Photography As Art Forum

This forum is for artists who use a camera to express themselves. If your primary concern is meaning and symbolism in photography, then you've come to the right place. Please respect other community members and their opinions when discussing the meaning of "art" or meaning in images. If you'd like to discuss one of your photos, please upload it to the photo gallery, and include a link to that gallery page in your post. Moderators: Irakly Shanidze, Megan, Asylum Steve
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  1. #1
    misanthrope
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    Does a photo need to say something?

    I get asked a lot and other people are often asked, "What are you trying to say with this photo?"
    But personally I don't always shoot with a message in mind. If someone says "Gee, that picture is really _____," and no one else has that opinion, then I smile inwardly, feeling like I did something right. I like the idea of giving people an opportunity to interpret an image in any way they see fit. I know we all interpret images differently, but there are images we make with an easy-to-recognize, obvious message. There are also images we make that take some thought to analyze the meaning, if there is one at all. Which do you prefer? Anyone have a take on this?
    "We've all been raised by television to believe that one day we'll all be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars -- but we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed off."

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  2. #2
    Moderator Irakly Shanidze's Avatar
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    Re: Does a photo need to say something?

    I do not like analyzing images. What I do like is when image makes you come back, and every time you are looking at it it evokes different emotions, every time you are noticing something new, and it happens not because you've overlooked something before, but because you see it every time on a more and more sophisticated level.

    Quote Originally Posted by Outdoorsman
    I get asked a lot and other people are often asked, "What are you trying to say with this photo?"
    But personally I don't always shoot with a message in mind. If someone says "Gee, that picture is really _____," and no one else has that opinion, then I smile inwardly, feeling like I did something right. I like the idea of giving people an opportunity to interpret an image in any way they see fit. I know we all interpret images differently, but there are images we make with an easy-to-recognize, obvious message. There are also images we make that take some thought to analyze the meaning, if there is one at all. Which do you prefer? Anyone have a take on this?

  3. #3
    don't tase me, bro! Asylum Steve's Avatar
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    No rules...

    Great topic, O-man. It should lead to some interesting replies, as I'd imagine people feel many different ways about this. IMO, whether a photo has to "say" something goes hand in hand with whether the creator believes their work is expression or depiction.

    Photographers who use the medium as an avenue of expression (usually) are expressing something specific. Those who simply try to capture a wonderful or interesting scene or lighting (again my opinion) are more apt to present an image at face value and let the viewer judge it for themselves.

    Now of course, I think both of these pursuits are fine if that's what you want, and it must be said that a viewer can (and will) put their own ideas and meaning to ANY photo, regardless of whether the artist was trying to say something or not.

    Personally, my work (like many) is a mix of expression and depiction. Sometimes, I try to share a very specific emotion or attitude. Other times I simply enjoy capturing a scene for the strength of its visuals alone...

    I agree with Irakly that ambiguity or "layers of meaning" can be a powerful element to an image. An image that tries to "say" something but does it in an abstract or not so obvious way causes the view to think much more, thus giving the photo more power and life...
    "Riding along on a carousel...tryin' to catch up to you..."

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  4. #4
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    Re: Does a photo need to say something?

    What is, and what isn't, expressing something? It's definately in the eyes of the beholder more than the photographer.

    Think of a photo of a person. People who know this person all think the photo is great. It cought that person's nuances and personality on film. Others who don't know that person may think her smile, pose, or whatever, may look contrived, wrong, stiff, and so on. There's not much you can do about it. If the goal is to take a picture FOR or OF that person, it was achieved it irregardless of what some may think. If the goal is to make a shot for me or a third party, I may have missed and should probably have made the pose, smile,ect, really contrived! Then I, or the third party, may like it better.

    Now take nature photography. I see a beatiful scene, decide what I like about it, and try and capture that on film (or in a file). My thoughts when I look at this are probably much different than yours. If people like looking at that image, whatever their thoughts are, I've succeeded. It doesn't matter to me if it stirs some deeply emotional pot or they just like the beauty of it.

    I suppose for me, that more often than not I'm not trying to evoke a specific emotion out of someone. I do hope people look at my nature shots and think this is something we should preserve, not exploit.

