Look closely, is this photograph Of something or About something? Why should you care?

August 18, 2020  •  Leave a Comment

Before reading any further, please take a closer look at the attached photograph and consider what you’re viewing.

“Appears straightforward”, you might say, “a summer landscape scene. A quintessentially small, historic, English village nestled deep in the countryside1, surrounded by rolling orchard fields.” 

Fair enough. Regardless whether you like the image or not, you’re clear about what it is: a photograph of something, in this instance a place. Right?

Have another look. And when you do, keep this in mind: the photograph isn’t of something (a place), it’s about something. What do you think it’s about? I’ll return to that in a short while.

My real interest here, is whether viewers of landscape photographs automatically assume they are of something. That their default position is to consider the pictures as only records, future historic documentary evidence depicting how a scene once appeared (in this case in July 2020). Moreover, that this default position is exacerbated by our present rapid-information, quick-reaction, social-media swipe-through world, where the vast majority of images may only be glanced at for 1 - 2 seconds at most. Where the desire to stand in front of a printed photograph, say, at a studio, gallery, museum or elsewhere has evaporated. And taking time to determine what the creator is sharing with you, the viewer, has been expunged by electronic viewing convenience, rapid-consumption and the feeling of not ‘wasting’ time.

If you go to this photograph on my Instagram feed @stephen-r-photo, how many of the 118 ‘Likes’2 were from kind viewers who just quickly saw a landscape picture that they thought looked okay and pressed the heart symbol? As opposed to, say, Instagrammers who took their time over the image, travelled through it to arrive at a considered opinion about what the image shared with them, maybe also a view on why it was captured; and why I uploaded it. Finally, whether it withstood a level of technical and aesthetic scrutiny beyond a simple flick-through glance. Of course, I’ll never know. Very few viewers comment about photographs in the ‘Comments’ section provided, unless it’s to use one or a combination of emojis. Most think it sufficient to simply ‘Like’ or not and move on.

You might reasonably argue that if I want viewers to spend more time in front of this (or any of my photographs) and thereby perhaps ‘see’ more in it, realise for themselves that it’s not simply an image of something but about something, then I should share it on more appropriately ‘arty’ platforms. That even though Instagram is the premier photography showing and sharing app, we all know viewer attention span is limited. Better then, to show the image elsewhere. Except that, the same question remains. Even if shown as a large wall print, for example, would viewers still see it as a photograph of a place?

The best counter I’ve heard to this concern of mine, courtesy of a non-photographer friend, is simple; though not easy. It’s for me to not care.

So, I either:

  • 1. Leave it 100% up to the viewer to decide, super-rapidly or by taking their time, their choice. Decide for themselves what the photograph is of, or about, also why it was taken, why I thought it worth sharing, whether it has merit technically, creatively and so on, or
  • 2. Stuff not caring and give the viewer what I think is relevant information. This may be anything from just a title, to a complete accompanying text.

You may think me sad but I choose option 2. 

I don’t like leaving to chance the possibility of viewers mis-interpreting my photographs; thinking I was trying to convey something unintended. Having said that, I do want viewers to arrive at their own, honest, view of my photographs, even if I don’t like it. Ultimately, genuine views of this kind presented courteously but frankly, are the best way for creators like me to improve. 

What does this mean? It means that I’ll nearly always show my photographs along with either a clear title, or as brief a description as possible about the image. By providing these guides, they (hopefully) dispel any potential misunderstandings, leaving the viewer to concentrate on the more critical questions for themselves.

Returning to the attached photograph, what title or brief description did I give it? Well, those readers who checked the image on Instagram earlier will already know:

Unplanted Orchards all around Luddesdown. Hopefully just careful management and resting the land.3

Looked at this way, the photograph is much more about the land, the challenges of farming and countryside management in 2020, and about rural economics, than of an English village in rolling green hills. As such, I like to think it offers greater value.

Maybe when you next view a landscape photograph, super-quickly or otherwise, try and remember to take a moment longer to consider what its about. By moving beyond of, you may well discover a deeper story and a stronger connection with what you see.

 

  1. It’s actually Luddesdown, North Kent.
  2. At the time of writing, mid-August 2020.
  3. For those interested, while walking around the village and orchards, I spoke to some locals. They told me they’d ‘heard’ that the orchards were being left fallow this summer, not to rest the land and manage the fields but because local farmers couldn’t, now, what with Brexit, get enough (predominantly east) European labour to help plant, maintain and harvest the orchards. There was no way I could corroborate that view, so didn’t type it in the photograph’s accompanying text. I preferred to suggest the more positive view. But I suspect it crossed some viewers’ minds. 

 


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