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Friday, 06 September 2013


The attitude of valuing a photo for its technical characteristics and not for meaning/content is the fertile soil creates by big brands and on which contemporary camera marketing thrives: a photo is "good" if it is well executed, so camera makers offer a magical tool with which anyone can do "good" photos, just like the "professionals" or the "artists".

Marcel Duchamp: context.
Without annotation this is a dull snap. So it's not really a photograph per se. It's the illustration of a text.

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. A picture may be worth a thousand words but sometimes words are necessary.

The T.O.P. featured photograph that has given me most pause for thought in recent months is the tightly framed, black and white 'Random Snap' of a couple holding hands. I commented at the time about how the presence of an older person's hand on the man's upper arm at the left edge of the image lent an air of comfort and consolation to the scene, as though a loss had been suffered, which I found quite poignant. It caused me to reflect on many of the same questions that the image of the minister raises, albeit without the need for an explanatory caption. Indeed, if I remember rightly, you subsequently published the original uncropped photograph which turned out to be a group of happy people enjoying a day on the river. Sometimes, reality is overrated!
This is the beauty of still photography. Both images speak to similar questions of the human condition, one based in the realism of photojournalism, the other in the imagination of the viewer. Therein lies the power.
Bring 'em all in. I say.

The problem with this approach, Mike, is that you're relying on the honesty of the captioner to imbue the photograph with meaning. What's to prevent me from taking any ordinary, mundane photo (which this certainly is, stripped of its caption and the attendant meaning), and simply make up some dramatic story behind it? Presto! Instant "meaningful" and powerful photograph!
No, I'm afraid for me I have to demand that a photograph has some merit as a photograph, and is not dependent on a backstory. In this case, it's the STORY that has the emotional power, and the photograph merely illustrates the story. It's fine, but the photo is not what gives it impact.

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?

"When a picture does have meaning, I'm more tolerant of its other failings, which seem less important in the balance."

That's the essence of Photography!

The last three paragraphs are a cornerstone of TOP and a large part of the reason why I visit daily. Bravo!

Of the photos that were shared with the readers, none of my favorites made the finals. To me, that’s the best part of the whole endeavor. As an artist, nothing is more important to me than a diverse audience. Knowing that there are varied tastes, interests, backgrounds, and perspectives to be served allows me to express myself from the heart. Somewhere, I’m sure there’s an audience who’ll enjoy viewing my work much as I enjoy making it.

Like most people, there are many photographs that don’t appeal to me as a viewer. That’s ok, we all have our feelings. You needn’t be part of the majority to be “right”. What appeals to each of us in both subjective and (sometimes) unique. Individuality is part of our humanity.

There are any number of norms to which we all conform in pursuit of making the world a civil place. That makes sense to me, but I’m not convinced we are served by such artificial structures in photography. Is it really art if there are rules, conventions, and resulting expectations?

Let’s just be ourselves and revel in others doing the same.

Well felt and well said!

I remember the first time I saw the picture of the letter that is embossed on the back of Alec Soths Niagara. Aesthetically speaking, it's as flat and as flat can be, but it's meaning reduced me to tears. It was a powerful and much needed reminder of the power that simple photographs can have.

At least simple at first glance.

Great post - a point well made.

Must have been great coffee that generated this line:

"technically perfect digital confections that are devoid of even a scrap of meaning"

Digital Confections. Phrase of the week.

An interesting read, and my first reaction to your post was one of what if the title was something different, would one still feel the same way about the photo?

Then my second thought was that all photos of living people could have the same title, as of course we are all going to die, whether it is today or in the next 100 years. So actually it is not even the title of the image which gives the meaning, one also has to read the description.

Interesting point of view, but I still think this photograph is more a caption than an image. The image without the caption is very weak. The caption without the image almost stands on its own.
Maybe the difference is that you are a very good writer, so words are important in your world. Personally I have a very hard time captioning, or even titling, my images...

You make your point well with this striking example. However, there is meaning and there is meaning. A photograph can have a real meaning as the reality unfolds around the photographer, but that meaning needs the words of the photographer to be conveyed, and we must "believe" and be enriched. Then there is contextual meaning that a photograph, such as a "Gare St. Lazare", or a "Spain 1933, Valencia), wherein the boy is looking up perhaps to a blind sky (actually throwing a ball), might convey to the observer; here we are free to find meaning the way we want the reality to be. There is no belief in the latter but the freedom to imagine.

