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Symbolism and Meaning in Photography

When you look at a photograph, you don't see just the shapes and colors in the frame and the relationships between them. Those shapes mean something. Some meanings are obvious. Others may seem meaningful even if you can't quite put your finger on why.

A good photo should have a subject. When you take a photo, you no doubt hope to show off that subject. But that subject stays behind once the image has been created, and all that gets recorded and taken home is an impression of that subject that hopefully preserves enough of the "essence" for it to be meaningful to the viewer. As a general rule, the viewer never gets to see the actual subject, or at least not in the way that you were privileged to when you shot it. They have only the impression to go on. The relationship between that impression and the actual subject is one of meaning. When we look at an image, we see the subject, even though only an image of it is there.

Sometimes meaning can be obvious. When we see a tree, we see a tree. There isn't much room for debate. As to the kind of tree, well, maybe that isn't so obvious unless we're familiar with the species, and unless it's clearly visible so we can identify it. When I take a picture of Mt. Rainier, it hopefully looks like Mt. Rainier. Those not familiar with the sights of one of the Northwest's most prominent landmarks may see it just as an unnamed but majestic snowcapped peak. But it still means more or less the same thing to everyone.

Sometimes the details are obscured, rendering the subject more as a concept and symbol than a specific "thing" as a representative of that concept. If I photograph the silhouette of a person, its shape should immediately be recognizable as a person, even though the specific details are lacking that would enable a viewer to say precisely who is pictured. I would have goofed if I wanted you to identify them, but if I wanted something to stand in for "man" in a generic sense, a silhouette can be a great option. I guess if I were taking a photo of a friend, they may be a tad upset by the silhouette, but the general public probably wouldn't recognize my friend anyway. By rendering them as a silhouette, they become a stand in for "every man," a symbol that could be anyone without ever being any specific someone. A symbol is an archetypal form that conveys a general concept.

The meaning of things we all recognize can be considered something we share, yet it can be interesting to consider whether meaning is truly objective or if it remains subjective. Shared meaning works because that meaning has been socialized during our upbringing. We recognize that red means "stop," and green means "go" because we've been taught that this is so. Traffic lights wouldn't really work if we didn't all agree on this. But the lights themselves are just colored lights. We provide the meaning based on what we've been taught to recognize.

We can assume that most of the subjects we photograph are relatable to most viewers. A mountain is a mountain, a waterfall is a waterfall. People on the street are people on the street, never mind where that street may be and how those people may be enjoying themselves. But the specific subject is also singular and therefore unique. It is up to us to what degree we attempt to capture the relatable versus the uniqueness of any given subject.

When composing an image, it's your choice as to how much of your subject you reveal and how much you conceal. You can choose to photograph it for what it is of for what it might look like.

Some subjects are special. The experience of a total solar eclipse is beyond any concept based of even a partial eclipse, let alone our experience of the sun on a normal summer's day. For a brief few minutes, the sky actually goes dark in the middle of the day. The colors in the sky of the Northern Lights seem more the product of alien technology than anything terrestrial. Those of us that spend our days at moderate latitudes simply can't relate to the Aurora Borealis since it only happens closer to the pole.

There has to be some meaning to these auspicious signs.

Some things just seem like they should have meaning. I've always been a fan of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick. It's one of those movies that some people love and others can't stand. I'm in the former group. If you focus just on the explicit meaning of the film, you'll be lost and frustrated. The film doesn't ever really come out and say what it means. It's up to each viewer to choose whether to and how they fill in the blanks. All Kubrick had to do was to align things or juxtapose them in ways that invited meaning. I admire that.

There's no shame in adding a touch of interest to an image by how you arrange the elements of your composition. I'll take compelling images over naturalistic ones any day. By playing with composition, perspective, shutter speed, focus and so on, we help to reinforce or perhaps augment meaning. Or at least provide the opportunity for a viewer to join in with a bit of their own meaning.


Date posted: December 1, 2019

 

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