Intent and Conceptual Depth in Landscape Photography
“In photography there is a reality so subtle that it becomes more real than reality.”
| Alfred Stieglitz
In my last blog post I questioned the lack of conceptual depth in landscape photography. To continue, with this post I’d like to emphasize that working with intent and conceptual depth are incredible tools to find meaning in your own work, to reconnect with your inner self, to heal yourself and beautifully balance the emotional side of the creative process with a more rational counter part. It further helps the viewer to create connections with concepts. In addition, we’ll be able to create a more meaningful landscape photography field that outsiders may again perceive as a discipline of the fine arts.
With these objectives, in this blog post I’d like to talk about saturation and its problems, about working with intent, about concept and conceptual depth, as well as about specific criteria you may use to identify whether your projects have theoretical sufficiency.
This post is then going to be continued with two more posts, in which I’ll, first, give some own personal as well as examples from other known photographers on different concepts in landscape photography, and then, second, to close this series of four posts with some concrete ideas for you to apply to your own work.
Saturation and Theoretical Sufficiency
There are many problems in insta-repeated, saturated art markets. First, with saturation we tend to believe that it is impossible to add anything new. We may interpret saturation as being complete and struggle to find new creatives angles and twists to photography and the arts. If we look around what others have done, we might get the impression that every possible image of a specific location has already been taken with any possible technique. I even heard of individuals quitting photography, because of that reason. In a creative, conceptually-rooted world however, there are no limits and we will never reach a full understanding.
Second, once we recognize and acknowledge the problem of saturation, we may start to over-conceptualize our work. We may parallel our photographs with loaded text and will not give the audience a chance to finish the photograph themselves. The acquisition of this text might then become more important than our interpretation of it.
Third, we may use empty bromides to flag our artistic work with. We may call it “fine art” or “expressive photography”. However, in doing so we just replace one mask with another hiding our real self and intent.
Against the backdrop of these problems, in saturated markets, where our eyes get used to the same ideas and images over and over again, what are we able to do? We may first ask ourselves, if we make snapshots, images or photographs (see my blog post about this) and whether we have reached a sufficient depth in our own work (what philosophers call “theoretical sufficiency”)?
1. Saturation is our interpretation of the art market as being complete and that we cannot add something meaningful.
2. Theoretical sufficiency is a direct response to saturation and helps is to reach a sufficient depth level in our work such that is contributes.
Before I’ll summarise some concrete steps everyone can apply, I’d like to discuss the photographer’s intention when making a photograph, define a concept, describe the idea of conceptual depth and try to create some criteria by which we can identify conceptual depth. While there are plenty of theories across many different disciplines such as philosophy, psychology, sociology or cognitive sciences, I’d like to focus on a psychological understanding of a concept in the following.
Working With Intent
The majority of photographers may not take an image just for their personal satisfaction, but in order to communicate something they felt while capturing the image. This purpose in a sense is the result of how we perceive, connect and interpret our object in the natural world at a very specific moment in time. The purpose is mainly the reason why we picked up the camera at first in the field and reacted to something that caught our eyes. Working with such an intent allows the viewers of our photograph to see and feel the world through our eyes. The photograph therefore becomes less a copy of what we saw, but rather an interpretation of what we felt. We photographers are therefore able to offer the viewer different perspectives of looking at the world, to explain them phenomena they weren’t aware or, or to raise questions they have never asked themselves before. Whether the viewer is able to feel our intent in our photograph depends on how carefully we work out our intent through our craft, skills, techniques and our visual language.
1. The photographer’s intent specifies the message to be communicated to the viewer through a photograph.
2. The intent is the result of how we perceive, connect and interpret the world.
3. We are able to work out the intent of a photograph through our craft.
What is a Concept?
How can we work out our intent? For that, we want to understand the idea of a concept and conceptual depth. When we create a series of photographs featuring mountain peaks, our mind is able to learn from all these examples, extracts similarities and supports us to create a generalisation of the concept of a mountain. This concept of a mountain is a mental representation of mountains that lives in our mind. Mental representations help our brains to identify entities, make inferences and classifications about them.