Interesting thoughts Mike. I run into a similar issue fairly regularly as the types of photos I enjoy taking don't seem to be too popular :) For example, I find this https://lh3.googleusercontent.com/-cT1iJJTSTMc/Uf_SL4H01RI/AAAAAAAAFJE/DFOTqFToKgw/s518-no/_8051699.JPG
to be the best photo I've taken in quite some time. But unless you're into old iron porn, you're not likely to agree with me. There's nothing special about this particular old 1909 Case tractor but the composition around the worm gear on the steering column is very pleasing to my eye. Eventually I'd like to get a largish print of it made and framed in my living room. Yet, equally, I can imagine that to someone who shoots HDR landscapes that are postprocessed into infinity probably would find it quite boring.

And that's ok.

It's a sleep-inducing book, but I thought about "Camera Lucida" as I was reading Mike's write up.

All I can add, photos that combine meaning and are interesting photographically are the ones that stick in my mind forever.

I have to say that this was one of the very few photos from the contest that stopped me long enough to read the caption. The gesture, setting, facial expressions and composition combined to give me an instant feeling "there's something going on here."

Overall I was disappointed by the contest entries. Many of them were pictures I have seen many times before - not literally, but in the sense that they would be interchangeable with photos I have seen many times over the years. The minister photo struck me as one the rare interesting exceptions.

I've followed your past comments on the importance/role of captions in photography and found them very thought-provoking. Here, too, I've given more consideration to this picture because of what you've written. I can look at this picture and see some of what you're seeing.
But where some classic/famous/"iconic" pictures might be just ordinary pictures without a caption that gives them meaning, this picture doesn't seem to be transformed in quite the same way. There's no "Aha" that comes as a result of reading the caption; no revelation. And yet, there is something to it ... more like an interplay between the story and the photo. They work together to produce something that is subtly compelling.
I'm glad this photo was posted here along with your detailed comments. I personally would not have included it with the finals, because despite all of this, I still want to see something that doesn't rely so heavily on context to be interesting. But if it hadn't been included, you never would have written this post, and posts like this are what make TOP so great.

Mike, beautifully and perfectly said.

Rereading my previous post, where I said that the caption doesn't transform the photo in the same way, I feel the need to clarify. The caption utterly changes the meaning of photograph. Without it, it could be a photo of any mundane situation, and only with it does it become interesting. But it doesn't hit suddenly and provide an explanation that makes you realize you're seeing something significant. Maybe because it's just a slice of life; not a decisive moment. It's not two world leaders shaking hands after ending a war (a typical example of a photo where a caption transforms a seemingly ordinary situation into something with much more significance). The moment itself is fairly insignificant; it's more symbolic of an ongoing story. That's all I meant when I said the caption doesn't transform it in the same way as other photos where captions are critical.

I’ll bet this scene looked (technically) better in person than the photograph. If someone skilled with Photoshop (because “there are no bad originals”) improved the technical aspects of the photograph, does that add or take away from the meaning? Or does enhancing the photograph miss the point entirely?

Photographers often disrespect post-processing and admire good work that’s straight out of camera. While those preferences come from a good place, they make me tend to photograph subjects with pretty light over subjects with interest and meaning. If Jachin Mandeno thought the way I do, this picture might not have been made and that would be a loss.

I like to think about photography in two parts: get the best picture I can when I’m there and make the most of it in post-processing later.

Mike, you make valid points per the underlying meaning of this photo. And it was very moving to read what's actually behind the image. However, you've spent a thousand words having to explain content not readily revealed by its visual context, which to me is a 'fail' as far as the storytelling power of this single image goes. And isn't that, above all else, what makes a photograph "better"?

That was an object lesson in critiquing a photograph.

Wow, did you ever hit the nail on the head here, Mike. The first two sentences of your second-to-last paragraph should be quoted far and wide: they convey a thought that always springs to (my) mind when reading online savaging of the technical aspects of countless meaning-filled 20th-century photographs.

