PICTURE WITHOUT MEANING

The other day I posted this image on my Instagram account . . .

 . . . just a shot I dashed off after noticing those two plates with their corresponding tomatoes on our kitchen table. I’m pretty sure I shot and posted it to show off our beautiful tomatoes.

I titled the thing Picture without meaning (tomatoes) and pretty much forgot about it.

Then a comment appeared under the photo. The commenter wondered why such a deliberately arranged, carefully composed, still life would be without meaning. And while the image may not mean much to me, there will be others who see meaning in it. Finally, the commenter went on to say it is very difficult to make a picture without meaning since there is always a maker, a viewer and some form of subject.

All-in-all an excellent comment, I must say. It set in motion a cascade of thoughts, appreciations and questions in my head.* After dinner I sat with Cindy and we discussed. (Always great, when you are mulling, to have someone to mull with.)

The first thing I wondered about was why I titled the thing Picture with no meaning. Upon reflection I realize I called it that to push some buttons (something I seem to do unconsciously). I guess the title kind of insinuates my thoughts about what kind of imagery I think is important and, yes, what kind of imagery has meaning to me. If one were desperate one might make reference here to René Magritte’s painting The Treachery of Images, where the title makes the work, um, work. Funnily enough, the title of that tomato picture makes it, um, mean something. I think.

The Treachery of Images, by René Magritte.

As to the idea that because I took some time to craft the image it must have some meaning . . . for me that’s a false equivalency. Just because you work at something, arrange it, is no guarantee that the thing you make has much, or any, meaning. Conversely, there are things, like photographs, that have obviously been created in an instant and, for me at least, have lots of meaning.

I have always thought that it is the intelligence of the operator that instills worth into expression. And that that intelligence can be manifested by any number of working methods, from tight and controlled to free-wheeling and spontaneous. It’s the brain behind the machine that interests me.

Of course an image that means nothing to me might well mean something to another, we have a tendency to project the meaning we seek onto anything that seems to suit that purpose. Not to mention that, if you are tuned in enough, and looking for it, everything means something, or, at least, we can construct meaning from anything. So the commenter must be correct, it is difficult to take a picture with no meaning.

My studio wall

But we are always sorting things, putting them, consciously and unconsciously, into some kind of hierarchy. And this is what photography is (can be) about. You frame a tiny portion of the world, a slice of time and space that seems like it might be somehow important. Later, you look at what you’ve done and try to figure out what it might mean to you, if it means anything at all. Its all a stab in the dark.

The job of a photographer (or artist) must be to wonder about meaning, to make work that states their case, and then stand back.

Accidental iPhone picture

Links:
René Magritte
Bernd and Hilla Becher
Peter van Agtmael
Existentialism

* I tried to contact the commenter to sort out where
and how I may have misinterpreted what he wrote.
He was unavailable. So I attached my own meaning
to his words.

Author: Tony Fouhse

Tony is an Ottawa-based photographer.