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Having to Explain Your Photos?

They say that art is in the eye of the beholder. So if you have to explain your images, perhaps you should consider why.

Some images succeed more because of what they are of than because of what they actually look like. Many images shot by photojournalists fall into this group. If you're an eyewitness to a significant historical event and capture a photograph of it, you've got it made even if that image isn't as esthetically pleasing as it might possibly have been. The historical and perhaps cultural significance outweigh other considerations. If you happen to capture a clear image of a UFO landing or the Loch Ness monster it would certainly qualify in this regard as well.

But most images work best primarily because of the impact they have on the viewer regardless of what the subject matter may actually be. The best images have a certain visceral impact that strikes at the emotions of a viewer, beneath the discursive realm of concepts and ideas. They touch something within the viewer themselves. A beautiful image is beautiful to the viewer for whatever reason that may or not be shared with others including the photographer.

As the photographer, you will always have a different relationship to your images than the average viewer will. You were there at the time. For you, behind every image you've shot is the story of what it took to capture it. When you look at an image you shot, it reminds you of a great many details that most viewers will never know. You remember the long drive to get there and having to get up so early in the morning to do so. You remember how cold it was hunkering down behind a rock to stay out of the wind as much as possible, waiting for the sun to peek over the horizon. You remember trying not to scratch the mosquito bites or the sting of the sunburn from the afternoon before. Behind every image you've taken will be a world of associations that you can't possibly share with others who didn't share that adventure with you.

Some images will inevitably mean a lot to you because of this backstory, even if they didn't come out absolutely perfect. Long ago, I wrote a brief post entitled "That Brown Spot in the Middle is a Bear" about an image I shot in Grand Teton National Park composed primarily of autumn tree foliage. If you look closely enough though, there's a nondescript brown spot in the middle of the image partially obscured behind those red leaves. As you can no doubt guess, that brown spot was a bear. I and as many other photographers who could fit along the roadside embankment opposite that tree were all lined up with the longest lenses they had with them hoping for the shot of a lifetime. Very few if any probably got that since the bear in that tree likely didn't appreciate all the attention and was keeping his distance. Everyone hoped that bear would climb down from the safety of his tree and pose for us somehow. When I look at that image, I can still recall the mixture of excitement and bemusement of waiting for what I knew even then likely wouldn't happen. When you look at that image, all you see is the tree leaves with a curious brown spot in the middle. I could never explain that image to you sufficiently to convey what I felt in being there.

Of course, the subject matter of abstract images isn't really supposed to be recognizable. That's why they're called abstract. They have to be able to stand on their own right. But too often photographers assume incorrectly that what they know about the background of their images is evident to others when they look at it. With a sufficient investment of effort they may be able to explain enough of this sort of information to someone else to narrow this gap but it's impossible to bridge it completely. For this reason, it's best not to rely on such efforts. When evaluating your own images, try to look at them at face value, not through the lens of having been the one who shot them and what that entailed.

An image that works only based on an explanation of its back story can never be truly successful as art. Good photography requires a certain amount of technical skill but is, at its heart, an art form. And art is in the eye of the beholder.

Date posted: July 6, 2014


Copyright © 2014 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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