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Sunday, 29 September 2013


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"Congress working together harmoniously for the good of the country."
Sadly, an oxymoron. Its an event which this country hasn't experienced in most of our lifetimes-if ever. Since we don't have the experience, and it seems unlikely that we will anytime soon, the phrase conjures a fantasy wish fulfillment like "world peace" or "universal disarmament" or "universal love".

Interesting ideas Mike. There's no question that photographs can conjure up associations, and the more those associations resonate with the viewer the more appeal the photograph has for that person.

I don't think that a universal connotation is necessarily a cliché -- it's all in how it's used. A universal connotation, if used well, creates a broader audience for the photo. The photographs that are most loved, appreciated, and popular must, almost by definition, conjure up some universal, or nearly universal, associations; there's something about them that triggers an emotional response in a broad range of people.

For example, there's the famous photograph of the young woman kneeling over the body of a student who was shot at Kent State in 1970. The power of the photograph comes from the pain and despair in the woman's face. It's only a photograph, but the image affects us because her expression conjures up feelings of pain and sadness, feelings that everyone is familiar with.

I wouldn't call you Grandpa, yet!

Mind the rabbit on the red and white tablecloth is the same situation as those who
were once members of The Hat & Rabbit Club.
A club composed of amateur magicians.

Obviously both the rabbit and the club had a checkered career.

Mike wrote, "(It's annoying having all my books put away—I'd go find and reread that passage otherwise, and could talk about it a bit more intelligently.)"

Just one more reason to buy a Kindle or Nook. In this case, the passage is available in the book preview on Amazon. Page 97. It begins, "Look -- here's a table covered with a red cloth ... "

This lady had/has to conjure her whole world.

The blindness was terrifying. But it also forced Pierson to expand her ability to solve puzzles in her mind. As she listened to her doctors and other people, she began to “see” them as what she calls “glow globs,” patterns of light with different properties. Then she recognized patterns within descriptions others gave her—such as how items were arranged in a grocery store or how the figures on a spreadsheet interconnected. “I learned to create a cognitive map of the world, sort of like The Matrix,” she says. “I see the world in my head.”

And she turned it into a business.

As a man in my early 60s, Benn's book, Kodachrome Memories tapped into our shared connotations when I looked at his images. I have been there, was part of the culture, felt the times and lived the color. My connection with the images was immediate and evoked a strong emotion.

The irony of his book is that now everything is different but everything is the same.

I wonder if much younger viewer connected with the images.

During the life of Robert Browning societies were devoted to interpreting his poetry. When one woman asked Robert Browning what a particular poem meant, he replied "Madam, when I write a poem only God and I know what it meant and sometimes I forget.

The problem is more severe than even suggested here. There are lots of historical descriptions of things that are baffling now.

And context changes meaning - "Pat slept outside in the cold" has one meaning in an age when all dwellings were pretty miserable inside and outside was only mildly worse, versus the current era where outside could be stunningly worse.

To an even greater extent than in wordy Western literature, traditional Japanese haiku depends heavily upon the shared cultural connotations and natural images unique to Feudal Japan to convey a scene or mood so completely yet succinctly.

That's probably why traditional haiku often seems more obscure to modern Western readers than to its intended audience. As with the Asimov story, that's not necessarily a bad thing, but it makes for a different experience for modern readers.

Good words to read read & think about on a Sunday, Mike. They resonate with something I've been considering a lot over the past while. Not all photographs need to tell a story, of course. But those that do can tell any or all of three types of stories. For the longest time I only thought about the first two: the stories of my subjects, and the stories of myself experiencing or interacting with my subjects.

Those two areas of storytelling seem the most straight forward and prescriptively possible to approach. Our subjects and ourselves are knowable to at least some extent, and we can incorporate that knowledge into the storytelling at the time of making a photograph; or more especially a body of work.

It was hardly original thinking on my part, but still somewhat eye-opening, to realize that work that really connects and "sticks" with viewers in many cases does so because of a third kind of storytelling. These photographs facilitate the stories of the viewers. Much like putting a message in a bottle and setting it adrift, for the most part I don't know who the viewers are, or anything about them, including whether they can even understand my language. But if I can show something that they can tap into to remember, relive or tell their own stories, then on one level they don't really need to know what I was trying to say. As long as some root connotation gets across, then it means something to them. That's a pretty cool thing...