    Now, I wonder if guys like van gogh, monet, picasso, and others tried to evoke an emotion from the viewer in their paintings? Or did they just have some idea in there head and paint it? I can't imagin starry night having some deeply profound meaning. I would think it was, as well as most others, painted at face value and to let others decide.

    In that vain, I suppose I'm more the face value person.

  5. #5
    misanthrope
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    Re: Does a photo need to say something?

    I was rooting through a box of books in the garge this morning (I have an allergy to sleeping it seems) and I found a book of Jim Morrison's poetry. There was a quote on the back cover (not exact): "Listen, real poetry doesn't say anything. It opens doors an the reader can walk through any one that suits him."
    I like that and I would like to think that my photography works the same way.
    While knowing the intent of the photographer can be very helpful in interpreting the image or understanding it, I would disagree that the intent should have to be told to the viewer. The photo, I think, should say this on its own with absolutely no explanation from anyone. I learned this early on when I got serious about writing. I got tired of having to explain my stories or other works to people who didn't understand. I complained about this to my creative writing teacher (12th grade) and she said "You stories should explain themselves for the reader. The only questions your readers should ask you are the questions you want them to ask." This stuck with me and dramatically improved my writing.
    When I was doing photography in a news capacity it became essential to make each photo tell the whole story on its own. I didn't want to make someone wade through 500 or a thousand words on a story- I wanted them to look at the photo and know exactly what the story was about, or ask themselves "What is this story about? That picture is interesting. I think I'll read this one."
    My photography since then has been a mix of Steve's ideas of expression and depiction. I think I express myself through photography by depicting those scenes I find emotionally moving. I do not feel that contrived scenes are my bag. I would rather walk up on a weird scene and take photos of it than make a weird scene and take photos of it. Reality is so much more entertaining than fiction... if you pay attention...
    "We've all been raised by television to believe that one day we'll all be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars -- but we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed off."

    -Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk

  6. #6
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    Re: Does a photo need to say something?

    For me at least -
    Art is something that makes me step back and take another look. If I can just look at a painting, photo, story, whatver, smile and think "That's nice", that is not art; it is just a nice painting, photo, story whatever. This is not to say that these images don't have value; they can be amazingly beautiful and make people very happy; they can also adeptly tell a story.
    But for me, art makes me think, makes me look for different meanings, try to get inside the artist's head and understand why they chose that particular method/shot to express themselves.
    Art makes me want to try to explain to someone how an image makes me feel, what the composition/light/shades/contrast does to me, how it affects me and my interpretation.
    At the moment, I do not think my own photos are art unfortunately, but I am working on it!
    A crazy herpetologist from the bottom of the world (Otago, NZ)

  7. #7
    Princess of the OT adina's Avatar
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    Re: Does a photo need to say something?

    Sometimes I just want to look at something pretty.



    For me, art doesn't have to have some deeper meaning, or some hidden agenda. If it is interesting to me, and visually stimulating, then I enjoy it.

    Of course, I do have a fridge covered in "art"

    adina
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  8. #8
    "Artisaliethatmakesusreali zetruth" PlantedTao's Avatar
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    Re: Does a photo need to say something?

    Very often I try to find something that matches a feeling I have. On the other hand, a lot of times I photograph with nothing specific in mind. I just play it as it comes. If it's good, fine. I find 'letting it happen' relaxing, a playful vacation. Stimulating pictures almost always result. -Minor White, "Interviews With Master Photographers, by James Danziger"

    This is exactly how I take photos - the scene is saying something to me (I just don't know what) and only later when I look at the processed photos is when meaning truly comes to them.

  9. #9
    Nikon Samurai #14 DownByFive's Avatar
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    Re: Does a photo need to say something?

    I don't think I've ever really tried to express anything through my photos. I mean, sometimes I'll try and do something dramatic, but that's not really an expression for me. But one thing have sort of found that I do is try to show how things we normally don't look twice at are actually pretty amazing...I've gone to school on the Palouse for several years, and always thought it was the most boring and ugly place. But since I've gotten into photography, I've learned to see a little deeper and realize that there is some pretty cool stuff around here....And that's what I try to convey in my photos. One of my friends from school (who has since moved away) always comments that he doesn't remember seeing any of the great stuff that I shoot, even though he lived here for five years. So I guess for me, photography is all about capturing the cool things that most people don't notice...


