In part I, we discussed how idea was the basis for every photograph and in Part 2, we looked at the source of those ideas, our Core. In Part 3, I want to explore how the idea works in the creation of a photograph beyond just the immediate response.
I think that most of us will recognize that as we progress with our photography, our choices as to what we photograph start to become more selective. While there might be several reasons for this, one of the primary factors is that we are developing a system of priorities as to what we find of interest to photograph. Another way of saying this might be that we are finding some things more important to us than others. We are beginning to refine our idea of what photography is for us and what we want it to express to others.
As an example of what I mean here is that maybe someone interested in street photography might decide they are most interested in social issues while for another it might be odd and humorous juxtapositions. One landscape photographer might be interested in the grandeur of nature while another the environment. These same concerns might translate across genres but one might also develop criteria that are more universal in nature. The point is that we end up developing a framework from which we photograph and then evaluate what we photographed. And, depending on our criteria, our photographs will look different from those who are working with different concerns/ideas even if we shoot the same things.
This refinement of our idea about photography will vary in its depth as to how personal and specific it becomes. We each find a balance that works for us and the way photography fits into our lives. It should also be recognized that this is a process and we might find that our criteria develop and modify over time.
As mentioned above, how personal and unique those things of meaning are will be part of what determines how our photographs look and maybe even how well others respond to them. The more personal our criteria and ideas, the less likely others will immediately understand our images. This is the reason that we often will look at an artist’s work and not connect with or understand what they are doing. This could be a topic for an entire book, however, the important thing here is that we recognize that as photographer/artists we will develop a framework, one with a hierarchy of considerations, for determining what a meaningful photograph is for us. It should be noted here that this doesn’t preclude us from creating a variety of images and ones that don’t fit into this framework. It is just that those that are more important and rewarding for us will generally fall within the criteria we have developed for ourselves.
One of the reasons that I introduced Henry Wessel and Jeff Wall is that while both are well-respected photographers we have also heard, in their own words, how different their approaches to creating a photograph are. This will give us a look into how this framework of meaning can work in different ways within the creative process. Wessel works in a more “animalistic” responsive way to what he sees whereas Wall suggests that while he might see something of interest, he doesn’t photograph it but walks away to contemplate the photograph he will later make to recreate what he saw. My suggestion here is that these two approaches are more similar than it might appear on first glance. Both rely on a strong, personal framework of what is meaningful in a photograph. (The videos where they express there ways of working, in case you missed them, are here: Henry Wessel; Jeff Wall)
So, the first thing we should recognize from their description of their process is that both create photographs due to their responses to a visual stimulus—a response seeded in their framework of meaning. It might be easy to see this in Wessel, as there is the direct response of lifting the camera and shooting. But isn’t it also a direct response to notice and take note/remember/catalog the idea? Both will return from an outing with things they need to edit and evaluate. Wall evaluates the ideas he has captured for creating photographs in the future while Wessel evaluates the ideas he captured in his photographs—both are determining if those ideas are worth pursuing to the next step. Neither is guaranteed that any image will ultimately be successful although Wessel is certainly closer to that determination. As Wall later creates his photograph, he will revisit all of these same steps.
How each of their photographs look and what ideas that they convey are due to the fact that both of these photographers have highly personal views of what is meaningful to them and what they want to express through their photographs. It is important to understand here that it isn’t a matter of this framework determining the specific meaning of an individual photograph but rather that the photograph’s meaning measures up to the standard set by that framework.
When I am photographing for myself I work more like Wessel, as do most of the photographers I know. Creating an image on a commercial assignment is more like working as Wall does, although commercially the idea or parameters for the photograph are generated externally. (But it should be recognized that the reason an art director or designer will hire someone from across the country or world is because of that photographer’s artistic sensibilities, which are a direct result of the framework of meaning they have developed. There would be no reason to look beyond one’s own city if all photographers, all other things being equal, looked at things in the same way.)
My own development of what is meaningful and thus my framework of meaning came largely through my digging more deeply into what the possibilities in photography were as well as my interests before I ever picked up a camera. When I started to photograph in the late 70’s, I merely wanted to document the wonderful things I saw when I was backpacking. But the first framework for my photographs was simply one dominated by the process of making an image. I shot everything and was amazed at my creations! Eventually, my framework morphed back into the more specific interest in the grand landscape and the beauty of the natural environment that made me buy the camera in the first place. But this also came after searching out different ideas, such as wildlife photography etc., which I determined didn’t hold as great an importance or interest to me. After some time pursuing the grand landscape, I felt that I needed to do more and use photography as a deeper form of self-expression. This was in response to things already in my Core but was also stimulated by a greater awareness of what others were doing with art and photography as well as various things I was reading at the time. My framework became more in line with the tradition of the Equivalent and seeking images that were more metaphoric than documentary. Of course, I developed my own sense of what this meant as I didn’t seek out images that were equivalents of my emotions but rather ones that were more contemplative and maybe less resolved as disconnects from reality or what the subject was.
So, when I go out to photograph, the types of things that I respond to generally come from that well-defined system of what is meaningful to me in an image, my reason for photographing. When I am working on a series, I am generally drawing on those same criteria, however, I may overlay some additional criteria when determining which images will work or not in that series. Generally, that is some more specific idea that I wanted to explore and the work needs to support that idea to be included in that body of work.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that I wont or can’t create images that don’t fully meet this more foundational set of criteria but they might meet the need or criteria that the specific photograph was intended to fill. Shooting commercially, this might be the client’s need. For personal work, I might just want to document something that I see without further consideration. There might also be the occasion where I see something that sparks an idea that may be outside of what I might normally consider as important. If I find there is merit in that new idea, then I will adjust my criteria for what is a successful photograph for that body of work although that criteria will probably share much with my more foundational set.
This might all raise the question as to what your framework of meaning is and why is it what it is. The depth of that framework, how personal and individual it is, will largely be a function of where photography fits into your life as well as how you use it-your purpose or reason for photographing.
This is certainly something we can ponder but also might open new ways for us to look at others work, especially the work of others that we don’t understand or respond to immediately. Maybe they are working in a realm we aren’t aware of or have been exposed to before.
I’d love to hear your thoughts and perspectives on this, so feel free to leave a comment.