and I thank them for their support.

However I have not asked permission to reproduce the images on the web so, hopefully, the article will stand without illustration.

What is the meaning of a photograph?

I would argue that a photograph cannot have any intrinsic meaning. Remember the Zen question of the sixties? "When a tree falls in the forest with no-one to hear it, is there any sound?".

Of course vibrations will occur, but whether or not this classifies as sound until converted to impulses in the brain is debatable. However, any number of life forms can sense the tree falling, even the other trees perhaps, so I would argue that the sound does occur regardless of any human presence.

However, unlike the sound of a falling tree, "meaning" cannot exist without the involvement of a human. The best, most poignant, most powerful photograph ever taken is just termite fodder if nailed to our fallen tree in the woods, with no human to appreciate and be moved by it.

Let's rephrase the original question. Can a photograph affect a person?

Of course it can, that's one of the powers of photography. Now maybe I'm splitting hairs here but I believe if you start saying that a photograph has any meaning in the great scheme of things then you're only one step away from saying that it depicts the eternal battle between good and evil or that it's a fine example of existential whateverism.

This mumbo jumbo is for the art set. Most people either like a photo or they don't, and their feelings are usually brought about by a sense of remembrance that the image evokes.

Let's consider two images, Counterpoints, Peach Canyon by Bruce Barnbaum (what must be the quintessential photograph of a slot canyon) and St Paul's Cathedral from Bankside by David Moore, equally beautiful but of a London dock area and St Paul's cathedral.

Both are outstanding images and one might assume that, given my preference for landscape photographs, Bruce Barnbaum's photo would have more affect on me. While it's true that Counterpoints... is the best image of its kind I have seen, the London scene has a greater effect on me because it brings back memories of a particular experience. If I were to experience something important while standing in Peach Canyon, or somewhere similar, the tables might be turned.

Note that this has nothing to do with the relative technical or aesthetic merits of the two images. As far as I can tell they are equal in that respect, they just have different subject matter.

It follows then that the meanest family happy snap is capable of having more meaning to more people than the greatest image by Weston, Dupain, Atget or any other photographer. This is a sobering thought for one who aspires to the heights of photography. If everyone's family snaps are more important to them than my best photos, what chance do I have of causing emotion with my images?

Fortunately one doesn't have to relate to the subject of a photograph to be affected by it. If this were the case then Lewis Hine's photos of child factory workers would have had little impact, as I'm sure most viewers of the day could not relate to the children's conditions. Yet they were affected enough to bring about change.

One of Hine's images in particular affects me, Albanian Woman with Folded Head Cloth, Ellis Island

This is a straight forward portrait of a newly arrived immigrant taken in 1905. She is looking directly at the camera. The eye contact is intense and haunts me as if I were staring across the decades at the woman herself. I've never been an immigrant; I've never been to Ellis Island; and I'm not Albanian. So why does this photograph affect me so? I really don't know, and therefore I can take heart in the belief that, as contemporary photographers, we too can affect people's thoughts and lives with our images. We too can create images that affect others.

If your photos have meaning for you that's good, and in fact all that is really required of your photography. If your photos affect others because they can relate to them that's even better.

But when people who weren't there when you made the photo, who cannot in any way relate to the subject matter depicted, and who don't know you from a bar of soap, are affected by your images, then you are on the path to becoming a good photographer.


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