Finding Meaning in Photography

“There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.”
Anselm Adams


Where Does Meaning in Photography Come From?

These days, thanks to the power of social media, we see a large variety of often technically brilliant images of the same locations, angled from the same perspective, edited in very similar presets without conveying any emotion and meaning to me. Without the latter, the image is meaningless, fuzzy and worthless to me.

Photographers should (and do) however spend time of finding interesting locations, scouting angles, weather or tide conditions and invest effort to making the photograph. Looking back, the photographer may mostly find value in this work as he has a memory of this effort. The viewer however does not have this memory and seeks to find the meaning of a photograph.

How can he find and add meaning to an images that makes it worth, and valuable?

Let’s potentially start first by asking ourselves what “meaning” means. Meaning is one of the ultimate human questions that has made many philosophers busy for millenniums. And just by framing this question, we may represent a plethora of follow-up questions that might not be answerable at all.

The most useful working definition of meaning that I found is that meaning is a relationship between a phenomenon and a subject. It varies across individuals, time, contexts and scopes. We create meaning through perception and linking phenomenon to symbolic systems. Language is one such a symbolic system through which we link for example white puffy things in the sky to the word “cloud”. In principle, we have all the freedom to design meanings in any way we may wish and norms regulate these meanings making them being accepted by a larger group of individuals. Through these processes, we create consciousness of our world.

Based on this working definition, one can potentially distinguish “meaning in a photograph” from “meaning through photographing”. I’d like to focus on the former, not finding meaning in life through photography. This potentially gives room for another blog post.

How do we create meaning? Meaning IN a photograph is an intent which I desire to convey in communicating my photograph to a viewer. A good photograph helps me therefore to feel, know or understand something. I seek to capture scenes under a certain frame that distills the essence of that contextual moment. When we are present with the phenomenon or object to photograph, we are giving it  value. Through observing the object, we learn more about it’s character and personality. We learn how it looks in different light, with different tides, in the movement of the wind, or from different angles. Once we learn about the object, we can decide on how to present it in a photograph. Through using our photographic principles of emphasis, unity, movement, balance, rhythm, pattern or contrast and elements such as lines, shapes, layers, space, frames, value, color and texture we form the photographic composition as a whole. Light and atmosphere are very important tools helping us to apply the principles on our elements. If I look at my photograph, I can self-reflectively decide on how well it transports my intention and gives the meaning I’d like to convey. By allowing many different interpretations of meaning, we create a confusion about what is conveyed. This ambiguity often is intentional in fine art. It offers the viewer the opportunity to find himself in the art. On the other hand, I can narrow the number of interpretations down through the composition of the photograph. Additional text, stories and b-role material further support creating a narrower interpretational space of the photograph.

How is meaning created in the viewer? No matter what meaning and interpretational space we created in our photograph, the photograph has to speak to the viewer about that point of the photograph we wanted to convey. How does this work? The viewer may first search for things and symbols in the photograph he knows, and that he can recognize. He may then mentally add labels to these, such as river, mountain, cloud, or tree. He may go one step further. Certain things may not only trigger a label, but an emotional state or attribute. A cloud may trigger facility, an owl wisdom, the absence of light fear. Then the viewer may start connecting things in the photograph following the tools we created for him (e.g. leading his eye through light, contrast, or color). Together, these links and the labels may result in a affective reaction about the scenery, but also in a cognitive dispute.

In the future, I’ll be more concrete and talk about tools helping us to create meaning. In my next blog post I will therefore talk about the difference between snapshots, images and photographs.

Looking back into your last photograph, which meaning did you want to convey?