I suspect that many of the comments I've read conveniently ignore the fact that you offered the use of captions as part of the contest instructions. I wouldn't have entered the photo I did if it had to be captionless. And also, that to the people who the photographer intended the photo to be most seen by I'm sure it is an image they will treasure.

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:

That's exactly why I grew of tired of my camera club's competition nights. Anybody who puts in the time can learn to make very pretty pictures. I sure did, but after awhile I wondered why I was filling my hard drive with so many pretties (gardens, plants and landscapes in my case). I stopped, but haven't found my replacement subject yet.

I have to comment about this one. This is a classic example of the power of annotation which some consider "not really a part of a photograph" (or other types of art). When I first saw the photograph in the first post my initial reaction was, "Why did this one make the short list?" Then I read the caption and my feelings changed to profound empathy. But this is not actually my point. When I saw it again today I had completely forgotten what it was about. But my emotional reaction to it was a strong feeling of sadness and affection without understanding why. It takes a particularly powerful captionless image to create that kind of feeling in me. I suppose I regard this image and its caption to be a fine work of art and Mike's comments about it are bang on.

I've always felt that if a picture only works with a caption, it's a failure.

[And I've always felt that that's wrong. So we differ about that, then. --Mike]

Our lives are made up of "snapshots". Those are the rich moments we remember and cherish.

Mike, I am one of those who thought (but did not comment) that the picture was not visually appealing, especially in comparison to many of the others. On reading the caption, I was touched by the story, and the bravery, and the questions raised like 'what would I do?' or 'there but for the grace of God go I" , 'count your blessings, go out and do something today" But I am still unmoved by the picture. I am however moved by the combination of the words and the picture. So I'm glad you made the point.

I am one who often likes the work of photographers who use captions or a bit of backstory. I do it myself sometines.
Interestingly I often get a better reaction from viewers of these combinations than when they view photographs alone.
I have always taken this to mean that if I were a better more expressive photographer the reactions would be more balanced.

We were all taught that good photographs, stand on their own, and evidence shows that photographs that are widely acknowledged as great, almost always do.
We all also know photographs that have great meaning for us BECAUSE we know context or backstory. (Kent State Girl or personal pictures)
You've got me thinking about that difference, which is in itself a gift, so thanks. But I would also love to hear more of what you think about the difference .

Mike, It didn't take me long to figure out that your likes and mine are quite different and why I have visited this blog almost every day since it started. (which reminds me September is when my subscription is due!)
I rarely look at landscape photography sites. Its what I shoot, I "get" those. I visit yours and other more "photojournalism" type sites because I don't always see the appeal and actually hope to understand more. Isn't that what we mere humans do to grow? I do look at lotsa landscape paintings to try to see why someone would invest that much time to share a particular personal view of a scene. But not so much photography of the same. I do think that the creativity of photography lies more in the journalism side because of the challenge of delivery of a moment in time. Landscape is to me more of a craft than creative. Basically similar to building something outta 2x4s and nails.

So a boring photo with an interesting caption is better than an interesting photograph with a boring caption?

Are we judging the photo here, or the caption? The problem I see is that many photos could have fit the same caption.

Purpose might be the determining factor in placing images into two categories. Those that benefit from annotation and those that don't.
For the second category it might be said that Art is for when words alone won't do.
For most images, even many of artistic intent, some words can actually help the viewer into the room where the meaning the photographer had in mind is on display.
I use "Each image contains many stories. The title recommends a vantage point to the viewer, from which one of the stories begins."
Ernst Haas is quoted relative to the first category.
“Bored with obvious reality, I find my fascination in transforming it into a subjective point of view. Without touching my subject I want to come to the moment when, through pure concentration of seeing, the composed picture becomes more made than taken. Without a descriptive caption to justify its existence, it will speak for itself – less descriptive, more creative; less informative, more suggestive; less prose, more poetry.”
— Ernst Haas from ‘About Color Photography’, in DU, 1961
Both approaches are valid. Both can result in what can be called Art.