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  10. #10
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    Re: Does a photo need to say something?

    Small question... with a billion different answers. If you make an image (excluding the normal sort of family snaps at social events from this discussion) then something must have caused you to believe that it was worth capturing. If that impetus remains purely personal and to give just you, the photographer, some personal satisfaction, then that is OK.

    Where the water gets muddier is when you wish to show the image to others, or you do not mind if they see it. Now your work has to appeal to more than just you. If your image says nothing, the responses that you get from other viewers tend to be negative and that can be very destructive of your personal esteem.

    Engaging the viewer (other than oneself) is something that can be achieved in a variety of ways from using performance art... that invites the observer to handle the pieces and engages the viewer mechanically as well as psychologically, to muted use of colours to convey emotional responses and states. The actual subject matter is only one element in what the image conveys to the observers.

    If your image says nothing (either good or bad) to the observer, I would suggest that it was not worth making. The arguments for and against the acsription of the term 'art' to photography do not really help to answer the question, in my view.

    h

  11. #11
    Moderator of Critiques/Hearder of Cats mtbbrian's Avatar
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    YES It Does!

    Of course it will say something, even it is a bad photograph or even if you aren't intentionally trying to communicate something. Photographs always "say something".
    Photography is, amongst other things a form of visual communication .
    The message will probably be different viewer to viewer, but there will always be some message.
    Be it an actual message or a feeling or whatever!
    Look at lanscape photographers, for instance.
    One message a well composed lanscape is probably conveying a message of what that environment is like, or leave you with a feeling of, "wish I were there".

    A documentary photographer on the other hand, is more likely communicating a message about the social condition of the person in the photograph.

    An action/sports photographer, is more likely to communicate a message of agony or excitement of that particular sport in that particular moment.

    I missed this thread when it was first posted. I am glad it resurfaced.
    Brian
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    A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed, and is, thereby, a true manifestation of what one feels about life in its entirety... - Ansel Adams

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  12. #12
    misanthrope
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    Re: YES It Does!

    Quote Originally Posted by mtbbrian
    Of course it will say something, even it is a bad photograph or even if you aren't intentionally trying to communicate something. Photographs always "say something".
    Photography is, amongst other things a form of visual communication .
    The message will probably be different viewer to viewer, but there will always be some message.
    Be it an actual message or a feeling or whatever!
    Look at lanscape photographers, for instance.
    One message a well composed lanscape is probably conveying a message of what that environment is like, or leave you with a feeling of, "wish I were there".

    A documentary photographer on the other hand, is more likely communicating a message about the social condition of the person in the photograph.

    An action/sports photographer, is more likely to communicate a message of agony or excitement of that particular sport in that particular moment.

    I missed this thread when it was first posted. I am glad it resurfaced.
    Brian
    Photographic Communicator
    This is kind of what I was getting at when I started this thread. And I've really enjoyed all the responses so far. It's really interesting to know how we all approach photography. I agree that all images do say something, and that the message varies from person to person.
    I'm interested to know if we have a specific message in mind, such as a social or political or philosophical statement, when we make an image. A shot of the incredible redwoods we have where I live says pretty much one thing: "Ain't nature great?" But an image of a clear-cut stand of redwoods says a totally different thing to many people: "Logging is bad" "The photographer must be an environmentalist" "Look at all the money our timber company made here" or any of a myriad of messages. I guess it keeps coming back to the fact that all our interpretation of visual stimuli are different and subjective. I could feel totally different about seeing the image of the clear-cut than if I was actually walking through it amongst the stumps. Which I have...
    It does help to know the intent of the photographer, but I think that, as I said previously, and image should be able to stand alone, without a caption. All the great images of our time stand alone, without any explanation. They explain themselves.
    But does an image need a specific message? No. The message, if there is one, should whatever the viewer wants it to be, or, since we are ultimately in charge of our emotions, whatever we allow it to be.
    "We've all been raised by television to believe that one day we'll all be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars -- but we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed off."

    -Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk

  13. #13
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    Tbh, I look at photography from a technical standpoint. I place a lot of emphasis on how crisp an image is, whether it's the composition or the actual details of the image. I dont see or look for messages in photographs, merely the care with which the photo was taken. This is also my stance on the "art" aspect of photography. To me expertise has a higher value than artistic form. Creativity has its merits, but there are better ways of being creative than others, and the difference is in the level of expertise.

