"Here we see a terminally ill minister (left) and a church elder discussing with church members the future of the church: what will happen when the minister is deceased? The minister was shorn by chemotherapy; and the elder shaved his head in solidarity. This photo was made in 2010."
I'd just like to make a point in passing here, because this picture (from our recent contest) serves as such a perfect example of the point. A few people contacted me wondering why this picture had been featured. They said they felt it didn't offer them anything photographically. They felt it didn't have enough visual appeal. For them it was "just a snapshot."
They're right, in a way. It's not a treat for the eye. It has no visual drama. It's competently composed, but in appearance it reads like a record shot. There's nothing remarkable about it technically. There's nothing special about the lighting, which is flat and bland. The colors aren't rich or harmonious. And it certainly doesn't "stand alone," or "speak for itself," which some people feel all photographs should; if you were told it showed two middle managers giving a PowerPoint presentation at a sales meeting, you could believe it.
It does have a nice gesture, and that is a visual feature.
The caption explains what the picture does offer the viewer. It explains briefly what we're seeing: a dying or doomed man, who has an open and accepting expression; another man looking on with friendly admiration, smiling, probably at something that was just said. We're told the topic of conversation, the roles of the two persons, the reason for the meeting. We glean a few details—he wears rings on both hands, one of which is probably a wedding band. The microphones indicate either a large gathering or that they're being recorded. We're told a great deal about the situation but we're left to infer a great deal more. What we're left to imagine is the congregation's feeling toward their minister (I imagine I see it reflected in the Elder's expression; I admit I intuit that the minister was popular, even beloved, even though that information isn't provided visually or verbally—that is, it might be my own fantasy projected on the picture); we try to imagine the Minister's own feelings, which we search his face to read, the signs perhaps of fear, perhaps of bravery and acceptance and faith, perhaps of concern for his congregants—some of whom might be imagined to be friends rallying around him for support in his time of need. We certainly imagine this: what is it like to talk about your own impending death?
The picture is nothing special as a picture, except in its meaning...and that's how the picture is rich, very rich...almost...profound. It doesn't have much for the eye, I admit. But there's a great deal in it to think about. There's emotion in it. The human condition is very close by: it leads easily to thoughts about life and death, community, religious faith, the relationships that a church can foster, mutual caring, dealing with disease, and tragedy.
And of course it is a very dramatic picture. It's just not visual drama.
Different things are accepted and popular at different times. If something is widely popular and widely accepted, it often becomes part of the cultural background fabric—the shared assumptions that we seldom question or even notice. These days, for instance, that a photograph should be beautiful and colorful and technically adroit and so forth are all accepted values. That a photo should have meaning...not as much; at this point in time, for whatever reason, we don't really seem to care about the meanings of pictures all that much. If the other valued elements we expect to see are not present, meaning can even be overlooked sometimes.
I just wanted to point out to those who look at this picture and think, "well, it's not very much as a photograph," now you know how I feel when I look at ravishingly gorgeous, richly colored, technically perfect digital confections that are devoid of even a scrap of meaning. Other people see perfection, a visual treat; but part of what I see is the void—what's missing—the lack of meaning, of substance to engage the mind and the heart. When I look at a scenic or a perfectly rendered leaf or whatever, I often feel the same way the people who saw nothing in this picture felt; I have the same complaint: there's not quite enough there for me. When a picture does have meaning, I'm more tolerant of its other failings, which seem less important in the balance.
I'm not saying one's better than the other, really. We all have probably taken plain pictures with deep meaning, and we all have probably taken pretty pictures that don't mean much. But to me it's very important to bear in mind that a photograph can offer a whole lot despite being nondescript in its purely visual aspects. And still be very worthwhile as a photograph, worthy of our thought, attention, and honor.
ADDENDUM: It's come to my attention that some people are under the mistaken impression that this picture is the winner of the contest! The possibility of that confusion never occurred to me. This was not one of the six finalists, which were discussed below. This is a picture from the contest that I wanted to make a point about for purposes of discussion. I have several others I also want to talk about eventually. Just to be clear, this is not the winner of the contest. The winners haven't been chosen yet. —Mike
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
George LeChat: "How do you know it's not two middle managers at a sales meeting?"
Mike replies: Because the photographer said so. In terms of veracity, a photograph is like a statement: we believe the person, not the picture. That's always the case, to some degree. We have to accept what we're told, or not, based on the same complex evaluations we always have to bring to bear on statements from others.
Plus, I admit (given what I'm doing here, writing in public in a quasi-journalistic mode) I checked the photographer's website, learned the minister's name, Googled him, etc. That's S.O.P. for me here at TOP, for the most part. Can't check everything. Can check a few things.
Ilkku: "One picture is worth thousand words. But a few words can completely change the meaning of a picture. So what is mightier, picture or words?"
Mike replies: First of all, that's a hoary, trivial, trite cliché to which I in no way subscribe. But I'd say what's mightier is the ongoing cognizance that there can be real facts and real truth behind both words and photographs. It isn't the words or the photographs that matter so much per se. If you accept that that photograph is an actual photograph, and shows what it appears to show (I mean two seated men, a computer, two microphones, flowers in the background, etc.), then there is some story behind it. It wasn't conjured out of imagination or fantasy. So, what's going on? Where are we? Who are the people in the picture? What's the situation? What clues do we have? Approaching all photographs that way is simply an essential element of "getting" photography. We almost never know the whole story behind any photograph. We often know enough to move us or make us think or feel.
Sometimes, of course, it's just a fucking cloud. (A quote from a friend after a lecture about Stieglitz's "equivalents.")
Rodger Kingston: "The rejection slip with which Alfred Stieglitz famously responded to many of the submissions he received at An American Place, his New York gallery, read 'Technically perfect, pictorially rotten.'"
Tim: "Thank you for hitting the nail on the head. You've answered a couple of things I've wondered for years, on and off: how does one go about 'reading' a photo and what's a reasonable deduction, and how does that fit into other, popular, genres? Well now I know; I was thinking 'so saturated landscapes on 500px are lacking this degree of story' before I got to the last couple of paragraphs. Or maybe one needs to be a rockologist to extract value from them, perhaps?"
Mike replies: Funny you should choose that example. A number of years ago I published in a magazine a photograph of a geological detail, that showed a whorled and jagged pattern in a rock face. The photographer had titled it something like "a heraldic crest" or some other such allegorical naming based upon something he thought it kinda resembled. And a reader who was a geologist wrote a letter to the magazine explaining in fascinating detail the actual significance of the geological feature, what it meant, where it probably was, how it was formed, etc. It made the photograph no less beautiful but much more interesting. That's a perfect example of what I mean when I say there are facts behind most photographs whether you know them or not. It's why I lack patience with photographers who seem to pursue common, simple, generic pictorial notions seemingly without a speck of curiosity about the reality of the subjects their pictures show.
Ed (partial comment): "I still disagree, Mike. Without a caption the photograph is unremarkable. The caption lets us (you) write our own story. This article affected me more than the picture ever could, or will, if anything the point here is underling the necessity of a good caption when the photograph isn't record enough."
Mike replies: Note that I'm not claiming this is a great photograph. Maybe it's not even a "good"one. (It didn't make the finals in our contest.) What I'm claiming is that it has meaning, and that that is a dimension lacking in many photographs routinely accepted as being "good."
Jeff Hohner: "Moved to tears by your exegesis. Thank you, and thanks for making this important point. This is why TOP is one of my few regular reads."
Jon Bloom: "Apropos of how captioning can alter a meaning of a photo, there is this. So a caption can remove meaning from a photo, or change it, as well as add it."