Words and picture by Roger Overall
Something peculiar happened to me the other week. Something quite revealing. It makes me wonder whether we can always trust what a photographer says about the original intention of their work.
Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been having a discussion with an artist about a large print of a pencil drawing he sent me. My writing skills are not capable of describing the drawing to you. It is complex. Quite frankly, it must have taken weeks to complete, though the artist describes it as merely a study for a much more ambitious piece. We’ve had a short, yet rich, conversation about it. I gave him my interpretation. He gave me his. In places, we met. We also diverged greatly. He spoke about themes of honesty and truth. I saw innocence, fear and strength gained through experience.
It’s not uncommon for people to see things in pictures the artist never intended. We all view paintings and photographs from our own individual perspective. We bring our values and beliefs, together with our particular personal circumstances, to bear on a picture. We make elements of the picture connect with them. As a result, the picture has personal meaning for us. It's as if the artist has peered into our soul and made something just for us. Of course, they haven't. They've produced something personal to them. We’ve just been able to mould it to fit our own needs and perspective.
So far, nothing new had emerged from my interaction with the artist. This is where it gets interesting.
The artist had sent the print as a gift. I wanted to reciprocate. After some thought, I sent him the photograph you see here. To my eyes, it contains many of the themes that we had been talking about in relation to his own picture. It fit our dialogue.
The photograph is a metaphor for a child’s innocence and it is tinged with sadness. Children are easily duped, in particular because they have unfettered imaginations. For instance, Westerners spin a yarn about Father Christmas. Although absurd, children have no problem believing it. Their scant knowledge of the real world and their fertile imaginations combine to make the story utterly believable to them. One day, they will awaken. For now, the ruse gives them joy, so we let them persist in their ignorance.
The girl in the photograph is bonding with the dog in the window. She is drawn to it. There is interaction, communication even, in the coming together of paws and hands. But the dog, if you haven’t already noticed, is fake. Paper mache I’m guessing. That doesn’t matter to the child in the slightest. In her mind it's all real.
Of course, the trance will break. She’ll realise soon enough. She'll be pulled back into the reality of the world on her side of the glass (the world reflected in the window—a metaphor itself for the illusion of reality?). The fake world on the other side of it will cease to exist. She might feel cheated. Or she might feel foolish that she believed the dog was real. Either way, she will have lost some innocence. The cold reality of the physical world will have swept away the glow of her imagined one. It’s only a matter of time before that happens. Not just this instance here, with the paper dog. Every day, every child grows a little more aware of the reality of the world they live in. The world isn’t all bad. No. But neither can it live up to the utopian perfection of a child’s fantasy. Often, to awaken to the real world is to shackle your limitless mind.
Blimey. All that from a photograph of my daughter taken on holiday. None of it intended at the time. The photograph was simply meant to capture a moment of her history. Something she'll enjoy when she's older.
In my professional life, I must often put meaning into photographs when I take them. I intend them at the moment of capture to say something. And while I have had the experience of adding more meaning afterwards, it has always accentuated the original intended one.
In the case of the photograph of my daughter, though, I've created a new story around it years later. A cute photograph that has lain dormant on my drives for several years has now taken a firm place in my consciousness because of meaning I’ve retrospectively placed on it. For me, from where I’ve come from as a storytelling photographer, that’s borderline sacrilegious. Connecting the story after taking the picture? Are you nuts? That’s the kind of thing that gets you drummed out of the club pretty tout de suite. Tar and feathers shall be applied at the door.
It gets worse. I could end up convincing myself and others that I envisaged the meaning from the outset. To avoid the tar and feathers, I could claim that I had the insight in the moment and constructed a photograph around it. To do so would only be human. Witness any footballer (American or otherwise) whose wayward pass ended up winning the game for their team. Was it intentional? In the moment, absolutely not. In the post-match interview, it was utterly premeditated. Played for and got. Over time, the lie becomes an accepted truth that trips off the tongue with complete authority.
My artist friend is built of the right stuff. None of my readings of his work changed his stated intention for the piece. Where they matched, he said so. Where they didn't, he deflected them. Maybe that's why he's an artist and I'm not. Or maybe he was holding on to a previous interpretation handed to him by someone else that he liked better? His own long vanished. I doubt it.
Interesting questions remain. Does the intended meaning in our photographs remain the same over time? Or do we retrospectively add story and meaning to them, claiming them as having been planned?
Roger Overall is a photographer based in Cork, Ireland. Here's his website. More of his essays for TOP can be accessed in his Category in the right-hand sidebar.
©2014 by Roger Overall, all rights reserved
Original contents copyright 2014 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Frank: "Tar and feathers applied at the door. But for what? I have photographed my world with great enthusiasm since I was a child. For varying reasons. To remember. To make a stunning image of a beautiful experience. To learn. To see how I change. Most days I add a few pictures to my collection. When I delete and edit I usually also browse some other pictures. And sometimes enjoy how differently I see them now as opposed to when I took them. The reason I took them has not changed, but I have. And so may my associations or interpretations when I see them later. No need to lie about the original intent. Tar and feathers applied at the door if we do not grow and change and learn and flex our mind!"
Kenneth Tanaka (partial comment): "Take my advice for whatever it may be worth: smart artists leave meaning to their audience. Whether it's a Moore sculpture, a Chagall drawing, or an Overall photograph, the finished work is like a grown child. It will make its own way, or not, in the world. You relinquished your power to control its destined meaning when you decided it finished and sent it on its way...This is the one lesson I've firmly learned after many years hearing some of our time's most renowned living artists (across media) talk about their work."
Dennis: "This is pretty interesting stuff. This is where I, as someone lacking in education in art appreciation, get hung up. I tend to be cynical when I read artists statements of intent. I can absolutely believe that projects are often started with such intent. But they often sound like words contrived to confound that could have as easily been written afterward as beforehand.
"I've even read about projects that came together after the photographer started noticing a trend in his or her photographs taken over a period of years, and I'm inclined to believe this is common. That a photographer will shoot whatever catches his eye, and then go through his archives and look for themes. And maybe expand on them from that point. It doesn't seem dishonest to me. Maybe that's the difference between a project/series and a single photo; you can shoot the photos and decide on the series once you decide on the intent, but if you're showing a single image, coming up with a story later isn't the same. Intent plays a role in art; I don't know enough to know how big a role, but it seems that works created with clear intent are viewed differently by some than works created without that intent.
"In any case, it's a very lovely photo, and I like your interpretation of it. (I think a lot of us see lost innocence in photos of children)."
Rodger Kingston: "Garry Winogrand famously said, 'I photograph to see what the world looks like photographed.' That suggests to me that he was at least as interested in discovering what was in the image he'd made as he was in capturing what he'd seen and responded to in the first place. I find new stuff in my old photos occasionally and think of them as being something like discovering a piece of chocolate in a package I'd thought was empty."