awful, meaningless images: balancing craft and concept

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I made a bunch of images today which weren’t created with anything besides formal considerations. I was walking up a street and saw a construction site adjacent to a parking deck and I thought to myself “I would like to photograph this later today, I haven’t photographed in a while.” So I did.

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The building has grown massive over break from a hole that sat in the ground, empty for most of first semester. It’s on my way to studio, so I’ve been watching it go up in daily increments. It was somewhat astounding to see the progress over the month I wasn’t here and how high it’s gotten. I was drawn to the height, the textures of the walls and floors, and how the light of the cloudy day played off of these surfaces.

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As I started walking around, I thought about a loose challenge I had given myself a few weeks ago: take a series of pictures meant to communicate an abstract idea or feeling. I’ve talked about this before, I’m almost certain; this is the art movement currently as far as photography is concerned. To me, the pursuit of making engaging imagery often seems secondary to communicating a concept, telling a story, conveying an emotion.

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There’s nothing wrong with this, in fact, there’s many contemporary photographers I enjoy that engage complex ideas and whose photos spark interesting thoughts and feelings. However the work that frustrates me is formally banal compositions being used as a sort of supplement to this large amount of explaining and prefacing and context you need to fully understand a photographer’s work. To make up an absurd and trite example, one could take photos of empty fields and sad people with their face turned away from the camera as an attempt to communicate confusion, loneliness, angst, etc.

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I think the only conviction I currently hold on the artistic undertaking of photography is that successful work needs little or no explanation. An artist talking about their work can lead to further appreciation and a deeper, richer understanding of what they were trying to accomplish. However I (or any viewer, for that matter) should be able to glean something from simply viewing the work. Even if it’s just a visceral feeling, that’s fine. If photography is a medium primarily concerned with the creation of single, still images, then enjoyment and benefit from a piece should not hinge on reading a three paragraph artist statement which illuminates why a photographer has taken pictures of otherwise uninteresting or unengaging things.

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Essentially, I’m afraid to take pictures which have more meaning than visual impact. One problem I’ve never really had with my photography is people missing the point, but that’s generally because there’s not much of a point being made. I’m afraid of stepping out of this comfortable practice of making increasingly compelling images because I’m not sure what I want to say or how I want to say it. As diplomatic as I try to be in my everyday relations, it feels as if I have avoided and at times actively restrained myself from making a statement with my work both because I have no practice in speaking through photographs and nothing that I’m so convicted on that I want to inject that into my artwork.

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I suppose, ultimately, that’s what I have to do to get better. I have to allow myself to make bad work that misses the point, that doesn’t speak to new and novel ideas, that I won’t want to show to people later on, that isn’t very good, it just is. It’s practice. It’s a school assignment. It’s a step towards something better. I think my approach up until now has been, essentially, if I refine the craft aspects of my undertaking enough, I can eventually stumble upon some meaning and some vein of significance which I’ll have the robust technical skills to explore. And that’s just not valid, because to say something extremely well, I need to practice things saying thing poorly first.

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The unfortunate thing is I’m not entirely sure how best to do this, other than wait until next year when I’m actually studying in the photo department. That’s not to say it’s not the kind of thing I can study independently. It may be as simple as saying “here is something I want to say” and go out and take pictures with that in mind, or curate photos I’ve already taken trying to reveal that concept. However there’s only so far you can get by trying to objectively look at your own work or soliciting the comments of various people over the internet. Ultimately, you can’t replace the guidance, critique, and conversations with those who have already figured a lot of this stuff out, or at least far closer than I am.

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So what are all these photos? They’re images, no more. They’re boring as far as concept goes, I’m not trying to say anything about construction other than convey the aspects which I find visually engaging. I’m not making any statements, according to some (maybe even me depending on when and how you ask), I’m not really making art, just an artistic technical exercise. Depending on what context you put these photos in, how you might title them, play around with the order, these photos can stand for abstract ideas. I think it would be lazy to say photos have meaning without knowing what the meaning was you were trying to convey and have that inform the creative process. In fact, it’s infuriating to me when people sort of throw imagery together and say it’s “meaningful” without having a clue what that meaning is. But that’s a different discussion.

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What I’m saying, in a circuitous manner, is that art, and in specific photography is a strange thing. Making small changes can make a big difference. Things like title, order, any accompanying text or sound or video can push a set of images from simply images into something loaded with meaning. Frankly, it’s something I’m equal partly wary of, and completely scared of doing for fear of doing it wrong. But it’s the next thing I need to do, because making images for image’s sake went out of fashion a long, long time ago.

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3 Comments

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  1. Except for the last two I quite like these well composed and processed photographs. They are really very good.

  2. Nick, It is 1:30am I am viewing this post of yours. These meaningless images of yours are not so meaningless to me. What is often meaningless to me is images of the finished product without an understanding how many hands have touched, backs, arms and legs have lifted, heaved and strained to place and fit, weld, screw and pound into place with expectation to stay there into the foreseeable future. How many accidental cuts, bruises, smashed fingers, broken arms or legs and more all before the finished product can be enjoyed, but all soon forgotten except by those who carry the scars and pain. I love these images Nick, I love what they say about being creative, about planning, about the hour by hour sweat and struggle of the human mind, body and spirit in it’s desire to accomplish something greater than one’s self. Yeah I have at the moment a racing mind…sorry!

    • Thank you uncle Phil! You bring up a good point about this approach to making photographs; without a meaning in mind as I make photos, it leaves the interpretation of the photo up to the viewer. It’s not that photos created as such have no meaning to anyone, but rather the viewer is sort of free to take away whatever they’d like from it or rather, they are free to react to it in any way and what one person takes away from it may be very different from what another takes. Thanks for your comment!

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