Purpose might be the determining factor in placing images into two categories. Those that benefit from annotation and those that don't.
For the second category it might be said that Art is for when words alone won't do.
For most images, even many of artistic intent, some words can actually help the viewer into the room where the meaning the photographer had in mind is on display.
I use "Each image contains many stories. The title recommends a vantage point to the viewer, from which one of the stories begins."
Ernst Haas is quoted relative to the first category.
“Bored with obvious reality, I find my fascination in transforming it into a subjective point of view. Without touching my subject I want to come to the moment when, through pure concentration of seeing, the composed picture becomes more made than taken. Without a descriptive caption to justify its existence, it will speak for itself – less descriptive, more creative; less informative, more suggestive; less prose, more poetry.”
— Ernst Haas from ‘About Color Photography’, in DU, 1961
Both approaches are valid. Both can result in what can be called Art.

I think that your commentary today reflects the reason why I am more attracted to a photographic series in a museum, than to an individual photo. The more information we get about the subject, the better. In this case the caption brought you meaning for the photo. Sometimes seeing more of a subject brings us closer to the subject and gives the subject meaning. I agree that photos that lack meaning can be uninteresting and even of less worth than a snapshot. This is something that I have personally been struggling with lately, how do I take photos that have meaning for others beyond myself? I am not sure that I have an answer to that--but I am still trying.

The picture was interesting because it gave you a platform to discuss a very relevant photographic topic. However, in the end, the photo is far from interesting to me because without the caption I get nothing. In my opinion, a photograph should at the very least draw the viewer in, so that the viewer actually desires to look at the caption.

There's a bunch of different pieces here, really. There's a picture. There's a picture+title, there's a picture+caption, there's a picture+title+caption. Several of the combinations are not very interesting, while others are very interesting, which I think is really Mike's point.

The request for submissions was specifically and distinctly for A picture and some text which is not the same thing as a picture. Interestingly, the submissions seem to have been judged as a bunch of pictures. I sure did.

As a guy who takes pictures, I'm more interested in the picture side of things, but to dismiss this particular, powerful, picture+text (and honestly, who cares if it's True, is To Kill a Mockingbird True?) on the grounds that the picture half cannot stand alone is silly. Do we dismiss a sculpture because, if we sawed it in half, it would fall over?

Purpose might be the determining factor in placing images into two categories. Those that benefit from annotation and those that don't.
For most images, even many of artistic intent, some words can actually help the viewer into the room where the meaning the photographer had in mind is on display. I use "Each image contains many stories. The title recommends a vantage point to the viewer from which one of the stories begins."
Ernst Haas is quoted relative to the first category.
"Bored with obvious reality, I find my fascination in transforming it into a subjective point of view. Without touching my subject I want to come to the moment when, through pure concentration of seeing, the composed picture becomes more made that taken.
Without a descriptive caption to justify its existence, it will speak for itself - less descriptive, more creative; less informative, more suggestive; less prose, more poetry".
Both approaches can result in what can be called Art.

Thanks for these past few posts describing the thought process behind the judging. They have taught me a lot and inspired me even more.

This site consistently does more than any other to affirm why photography is important, and I appreciate your help in keeping the wolves of sharpness, line pairs, and bokeh at bay.

I think what's interesting about this photo is that it establishes a spot on the photographic spectrum that you don't often get to see pointed out. Yes, we all know about the beautiful over-saturated empty shot on the one side. But this one establishes almost the opposite. It doesn't really work for me alone, but what's most interesting, I think, is how it really does force you to start thinking about what makes a great photo. Bravo!

I would like to nominate this for the best post you have ever written for T.O.P. It might even be the best thing I have read from you, full stop.

Mike, I consider you the heir to John Szarkowski. Knowing you, I am sure you would disagree, but I would love to see you write a sequel to "Looking at Photographs".

With gratitude,

I think you're conflating a couple different issues. The first is the distinction between techinically perfect and pretty pictures with "art." I think almost everyone here would agree that great art must have substance and depth beyond technical perfection, and that a great photo is both visually dynamic and substantive. Of course, it can be very, very difficult to draw the line between nice pictures and art, and that's a longstanding issue in all genres.