At least one mystery writer, Sue Grafton (author of the series beginning with A is for Alibi and continuing through most of the alphabet by now), has deliberately held her stories back in the pre-cell phone era (and has to explain this in an introduction).

I do read books from decades before my time, or even centuries, and enjoy them. Some that were originally written that far back (ones written more recently, "historical novels", are of course written by a modern writer, for a modern audience, and should be written to be comprehensible to modern readers). For that matter, Foyle's War and Downton Abbey are quite popular TV series (WWII, and roughly WWI vintage).

Mike, maybe some Sunday you could have a go at Semiotics. You may be approaching it when you speak of "shared experience" and how it is perceived by an individual or a group. Have you ever delved into Semiotics ?

All the words are doing is reminding you of something you might already know.' That's essentially what most street photographs are about, too. Without recalling a viewer's fuller sensory experience of, say, a city environment, a picture of people in the street is, at best, dull and not even decorative.

I remember reading an article by a nature photographter (it might have been Galen Rowell, but then again, it might not) talking about familiarity, and how, if you're selling photographs in a local market, you might do well by not producing the 5,000th photo of a cottontail or a white-tailed deer. It featured a photograph of a white-tailed deers ears sticking up out of tall grass, and suggested that this photo will be instantly identifiable to many people, despite most of the subject being hidden. On the other hand, if the photo were shown to someone not familiar with deer, or a photo of an exotic animal were shown to a New Englander, (a) it might be confusing if shown the same way and (b) the viewer might be content seeing a more traditional view, because he or she is not so jaded by familiarity. Or at least that's how I remember the article. (These days, we're so bombarded with photos that I don't know if there's much that isn't familiar, but it was interesting, anyway).

Mike, don't agree that the vividness comes from prior experience - it is the imposition of a belief. I remember an old radio horror show as a kid in which whomever was caught by the whatever the monster was (never described) ended up "turned inside out". My imagination supplied the horror, which was not experienced.

'All the words are doing is reminding you of something you might already know.' That's essentially what most scenic landscape photographs are about, too. Without recalling a viewer's fuller sensory experience of, say, a mountain environment, a picture of mountains is, at best, decorative and dull.' (Kenneth Tanaka)

Ken, with all due respect, don't you think that is what all elements in all pictures-not-totally-abstract require of the viewer, whether they're candid, street, landscape or whatever? What enormous differences in connotation and meaning we feel when we see either the front wheel of a toy tricycle or a racing bike, a tarmac or a brick road, a running shoe or a high heeled one! And almost always those connotations (however personal they may be) are essential to the appreciation of the image. Without those connotations, all figurative images are meaningless, dull or just chaotic. Only, in those scenes that are so familiar to us we just cannot imagine them to be otherwise, we are less conscious of the fact that recalling previous sensory experience of same is still playing its necessary part as much as anywhere else, I would say.

In the Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald has a 'flashback' section where Gatsby comes down south to find Daisy after the war, she won't see him, or get back together with him, and he describes leaving town via rail and how the town in now dead for him. It's quite striking, and when I first read it, it really resonated with me in regards to every lost love I ever had. Powerful. Fitzgerald is a power house for me, especially about the "American Condition" of money, love and status; and the Great Gatsby is one of favorite books: I keep a copy in the car, and have that particular scene described above outlined...

Fitzgerald is often accused of being 'too simplistic', but I find his power to describe things in easy terms and illicit an emotion, to be something extraordinary! I read the Great Gatsby every few years, and find it's powers undiminished, and a 'tonic' against what I like to refer to as the modern "Iowa Writers School" process of pages and pages of over-description, losing track of the plot in the process.

This is to a large extent how all art works. In order to connect with a viewer, an audience, it has to hook on to things that are already in that audience's head.

A photograph, being so very very compact, has in a way a harder time of it. It does not have another paragraph, or stanza, or scene, to fall back on if this one does not pan out. This is it, either it connects or it fails. But see remarks below on portfolios!

On the other hand, a photograph has an easier time, being (often) of real things, of things that are very like things we have seen before. We know what people look like, and are very very good at interpreting their emotions from their faces. We know about houses and cars and trees and so on. Normally, we have some pre-built feelings and reactions to all these things, that the picture just has to touch.

