As many of you know by now, I am currently studying for a BA(Hons) degree in Photography. It’s part-time so a long old course, but I am meeting and working with some very interesting and talented people along the way. During a recent student meet-up, we started discussing the idea of ‘liking’ a photograph. Our course leader had previously, and light-heartedly, banned the word ‘like’ from our discussion, noting that it had no relevance to a structured analysis of the potential meanings of an image. We were well aware that very few people consume photography in this way, I mean imagine if you stopped to study every image you were presented with, nothing would ever get done! The idea of ‘liking’ a picture for some reason vs. the artist’s intended and deliberate messages contained within it, is something that interests me because I occasionally run into the sometime conflict between them. I have to say that it still frustrates me, although I am getting better at appreciating where my influence ends and the viewer’s ‘ownership’ of the interpretation begins.
A good example was during a recent course exercise where I had to recreate an image in particular genre (see my previous post The Importance of Method, published in March). I chose an iconic portrait by Elliott Erwitt from his book Dogs (2008). The picture had to break down the elements of the portrait and recreate them in new composition.
The main difference between the original and my shot was the reworking of the ‘American-ness’ of the image. Erwitt’s was shot on a New York sidewalk, which contributes to the scale relative to the dog and his owner. With the best will in the world, I couldn’t make a street in Malvern look anything like New York, so instead I changed one of the other elements; the owner’s shoes. In using my wife’s outrageous Stars and Stripes heels, I could introduce the ‘place’ without spoiling the composition. In every other respect I tried to make the image a recreation of Erwitt’s, despite it being shot with different technical approaches, technology and being separated by some 76 years. When I shared the picture around social media, the first (and most popular) reaction was to the shoes. I had messages asking who made them, where they could be bought etc, which for me missed the point. However, it was clearly what resonated with them, and I have no right to be grumpy about it. We look at a picture and we are struck by any number of elements that mean something to us. It could be a memory, or something that we are currently familiar with, or it could just simply make us smile. Whatever the thing we see, it’s as relevant as artistic analysis of composition and the reading of a picture using semiotics or other analytical tools. Analysis allows us to gain an understanding of the many connotations or meanings that an image may have. We can recognise how the photographer has included their own personal perspective on a subject, whether emotional, social or political, but fundamentally it is the viewer that develops and completes their own narrative. In my picture, I unintentionally added a new element of glamour that wasn’t in the original. The chihuahua is the same breed but looks very different and almost complements the elegance of the legs and shoes. While it’s not what I was trying to achieve, it’s interesting to hear what people see. In considering this, I was reminded of a great piece of advice that I was given by a previous tutor. He had criticised me for only researching artists whose work I ‘liked’ and disregarding those that I did not. He pointed out that this habit doesn’t lead to any kind of expansion of our understanding or appreciation of art, instead keeping us comfortable with what we know. I am definitely a creature of habit, just ask the Indian restaurant where I order the same thing every time. I started to look at artists that I wasn’t keen on and carefully studying their pictures. I was pleasantly surprised how I gained more of an appreciation and respect for their work.
What’s the big message from all this? Well, even in a world where we are surrounded by imagery 24/7, it’s only when we take some time to look at a photograph, do we derive a more enriched sense of its meaning than a casual glance affords. Clearly, we don’t want to put the rest of our lives on hold to do this, but next time you’re at a gallery, art fair or just cruising Instagram (lots of famous photographers use that platform), pause for a moment to ask yourself “What are the elements in this picture?” “Do any of them resonate with me?” and “what might this picture mean to me?”. You might not initially ‘like’ it, but you may also be surprised as you grow to appreciate it. I’d like that.
Thinking of taking up photography as a hobby? Have you bought a new camera and are stuck on Automatic? Tuition could be the way forward. My beginner’s tuition takes you through the basics of how the camera works, which mode to use, lens selection etc, all aimed at helping you take better photographs. Drop me a line at [email protected] for more details.
For Elliott Erwitt’s original image https://www.magnumphotos.com/arts-culture/art/elliott-erwitt-dog-dogs/