The second is the importance and value of the caption to a photograph. I have no problem with saying that a caption can be an important part of a photograph, and that a photograph doesn't necessarily have to stand on its own, but the question here is whether the image and the caption taken together make for an interesting photograph or work of art. I don't think they do, and I think it's unfair to criticize your readers who didn't get much from the photo and its caption. I'm sure many if not most of those readers understand the importance of meaning and depth; they just didn't think the back story in this case was enough to elevate the photo.

for 30 years or so whenever I found myself accompanying my wife through antique shops I would search for and often find photographs. I loved finding these personal treasures of people's lives stuffed into books or boxes. Many had notes on the back..."Eugenia tastes Thai food for the first time" or "Booger and Moose back from fishing." These were the absolute best. Unfortunately for me this practice became named and somewhat well known...Found Photographs...and the supplies dried up.
As a species there seems to be no limit to what we will spend to communicate. Snapshots are part of that. Although I do dearly love making the best prints I can of nature...they are truly a technical exercise and that's all. "Snapshots" on the other hand are like personal messages...priceless.

Very interesting post and follow-up discussion. While I believe that context and story are important, there's still the undeniable appeal of pure visual aesthetics. My thought when reading the post was "how well does a photo communicate its intent?", e.g. I have photos that I believe express certain things about the human condition and culture, but I'm not sure that it is conveyed to the viewer due to the visual execution. Similarly, part of the criticism towards the posted photo is that visually it doesn't convey the story strongly, the gesture could be the result of a vast number of events, and thus needs to rely on a detailed description to convey the context to the viewer. Note that I do now think it was a good choice to feature this photo, as the analysis has proved interesting, something that cannot be said for the vast majority of photos.

Many important photographs need captions to be complete. Without knowing that they were part of a fight against child labor, many of Lewis Hine's pictures just seem to be snaps of grubby kids. Stieglitz's gelded horse is just an interesting composition without the satiric "Spiritual America" title.

One thing that does come across, completely disregarding any caption or back-story, is that this photo conveys some of the feeling of being in that room that day, whatever kind of room it may have been and whatever may have been going on in it. Sure, it's an adequate document of an event, but that's not all. The mens' faces are eloquent about something. The seated man's gesture is also eloquent - about something. In that not-so-simple way, this picture does stand on its own. Granted, the back-story makes the associated emotions much stronger and more direct and gives them the solidity of context. Still, it shows that central feeling of having been in a place where I wasn't, the thing I wish I could conjure at will when I press the button, that is what makes photography worth something to me.

Great image to spark conversation! The commentary here has caused me to question my own interpretation of photos. Thank you for that, Mike.

What I'm reading is that there are several criteria people use to judge photos. Is it interesting artistically? Does it have drama? Does it work with a caption? Should photos be judged independently of captions? Are attractive images "better" than more prosaic ones. Could this have been improved in post? I'm sure there are others I'm too dense to grasp.

For me this works on its own as it illustrates a relationship between the two men. That's because I took the time to look at the content and not just how it looks (my criterion). It's obviously a digital image and lacks some of the character that film gives. (This is not a swipe at digital. That's all I shoot). It could have been made more dramatic. Does that matter? Not for me. The caption does give deeper meaning to the photo. Lots. It works as is.

Wow, this is interesting (for me at least). I read the post above, which in itself I thought was very interesting, and then, following the lead of Mike, I googled the name Jachin Mandeno. Following a link to a blog, I clicked on "All pictures" and immediately though, "I think this is New Zealand." Weird, because there is nothing really in the thumbnails to stand out as so. So, I immediately dismissed the thought as nonsense. Then I scrolled down far enough to see some place names. To my surprise, it is New Zealand. So, I don't know what it is, but there is something about these photos that led me to think New Zealand. In light of this post's subject, I thought that was interesting.

Well said, Mike. Meaning is everything, especially if a photo has Carl Sagan writing the caption

Very interesting and timely post, Mike. I just bought a used copy of the (out of print) book On This Site by Joel Sternfeld, which has straightforward images of locations where extreme violence has taken place. Reading this book, I was very surprised at how much value the factual description of the terrible event added. Like the dying minister photo, the images in Sternfeld's book are nice, but not especially compelling without the associated description.

As the volume of visual eye candy grows—online, but also at art fairs and in local galleries—I find myself gravitating to bodies of work and individual images that have an underlying conceptual foundation; in other words, photographs that make me think.

A comment to Ed: Some photos work without a caption; some needs them.