    I wont say much more as I'll probably just end up offending people

  14. #14
    Junior Member Bidi's Avatar
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    Re: Does a photo need to say something?

    Indeed, that's a question I've been asked too; "what are you trying to say with this photo?"
    If I'm out to take photo's I don't do it to make some points.
    Estetics do make a picture good most of the time, but sometimes a picture is so appealing estetics don't count.
    When making pictures I only have to keep an eye open for things I consider interesting. When taking it, then there are some technical things to keep in mind and some rules regarding to composition.
    Indeed I believe everyone has his or her's point of view regarding to an image. We are raised in a society which pretended some things are nice, appealing... that's what makes some pictures makes everyone like it.
    A topic hard to get a finger on... but I don't worry about it tough.
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  15. #15
    Junior Member seileasdar's Avatar
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    Re: Does a photo need to say something?

    If I may chime in here...
    I alwaysw loved pictures that tell you a story. Some pictures you have to read to understand them, to focus your mind on them to actually understand them.
    And most of those pictures need a clear structure, balance and atmosphere apart from focal point. My mind doesn't want to wander about and figure out what it is supposed to see before it can start to interprete.
    So each picture that holds some self-esteem should actually try to tell me something in a short moment. And only when it can do this, will I come back and appreciate it. Then I can start analysing the contents and put things into relation to each other, to find meaning in the arrangement and the framing.

  16. #16
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    Re: Does a photo need to say something?

    In my opinion if I make something I consider to be art (which by the way is everything I do) then it's art.

  17. #17
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    Re: Does a photo need to say something?

    Outdoorsman, at first I was surprised by how few people responded to your thread but my answer comes slowly as the question is elemental. You might have well asked, does the sun need to come up in the west? No it just does. Same is true of photographs. They all say something even if it is just an instant of reflected light. We've all seen images that say, they were really, really, really hard to capture or the photographer has really nice/crappy equipment. Something is said.
    .
    To Darkman who wrote, "...Now, I wonder if guys like van gogh, monet, picasso, and others tried to evoke an emotion from the viewer in their paintings? Or did they just have some idea in there head and paint it? I can't imagin starry night having some deeply profound meaning. I would think it was, as well as most others, painted at face value and to let others decide."

    It is interesting that you chose painters who changed the language of painting because it was insufficient to express their ideas. As to "van gogh", the word on the street is that he was crazy so "starry night" may be only deeply profound to him.

    Red

  18. #18
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    Re: Does a photo need to say something?

    I have been a photographer for c 33 years, in all this time I have been expressing how I portray woman as objects of beauty in a light that I have felt
    to be right at the time.

    It took me quite a long time to understand what I was trying to achieve and to say.

    There are so many eliments in pictures to control and to concider, so if what photographers are trying to say is not apparent in a single picture, prehaps we need to look at all of their work to get the full story.

    I work commercialy and only recently have I been able to use both my personal and commercial work to get my story accross.

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  19. #19
    Senior Member swmdrayfan's Avatar
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    Re: Does a photo need to say something?

    Mainly, most of mine say ''Jeepers, this guy has no idea what he's doing.";)

    Some you take with no particular purpose in mind. I am not really sure if people ( for the most part )look for a message in a photo. In the main, they're after something that pleases the eye. Photojournalists, I think, are the ones people look to if they're after a message. (Does that sound right?) If I go out and take a picture of a computer graveyard to illustrate the ever changing technology, and how it impacts on a throw-away society, people will look at it and say " Hey look----a pile of computers". I don't want to have to stand there and try to tell them what I'm trying to say. I think it's just better sometimes to show 'em a picture of ol' Shep.
    John

  20. #20
    Senior Member Ronnoco's Avatar
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    Re: Does a photo need to say something?

    With involvement in competitions of the National Association of Photographic Art, you hear a lot of judges comments, and the rules and criteria for artistic merit.

    "Does a photo need to say something?"

    Well, the photo should say something about the photographer or to put it better the photographer needs to "say something" by means of the photo, since art can be characterized as creative self-expression and communication in keeping with the elements of design.