When you start looking at a portfolio of pictures, the story gets even more complicated, since now the viewer has some other recently seen pictures in their mind. Their Most Recent Experience is of other pictures in the portfolio. A group of pictures, each of which is a total bust, can cohere into something quite strong when presented together, for this reason. Collectively, they can connect in ways that a single picture really cannot.

This is the kind of thing that's very interesting to me, forgive my rambling!

I've read many times that you'll get more out of pictures if you bring something to them, and I believe that to be true. Just leave us something to make the trip worth while, we want to rest these thoughts and feelings at the right place. It's why we're taking pictures, it's why we're viewing pictures. We're all just looking for people who get us

This idea of "conjuring in a viewer" reminds me of the "Photographic Gaze" which is often covered at University. In a photo there are at least 3 gazes (if it's of a person), the gaze of the photographer, that of the subject of the photograph, and the gaze of the viewer. Whilst the gaze of the viewer and that of the photographer will often align, they can be wildly different. It is something that we were encouraged to consider, to think about how our photographs will be disseminated and viewed by others (and what inferences people may take from them), especially if they were to tell a story or had an over-arching narrative.

It is also one of the reasons I have encouraged beginners to learn to "critique and comment" on the works of others, especially if they feel that they are not experienced enough to do so. As understanding their own response to an image is the first step in understanding how others might feel and will ultimately help their creation of images. Of course if your photos are just for yourself then this is less important, but it is an often overlooked part of photography for many people. Partly that's because once you start to delve into the more cerebral appreciation/discussion of photography it can easily degenerate into nothing more than "academic penis waving" which, frankly, makes people switch off.

"Turkey Man" did this for me. As a kid, my family raised chickens, turkeys, and ducks, not many, just few of each. That photo instantly made me SMELL the chicken barn, and try to blink the dust out of my eyes, or clear my throat the moment I saw it. Not really a fond memory, but a particularly persistant one. I liked "Turkey Man" best out of the contenders, because I could relate to the scene, and fear that my kids may never experience anything like it.

Dogman's apocryphal Hemingway anecdote in its purest form is that Hemingway said he could write a novel in six words:

For sale; baby shoes. Never used.

I have on one occasion really wanted to photograph smell. The scene was a rather gloomy looking couple, sitting by and staring out of the window of a vegetarian restaurant, while the air outside was positively potent with the smell of the second annual bacon festival in a neighboring street.

@ Ed Hawco, regarding the apocryphal Hemingway story, the alleged novel is pure Papa. Two-thirds of the work is one long sentence!


More fun is the short story (the author suggests it is a novel) "El dinosaurio" by Augusto Monterroso.

"Cuando despertó, el dinosaurio todavía estaba allí."

"When he awoke, the dinosaur was still there." (my traslation)

You should publish a book of TOP comments Mike. I rarely fail to be amazed at the depth of experience, feelings and knowledge shown by TOP readers in their comments. For example - the previous group of comments had little if anything to do with photography, everything to do with the written word - Hemingway, Browning, Haiku ...... the letters dealt with numerous reactions and emotions ...... yet somehow it all connects back, no matter how indirectly, to feelings and visions that can be brought out in the act of photographing and by the end product.
Usually, when two guys ("friends-lite") talk, they don't often talk about their emotions, pleasures and pains, present and past, smells and sounds and
fears and joys, things they've seen and things they've read - everything
that can bring a tear or a smile. It's much more superficial, understandably
so. Imagine the listener suicide rate if every acquaintance actually told you
how they were this fine day, how Betty and the kids are, their job in the
city - all his accumulated laundry, pain, and to a lesser degree, joy.
Yet, in these small comments a lot of grown men (and occasional women) often reveal happinesses and terrors, memories of childhoods, longings, old loves and losses, acquired knowledge, un self-censored feelings that in a one-to-one might leave them feeling exposed and vulnerable - and only semi anonymously. (By the way, the vast majority of commenters appear to be men - please correct me if mistaken.) 
Unlike many, I don't usually have the right words easily at my fingertips - suffice to say I learn every day from your contributor-commenters. Often, I've been taken to their sites, their pictures, their writing, and although I may not always agree, I never feel manipulated nor assaulted. Logic doesn't have to hit you in the face like a pie - it can come at you gently and ask you along on a journey. 
I never fail to be surprised - I never fail to pick up a new tid-bit or two.

BRAVO to everyone who comments openly about their experiences and feelings and shares knowledge - I know it's a cliche but it's heartfelt - thank you indeed for sharing.

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