CAMERA CLUB: The meaning behind the photo.

What do you do with your pictures? Some may get shared on Social Media. More will linger on hard drives and maybe never seen by others.

By Ivan Rackham
Thursday, 27th August 2020, 12:00 am

Over time, many of those will get lost as drives fail or cloud subscriptions lapse. Few become prints. A minutest fraction maybe sold or hung on walls.

Many photographers shoot solely for the joy of taking photographs. The whole technical process of choosing the correct focal length, calculating the depth of field, adjusting the exposure, positioning the camera and composing the shot, plus all the extra bits and pieces that can change the way the image appears, are all part of the rewarding creative process.

Look at a photograph. Can you discern its meaning? At its simplest level, a photo simply records an object: this is a vase, this is my face, this is my dog, this is a sunset, this is a bird perched on a twig.

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There is nothing at all wrong with that. Over 90% – 1.26 trillion of the 1.46 trillion photos shot last year—are only simple snaps like this. They have their place as a personal reminder of our past. Moreover, for future generations these will be a fantastic record of our social history.

Fewer photos tell the photographer’s personal story too, showing the viewer how the photographer observed the world. Landscape photographers may notice light playing across the land, then position themselves so that the sun sets in exactly the right place for that perfect composition. They don’t just record the sunset but see how it reacts with the world around them. Meanwhile, still-life enthusiasts perfect the way they arrange their subjects and how it interacts with its setting. A selfie becomes a composed portrait, revealing an aspect of the subject’s character. The dog shaking a shower of water from its fur or the bird’s movement as it alights the twig say much more than the simple snap.

These photos take skill to achieve, knowing and using the different camera settings and then applying the many different compositional techniques. They appeal to a wider audience because they evoke an emotional response. Consequently, they attract numerous likes on social media and, for commercial photographers, are more likely to sell. Most photographers with interchangeable lens cameras will try to capture images that fit into this second category. It’s what is often called telling a story with a picture. It probably encompasses 9.999% of all images.

A tiny number of photos reach one further category. That is creating a metaphor with an image, a second meaning that conveys a message. An example of this would be Fay Godwin’s collection Our Forbidden Land where her black and white landscapes also emphasise how much of our countryside is inaccessible, fenced off by landowners and, especially, the military. That 0.001% of photos—a tiny fraction, but that 14.6 million is still a lot of photos even so—is the hardest to achieve.

Furthermore, shooting photos illustrating a metaphor doesn’t necessarily mean your viewers will be able to read the same message you are trying to put across. Will they necessarily understand that your sunrise shot is telling the story you want to relate? They might just see a pretty landscape photo.

Do you see my photo of Lindisfarne Causeway as a simple record of its existence? Or, is it telling you a story of the way the poles reach off into the distance and up into the stormy sky? Or, perhaps it is a metaphor of the world spinning round once again. Or, if you have religious convictions it may mean something more.