I think this is one of the photos that need a caption. It is the combination of the photo and the caption that creates the story.

I am OK with that.

I don't believe you believe what you've said. That's basically the opinion of the management that fired the Sun Times' photographers: that you can have a good news picture by doing only the information half of the job and ignoring the aesthetic half. It's the siren song of bad news photographers everywhere who think their bad pix are adequate. It's exactly the type of attitude about news work that photographers like W Eugene Smith and the other great journalist/photographers fought.

Attached a picture of UFOs flying in formation at a wedding in Guatemala. Too bad it's a bit blurry thanks to a few gin&tonics, but the UFOs were magnificent.



Thank you for your kind words.

Mike: it is interesting as always to hear the rationale behind your choices. I have to say, though, that if I were going to choose one of the pictures to hang in my home and see every day, I would choose almost any of the ones you categorized as finalists before I would choose the one you named the winner.

[No, this is NOT the winner of the contest. Please see the Addendum to the post. --Mike]

That is because the formal esthetics of those images create an emotional resonance for me that doesn't need explanation in order to be interesting.

Nevertheless, it has been fascinating to see what TOPpers have produced. There are some very fine eyes/sensibilities out there. My hat's off to all those with the courage to participate. I hope you will run more of these contests in the future -- it brings out unexpected and delightful things from the community you have created.


When I first read this post yesterday, it had a different title ("The Meaning of a Picture"?). Unlike pictures, changing the title of a piece of writing doesn't change its meaning. It remains as powerful as before. By any name, this is one of your best tour de force. "The Dying Minister" is an apt title for Jachin Mandeno's photo.

I think a powerful picture is one whose impact to the viewer needs no reinforcement besides a title or a short description. A strong image contains an idea pictorially, that resonates with the viewer and invites further attention.

On the other hand, a picture deliberately captioned "Untitled" by the photographer strikes me as pretentious and arrogant. It assumes universality of experience. An untitled picture may well be meaningless.

I think that all photographs (and art) have meaning but not necessarily relevance, or resonance. I am more apt to engage a piece if the latter two qualities are in play. In this instance words allowed that to happen.

I had a very similar experience recently while looking at photos of Native Americans taken early in this century by Edward S. Curtis. The photos are posted on the Library of Congress website, as the government had hired him to make them. One photo in particular had the effect on me that you've described in this post. The photo isn't a particularly striking photograph on the technical merits, but it's titled: Praying to the Spirits at Crater Lake. Having read the title, I had to look at the photo. Having visited Crater Lake and seen the epic beauty of the place, I could very easily imagine that local Native Americans would view it as a good place to speak to their Spirits. I am not a religious person, but Crater Lake was for me - a very moving sight. I feel like if you were to choose a spiritual belief system, the Native Americans had some ideas I could wrap my head around - at least regarding the wilderness. Here's a link if you're curious -
I took a photo while visiting Crater Lake at a place I thought was quite beautiful - the place, not necessarily my photo of it, and when I saw Mr. Curtis' photo, it resembles the area I photographed. Maybe the same Spirits spoke to me on that spot. Here's a link to my photo -
Anyways, the title of the photo spoke to me before the image did, and it put me (metaphorically at least) in the Native American's shoes. The Spirits spoke to me as well at that place...

The photo in question does not move me in any way with or without the caption. I find it to be a thoroughly boring and meaningless photo. I cannot help that I have no positive reaction to it, so there is no point criticizing me for it. I find some irony in the "dying minister" reference, but nothing in the photo. But, I like the photo better than the one of a bland, photoshopped river that recently sold for millions of dollars.

With the exception of photographs that show us historically important people or events - those don't have to have any intrinsic aesthetic goodness - the best photographs communicate both by means of pure visual power and the ability to suggest something beyond both the photographic beauty and the presumably "real-ish" portrayal of a subject.

In other words, there are photographs of stories that might be interesting or even compelling with or without the photograph - such as the story behind this photograph - that may have little or no visual aesthetic power. (I'm afraid I put this photograph in that category. I hear what you are saying about the back-story, but the image itself still seems to me no more than a snapshot.)