    Any photo should have a strong centre of interest which draws the other elements in the picture together and reveals the point of view and sometimes even something about the personality of the photographer.

    An essential part of art is communication and if nothing is communicated to the viewer of a photo because of weaknesses in composition or technique then it is definitely NOT photographic art. That is generally speaking the condensed view of the National Association of Photographic Art and I certainly agree with it 100%.

    Ronnoco

  21. #21
    Jim B. jbaldocchi's Avatar
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    Re: Does a photo need to say something?

    I think a photo needs to say enough so the viewer stops and takes time to look at it. With all the image bombardment we now have it's hard to get anyone to stay long enough to view any image. Images will still leave a mark even if only glanced at but holding somones attention for more than a glance is the quest.

    Cheers

  22. #22
    Junior Member biggy smalls's Avatar
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    Re: Does a photo need to say something?

    I would strongly suggest the book "Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography" by Roland Barthes. It is a very good book and it makes you contemplate what an image actually is and means. You'll think of photography in a different light.

    I have been trained in an art school and received my fine arts B.A. in 2004, so photo crits have become second nature since then. The majority of my photography has been B/W and the hands-on darkroom experience so digital is quite new to me. I natually begin analyzing images and try to attain a meaning from them, but I usually just try and enjoy the image its self. I found then and I still find now that if you try and put too much thinking into creating and image and their meaning, I tend to lose my inspiration to take photographs. My whole take on photography is that sometimes you take a picture and try to convay a deeper meaning to the work and then sometimes you produce an art image that is all about 'the process' or technique. Its kinda like my internal struggle... do I take a stunning image just because its stunning or do I not take the image because it doesn't mean anything? :idea:

  23. #23
    Senior Member Ronnoco's Avatar
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    Re: Does a photo need to say something?

    Quote Originally Posted by biggy smalls
    I would strongly suggest the book "Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography" by Roland Barthes. It is a very good book and it makes you contemplate what an image actually is and means. You'll think of photography in a different light.:
    I think your suggested book's title.Reflections on.... indicates a very individual perception of photography. Obvious question I suppose, but is the author a photographer?

    I would strongly suggest Spring into Digital Photography by Joseph Jaynes and Rip Noel The emphasis of their book is on both professional and artistic photography.

    Quote Originally Posted by biggy smalls
    I have been trained in an art school and received my fine arts B.A. in 2004, so photo crits have become second nature since then..:
    I taught in an arts school, so photo critiques have become second nature to me since :blush2: I am sorry to say a few decades before that.

    Quote Originally Posted by biggy smalls
    My whole take on photography is that sometimes you take a picture and try to convay a deeper meaning to the work and then sometimes you produce an art image that is all about 'the process' or technique. Its kinda like my internal struggle... do I take a stunning image just because its stunning or do I not take the image because it doesn't mean anything? :idea:
    Not at all. Technique and art are integrated or you have a lousy photo. There is no such a thing as a great painter that cannot use brush or paint well and that is technique. In photography, the camera, lenses, filters, lights, tripod etc. are the tools that may produce the "art", but if they do, it is the technique that makes it art.

    To use your words "do I take an image because it is stunning?" The obvious answer to that question is NO! You are the photographer. You use your photographic tools and technique to make the image stunning.

    Ronnoco
    Last edited by Ronnoco; 05-15-2006 at 05:28 PM.

  24. #24
    Fluorite Toothpaste poker's Avatar
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    Re: Does a photo need to say something?

    I think all photos or anything on display for that matter "say" something. Depending on the viewer the message may go through one ear and out the other. Or if the viewer is intrigued by the message then the viewer will stop and absorb more of what is being projected.

    "A picture is worth a thousand words," but only those interested will read it....

    IMHO

  25. #25
    Senior Member Ronnoco's Avatar
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    Re: Does a photo need to say something?

    Quote Originally Posted by manacsa
    I think all photos or anything on display for that matter "say" something. Depending on the viewer the message may go through one ear and out the other. Or if the viewer is intrigued by the message then the viewer will stop and absorb more of what is being projected.

    "A picture is worth a thousand words," but only those interested will read it....

    IMHO
    Well, for that matter, your choice of garbage container and how you put it on the curb may "say something" as well, but nevertheless anyone who considers that kind of statement art could be characterized as having a screw loose.

    Ronnoco

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