Smiling through the Apocalypse


Just a few rambling thoughts on a dull, gray, wet Friday in late February.

First, there were a couple of comments on my last foray into visual metaphors.  From sjconnor, “I think the big question is, why are you so hung up on the word ‘metaphor’? It’s a literary term. Does it have a place in the visual arts? I rather doubt it. It seems to me that the term you’re looking for (or avoiding?) is ‘symbolic'”.

And from Doonster, “A tricky subject, hard to grasp without good examples. I think ‘Migrant Mother’ isn’t really a visual metaphor because she is not being used to stand for any particular concept, per se. Had the image been entitled ‘Poverty and Shame’ then you’d have a metaphor handed to you on a plate.
A great (non-photogrpahic) example of visual metaphor is the statue of Justice (blindfolded woman, scales, sword). The actual figure is a woman, but specifically used to denote an entire concept.
Metaphor only exists if the subject depicted is used to stand for something completely different”.

First, I’m not “hung up” on the word “metaphor”.  With respect to photography, I tend to agree that it doesn’t really fit.  As he says, it’s a literary term.  It applies primarily to verbal expression.  But there are any number of photographic artists who have used the term “visual metaphor”.  I’m simply trying to figure out what that means.  I think it may have some meaning, but not in the traditional, verbal sense.  In my opinion, when we say that a photograph has meaning, we’re really talking about its emotional impact.  If that emotional response is felt by many different viewers, in the same way, then perhaps we can say that the image is “metaphoric”.

In a sense, Doonster gets to the heart of the issue.  By referencing the image’s title, he imposes the literary definition.  But most photographs don’t have titles, nor are they accompanied by textual explanations.  If, for example, you see Lange’s photograph and know nothing about it (where or when it was taken, or by whom), you can only relate to what you see in the image.  There is no specific external context.  If the image still affects you in some way, if there is some emotional connection, then I’d suggest that it has “meaning” that might be roughly analagous to literary metaphor.

Unlike other forms of artistic expression, of course, photographs don’t have to mean anything.  If you write books or paint paintings or compose symphonies, the general expectation is that the work “means” something.  Somewhere in there, there’s supposed to be a message.  If there isn’t, then whatever you created probably isn’t very good.  And there are certainly plenty of examples of “bad” books, “bad” paintings, etc.

But photography is different.  We go out, camera in hand, and might come home with hundreds of images.  Chances are, all but a few – or maybe all – are unadulterated crap.  If we’re lucky, one or two or maybe even three are worth keeping.

Contrast that with someone who writes novels.  These folks don’t have the option of spitting out 4 or 5 books a week and then deciding which one might be a “keeper”.  One book might take months or even years to complete.  Supposedly, it took Margaret Mitchell a decade to write “Gone With the Wind”.  In my opinion it was still crap, but I seem to be in the minority on that judgement.

The point is, I think it’s fair to say that most photographs have little or no staying power once you get past the “Wow”! reaction.  Most will not “stand the test of time”, whatever that means.  They’re just two dimensional representations of something somebody saw and liked at some point in time.  Attempting to determine what they “mean” is as pointless as attempting to study the political philosophy of Joe the Plumber.  Both are exercises in futility.

Coming soon (I think): A rather pointed discussion of what I call the “Dear Diary” approach to blogging.  I mean really, if I wanted to know about someone else’s personal problems, creative and otherwise, I’d ask.


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