I can empathize with your feeling that some very beautiful photographs seem to be merely pretty to you. There are multiple explanations for this. One is that many people making those photographs seem to be doing nothing more than emulating a sort of visual presentation that they have seen elsewhere - and there may be no clear sense of the "way of seeing" of that photographer. It may also be true that there is a message behind some such photographs that a viewer might miss, whether the photographer intended it or not.

Since I'm a musician by training, let me try a musical analogy. (And the fact that I'm using music this way might point to a possible answer to your problem with photographs that are merely beautiful.) To most - though not quite all - a heartfelt performance that is banal, non-expressive, and perhaps even has wrong notes is not usually very satisfying. On the other hand, a powerful piece that is well constructed and musically "beautiful" but which carries no intrinsic message from the composer and no absolute meaning - think Mozart's 40th Symphony - can produce a powerful emotional response.

In any case, your post made me think a bit more about what this photograph might lead one to think about... but I remain unconvinced by it as visual art.

After reading your article and all of the comments, it struck me as curious, unless I missed it, that no one expressed interest in what happened after the photo was taken. If the meaning of the picture is bound to its story, an important part is contained in the events that follow the few milliseconds in which this image was formed. But that continuation is not knowable, and my imagination by default tends to fill in the blanks. The photo is effective, evoking such thought each time I see it.

The example photo in your article should not be considered a failure as "art", in fact, even before reading your description, I found it visually compelling. The faces of the two men are distinct and expressions poles apart. Indeed, the man on the left looks ill, how puffy and posture off balance, standing awkwardly. The light falls on his left side in a way that paints an other-wordly glow. He is looking away from the man on the right, yet gesturing toward him. In contrast the man on the right looks normal, relaxed, assured and earthly.

The flatness of the image adds to the effect. If it were processed to be more "correct" the focus on the gesture and spatial composition would be "drowned" by augmented details. Muting explicit "pictorial" elements puts emphasis on combining image and "back story", certainly an established and legitimate domain in photographic history--and art.

Yesterday i was visiting the WORLD PRESS AWARD travelling exhibition in Marche Bonsecours in Old Montréal and several images spoke to me before i read the attached commentary. Some were technically way imperfect but rich pictorially to paraphrase stieglitz.

The commentary sometimes added depth other times just confirmed what the image conveyed. So yes sometimes knowing the story behing the picture helps us "get it".


I completely agree with your view. I to have no interest in meaningless images, which are, of course, everywhere now.

Another point made by someone else is that some some pictures need words to help them speak. To me that's just how it is. Meaning often needs more than one means of communication and expecting a picture to tell a complete story - news or otherwise is a very big ask. I won't even start on what is acceptable as photojournalism...


Meaning? Oh… you mean like instrumental jazz has meaning?

My dictionary says meaning is implied or explicit significance. My thesaurus offers these alternatives: expressiveness, significance, eloquence, implications, insinuations.

If this is what you mean by meaning, then I agree to its significance in photography.

But I would add that the image of the two men with microphones and laptop falls very short (unless presentation implies significance). An image presented in a magazine or newspaper context legitimately feeds off its caption. This is legitimate because the image is there to help illustrate a written story. But take that same image, frame it and hang it on a museum or gallery wall, or even the wall of your house, and what is it? It does not stand on its own.

I think where I really diverge from your point of view is, and I am guessing somewhat here, I think you feel the need for some evidence of mankind in an image for it to have meaning for you. Meaning is obviously subjective and personal. What I find most meaningful is usually devoid of that evidence.

Wandering OT a bit, the visual arts are a playground of visual things …and visual ideas, much like music is a sonic playground. Sometimes the result, the byproduct, has meaning to those outside of the playground, and sometimes not. But to those in the playground it is the act of play that is the important part.

When a photo needs words to have any meaning we enter the realm of photojournalism. My view is that a photo must stand or fall purely on its merits, sans caption. On that basis this photo is pretty darned ordinary.

You know, this reminds me of music, pop music in particular.

I've come realise a lot of people like a song because of its lyrics. I've had so many people proclaim so-and-so song is so great, but upon listening to them, I've found them rather mediocre. For me, it's music first, then we talk about the lyrics.

So similarly, it's visuals first for me. I rather have pretty visuals without meaning than meaningful pictures with mediocre visuals. Maybe it's just the way my brain works.

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