Our brains utilize our mental representations to create propositional attitudes. These attitudes characterize a set of beliefs, emotions or behaviours we hold on specific ideas. For example, we may have an attitude of respect towards nature and the mountains. Our daily behaviour is often a consequence of the attitudes we have built in our mind, whether we favor, or don’t favor, whether we have confidence or doubt, whether we accept or not influences our behavior directly. In consequence of our respect for nature, we for example may try to leave no trace whenever we are hiking out in nature.
Concepts are required building blocks for us humans to classify, learn, build memory or make decisions.
Now, when we work with a photographic intention, we build links to the viewer’s concepts and mental representations. This may influence their attitudes and even the way they behave. This is probably wishful thinking that one single photograph can change the behavior of others. However, think for example about Alfred Eisenstaedt’s photograph “V-J Day in Times Square” captured in 1945. His famous photograph of the soldier coming back home from World War II meeting the nurse mirrors the joyous end of the war. President Harry S. Truman just announced the end of the war at the so called “Victory over Japan Day.” The Times Square was crowded with people celebrating. The photograph was symbolic of the feeling of mankind and many kept that image in mind. Eisenstaedt even said that “People tell me that when I’m in heaven, they will remember this picture.” In this photograph Eisenstaedt linked the Time Square scene to concepts of love, comfort, peace or home and anchored it therefore strongly in its viewer’s eyes.
Are we photographers and artists able to create intentions that backlink to concepts that may influence other individual’s behavior to a better? Think about that photographs make others think, build attitudes and behave accordingly? Wouldn’t this be amazing if we create photographs that are “alive” and not just a copies of an element or an event in our natural world? Then, the concept would be more than a mental representation. The concept would become an ability. This is the core of what I wanted to say in my last block post. Why should be prostitute ourselves to just copy nature, when we could create work that make others think and behave?
The whole process of creating intent through a concept has a beautiful side effect. It also heals us from the inside, because we are connecting us with our true, inner self.
1. Concepts are required building blocks for us humans to classify, learn, build memory or make decisions.
2. We use concepts to form attitudes that influence our daily behavior.
3. What if we can create intentions in photography that make use of these concepts and influence attitude formation and behavior of the viewer?
What is a Concept Like?
On a very generic level, one could therefore say, that you work with an intent and back linking to a concept if you are telling a story with your photograph or your portfolio of photographs. The etymological meaning of the term “concept” is “something conceived” (Latin: Conceptual). In contrast of just taking an image or purely reacting to something with an image, a concept is created in the mind, either before taking the image (pre-conceptualization), during the image making process (conceptualization), or even after the capture itself in finalizing the image-making through editing (post-conceptualization). A concept therefore is an abstract idea we created about the story we want to tell. The classical theory of concept goes back to Aristotle and argues that concepts have a definitional structure for a set of entities, in our case, photographs. You may have a concept just for one single photograph or for a series of photographs.
Concepts basically define which photograph is part of a series and which one is not. They do this through a list of features. If the concept for example is “Islandic Landscapes 2018”, then the entities are photographs if and only if they are created 2018 in Island and contain Islandic landscapes.
If every photographs in a series of images has a specific feature, then this feature is called a “necessary feature” of the portfolio. A necessary feature might be that all photographs are taken in Island, about landscapes and captured in 2018. Other possible features could be to capture trees, or that the photographs are all captured in the blue hour. A photograph not having the necessary features, doesn’t belong to the same portfolio as it follows a different concept. Usually, photographs are either part of a concept or not, but do not belong to several concepts (“law of the excluded middle”).
In sum, if we only create a copy of a landscape, we create an image. If the image tells a story and is crafted with care, we have created a photograph. When we create a series of photographs, then we have an idea of which photographs we want to include and which we want to exclude. If we formalize this idea, we receive a concept. The concept is the story we want to tell throughout our photographs in that portfolio.
1. A concept is a tool helping us to tell a story through either one, or a series of photographs.
2. The story we want to tell is conceived and exists in our mind.
What is Conceptual Depth?
Conceptual depth can be understood as the attempt to establish theoretical sufficiency. It describes our intensity of percolating a concept. Its purpose is to create a sufficient depth to our photographs.
