I've been working on a little essay for The Luminous Landscape about "modes of approach" to a photograph—a sort of laundry-list of the various ways critics and viewers can deconstruct pictures.
One of those "modes" is meaning, which I think is really considerably simpler than a lot of people might think. In a classic news photograph, the caption provides the meaning, but the photograph is both illustration of what the caption asserts or describes and also evidence of it. But while the meaning is clear in such a case, it presumes that the subject of the caption (and hence the picture) is of intrinsic general interest, sufficient to involve the viewer. That's often (um, rather decisively) not the case with many of our personal pictures.
The big advantage of personal work, though, is that it can have personal meaning. This rescues it from all manner of potential failings, including a lack of general interest, as well as the most common flaw of "average" photographs, which is that they're nondescript, approximate, bland.
I was struggling to try to express this when I coincidentally put together this two-frame "panorama" for my friend Jim. We have a friend, Jerry—he's Jim's brother's father-in-law—who tells great stories, and I've learned to watch not only the storyteller's expressions as he engages his audience but the expressions of the people listening to him. The two halves of this picture were actually taken a couple of minutes apart, although the implication of the picture as a whole is perfectly authentic.
Jim's reaction was succinct and pretty much encapsulates how pictures like this work:
I like fact that he mentioned the piano, where he spent many hundreds of hours when we were kids, practicing.
I like the "snapshot aesthetic," it's true, but I also feel that personal associations to what a picture shows is really the best way for most of us to make something of our photographs. This picture is rich for me, considerably richer for Jim, and probably doesn't mean much to you. But that's okay.
Of course, there's a downside to this, as you'll see in the post that follows this one.