Friday, March 09, 2007

Who Determines the Meaning in a Photograph?

In the last week or so there have been lots of posts on the meaning in a photograph. Can the photographer control the meaning? Can just the image convey the photographer's meaning? Or does it also need words? Does the each viewer find their own meaning in the photograph? It is an interesting discussion between the entries and the commentaries and most of the time I'm left feeling that it is semantics but if you want to read some of the thoughts on the subject....
Paul Butzi's blog, Photo Musings: here, here and here.
Mark Hobson's blog, The Landscapist: here, here and here.

I think if you were to ask Dave Anderson, who recently published a book of photographs he made in Vidor, Texas, he would tell you that the photographer has no control over the meaning attached to images by viewers. The book is called Rough Beauty.

In an article titled The Town Shows Its Face, If Not Its Reputation published in the New York Times, Anderson says, the photographs in the book, came out of the affection he developed for the small town; he considers them largely sympathetic portrayals of the beauty he sees in life “close to the bone,” as he put it.

That is not the way the town sees the images or the book and they have contacted the Houston Gallery where the images were recently shown as well as Anderson with threats. They don't view the images as sympathetic portrayals at all.

Personally, I think we, the photographers, can do our work and try to put in the meaning but we have no control after the work is finished. To paraphrase an old saying, The meaning is in the eye (and mind) of the beholder.

Postscript: I hope you'll read the article. It is a pretty interesting story about how Anderson came to photography and to his first book of photography.


pitchertaker said...

Probably your comment on Butzi's blog is correct -- we can only put the work up there, and the more connected we are with what we're doing, the better for both you and the viewer. I often use the comment I read about Fredrick Evans' advice to beginning photograher: photograph you subject again and again until your viewer has some of feeling you had when you made the image. Most of the time if we can get across 10% to the viewer, we are wildly successful (to whom I don't know).


Taryn said...

Where does this leave photojournalism? I've never understood the work I am supposed to be doing in that field. I am supposed to tell "truth" but I control so much with my camera and nothing with other's interpretation, so where on earth does that leave me?

Billie said...

That is a good question and I don't have an answer.