If you create a series of photographs about “Islandic landscapes 2018”, chances are that you might not have the same amount and intensity of stories to tell compared to for example Sebastião Salgado’s work that is loaded with political purpose exposing the social and environmental problems facing our planet. I’ll talk more about Salgado in my next post, but he was potentially only able to create such meaningful deep conceptual projects about clashing social, cultural and geographical structure, because he immersed himself into local communities to not only show individuals in their living context, but confront them with it. Just by looking at these two cases, we might say that they have a different level of conceptual depth. Why is that the case and where does this depth come from?
1. If we enrich our intent through different mental concepts, we create conceptual depth.
2. Conceptual depth shows how intense we immersed ourselves into the concept.
What are Criteria for Conceptual Depth?
With the following list, I’d like to develop some criteria you may use for validating if your work has conceptual depth, or not.
A good concept is often a consequence of and correlated with the time spent into immersing ourselves into the context of the concept. If our concept has to do with Island, we are very well advised to spend some serious amount of time there, live it through the saisons, talk to the local people, or participate in their culture. If our concept has to do with Brazilian gold mines in Brazil, such as Salgado’s work on “Migration and Workers”, then we may want to live in these communities, understand their needs and see their daily lives. By consequence, we got deeply involved in our concept. (We may even become part of the concept).
In parallel to immersing ourselves into the context of our concept, research will help us to better understand the local environment, its challenges and threats, the cultural traditions, rituals and norms, as well as the daily routines. All this knowledge supports us finding different layers of signification we may use to tell our story and support our intent.
3. Layers of Signification
In order to convey and communicate the concept of a photograph, the photographer may use different “layers of signification”. I borrowed this idea from Rafael Rojas’ great eBook “The Photographic Message”. The most important layer is the subject of the photograph itself. This layer is informative for the viewer and puts him into the scene itself. By framing the viewer has the chance to be immersed into the scene almost as in reality. Symbolism can be used or other visual metaphors as other layers giving the viewer a chance to link the subject matter with a cultural background. For example a temple, a church, a cross or a traffic light may be symbolic for certain ideas. We can raise questions, show abstractions or present the subject matter in a mysterious am ambiguous context. The combination of these layers creates an effect on the viewer and should be used to sharpen the intent.
A good concept is rooted in and linked to other concepts. Knowledgeable artists invest a significant amount of time into research and investigate what similar concepts and frameworks exist, what different dimensions in the concept can be identified, or what other artists already created to operationalize or express a similar concept. They try to identify and understand connections between concepts and often come up with a virtual map of all these concepts and their interrelations to each other.
It might be easier to convey conceptual depth through a series of work that provides and gives evidence to the concept. The number of photographs added to a series might be called the range of work. A high quality portfolio might then be one in which each single photograph in it offers a new, different perspective on and meaning to the concept compared to all others. In a good portfolio, the same meaning might not be found twice. The challenge is to add as many photographs to a portfolio as necessary to convey the concept, but as few as possible to preserve its impact and story-telling ability. One specific photograph within a series should therefore not be seen nor interpreted in isolation from the others.
1. Conceptual depth can be realized through immersing in the context of your photograph, through intense research, added layers of signification, complexity or a range of photographs in a series.
2. Conceptual depth is not necessary for a good photograph telling an impactful story. However, the best photographs often sufficiently link back to meaningful concepts.
In this second blog post about conceptual depth, I tried to describe that working with intent and concepts can be a very meaningful, impactful and satisfying tool in photography. I talked about saturation and its problems, about working with intent, about concept and conceptual depth, as well as about specific criteria you may use to identify whether your projects have theoretical sufficiency.
In the next post, I’ll give some own personal as well as examples from other well-known photographers on different concepts in landscape photography, and then, second, to close this series of four posts with some concrete ideas for you to apply to your own work.
Thanks for your interest and reading!
Related other articles from my blog:
– Conceptual Depth in Landscape Photography
– About Stillness
– About Success in Photography and Life
– Creating a Personal Style or Finding Identity?
– The Unassuming Traveller
– Rafael Rojas, The Photographic Message, in: Essential Seeing, 2019.