I have been mulling over the idea that there is a difference between taking a photograph to document a subject versus making an image intended to convey a feeling or an emotion. One approach records a specific instance of a particular thing, or scene, the other tries to make the subject transcend the individual and become general.

For example, a scientific photo of a brain tumor can tell a surgeon a lot of information, whereas Dorthea Lang’s Migrant Mother touches a completely different set of nerves….   😛

Or a more difficult example. A quick snap of  your son (daughter/sister/spouse/whatever) can remind you of how they looked on a specific day, however, if done a bit differently, the image can become a more general description of childhood, or happiness, or whatever… I think the second image can appeal to a larger audience[1] (more than just the people who know your son) and potentially has much stronger “staying power.”

I am not saying that every photo you take should be a statement about “man’s inhumanity to man[2]“, but try to get past the surface veneer of your subject. Try to say something more than “here it is[3]“, Try to look at the image from a strangers eyes. What will they see? Will they be interested in what they see? The next step is to include only those parts of the scene that are important to this general statement, and to exclude everything that doesn’t add to the statement…

And of course the most important part of learning to take photographs is to ask other people for their opinions. However accepting and giving critiques can be a whole lesson in itself…

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Imagine a photo of the Migrant Mother and her kids all sitting and smiling at the camera (“Say Cheese”). Would that image be preserved in the Library of Congress?
  2. This trope is often given by people (notably Adam Savage of Mythbusters) to poke fun at art and artists who take themselves too seriously.
  3. Sometimes the “here it is” is the important part. Look at some of the Hubble telescope’s deep space images for examples that, just by existing, are amazing…
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