different kinds of meaningful

by julie posted March 25, 2008

It’s almost like those discussions about style that do the rounds every once in a while, wondering about meaning in photography. I suppose it’s something you naturally consider once you get to a certain stage in your own photographic development (ugh, pun definitely not intended) and start to consider what it’s all about, maybe you feel like you want to move on to a new level of sophistication and do more than just make something that’s aesthetically pleasing. I’m basing this scenario mostly on myself but I’ve noticed hints here and there that others are having the same experience.

A couple of the comments on another post touch on the subject, and there are little elements coming together from other blogs, books and articles I’ve read recently that are starting to form a clearer picture. Unsurprisingly, I don’t think there’s a clear answer, or solution.

The clearest philosophy I could conceive of is that if you shoot what you genuinely care about and have an interest in, the work you produce is far more likely to mean something. To you. And there’s the sticking point. You can rarely, if ever, control what your finished image means to a viewer. (I’m covering no new ground here, of course, but that was never really the point.) I must admit though, at this particular stage in my own development, I’m not too concerned about the viewer as an external influence on my photography – for good or bad, it’s how I feel. Logically and theoretically this would mean that if I’m making images where all I care about is what they mean to me, I could go down a path which leads me away from making fulfilling and accessible images and end up with an inflated sense of my own importance, not having the tempering effect of the opinion of others – but I don’t think it’s harmful to go at least a little way down it, for a certain time, after having done nothing but listen to, emulate, and try to please others since the beginning of my interest in photography. What I do hope is that it will allow me to get a sense of working without the constant urge to seek approval from others, and get closer to what is authentically me.

I’ve been struggling with the concept of introducing meaning to my images by the process of thinking of something, then going out to make a photograph that conveys (or attempts to convey) what I was thinking. But the whole palaver seemed forced, awkward, difficult and more than a little contrived. It reinforced my opinion that I work best when reacting directly to what’s in front of me. I’ve conceded that while people can infuse their images with meaning this way, it just isn’t right for me, and trying to force myself to do it just makes me unhappy. While I can appreciate others’ work of that nature (those plastic surgery equipment shots of Cara Phillips spring to mind), mostly what I react to in my own photography and in that of others are the low-level biological sensations that aren’t necessarily based on concepts and ideas. It’s purely visual pleasure. What I’m fighting against at the moment is that purely visual pleasure is somehow not worthwhile, that it’s easy, that it’s the photographic equivalent of jingly jangly pop music.

It does occur to me, though, that there’s another approach. On a recent trip to the botanics I pulled back slightly from the macro shots, and started to include the environment. I noticed that I was drawn to shooting the rear of flowerpots (a new fetish, maybe?!) through glass where you could see the side not intended to face the audience, as well as the old glasshouses no longer in use, with the odd abandoned cactus and creeping ivy. I became more interested in the structure of the glasshouses and how it sometimes reflected and sometimes mirrored the structure of the plants inside. I tried to get a feeling for the atmosphere of the place when the sprays came on and the sun cut through the humidity and made the place feel almost like a church or temple of some sort (whether the heat affected my mental state I can’t say) Anyway, the point I was trying to make is that I wasn’t conscious of changing my approach. I did it instinctively, and when I got home and looked at my shots I knew there was something going on there. And something tells me that it only happened because I’ve been there so many times, because I was in a particularly receptive state of mind on the day, and because I wasn’t trying too hard.

I’m glad I’ve chosen to base my SoFoBoMo project on the same place. I just have to hope that I don’t get bogged down and put myself under pressure to feel that again, so that I can be receptive to whatever comes to me next time. I think there’s a middle ground of meaning to be found.

6 Responses to different kinds of meaningful

  1. “… it only happened because I’ve been there so many times, because I was in a particularly receptive state of mind on the day, and because I wasn’t trying too hard.”

    i’ve noticed that my best work comes out of a kind of ego-less state, which makes the last of those three the most important (to me).

  2. It’s just all so zen… ;)

  3. […] Over on Julie O’Donnell’s blog this morning, I found this excellent post on meaning and photography. […]

  4. Good post on a topic we all share – what am I looking for, why am I doing this… especially with the flood of images all around us. So your comment – It’s just all so zen… – did strike a chord too. Because it is.

    Probably someone has or will do a photography book subtitled ‘The Zen of Seeing”. Looking with mindfulness – searching where to shoot, what to frame, seeing new things in post-production that lead you to look for something else…

  5. I think this might be along the lines of what you’re thinking of dk :)

  6. I used to tell myself that I didn’t need outside approval of my photographic efforts, but I was fooling myself. Fact is, and I hate to admit this, I do care. I think we all should care. I’m not suggesting we allow our work to be influenced by acceptance or rejection, but rather to use the attention of others as inspiration for our work.

    As for forcing meaning into images, I think you’ve got it right, Julie, with your greenhouse story. “Meaning” will come from within you when the time, subject, atmospher, and mood all align, not from wishing or hoping or trying too hard. Pretty cool when that happens, eh?

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