Inside this issue
A Question of Meaning
The Search For Meaning and Expression in Our Work
Chris Murray is a full-time photographer, instructor, and writer from New York State. His photographs are not meant to be a literal document of the woods, mountains, and rivers of his home state, but rather a creative expression of his relationship with the places that ceaselessly inspire him.
A thing is not what you say it is or what you photograph it to be or what you paint it to be or what you sculpt it to be. Words, photographs, paintings, and sculptures are symbols of what you see, think, and feel things to be, but they are not the things themselves.” ~ Wynn Bullock
While looking through Paul Caponigro’s book “Seasons” I was surprised and delighted to discover it contained an autobiographical text to accompany the portfolio. As an admirer of his work, I was interested in learning about his journey and philosophy regarding photography. In reading his autobiography I became particularly interested in his experience studying under Minor White. He mentions White’s method of reading photographs, and how students were often put alone in a room to look at his work until they could get past the obvious subject and discover what deeper implications might be conveyed by the images. Over time Caponigro became disillusioned with White’s approach. Beyond recognising that a photographer should impart some of her or his self on their work, he questioned if every image “needed to be so excessively burdened with ‘meaning’”. He came to find Minor’s adherence to Zen too intellectualised and formulaic. After a time he yearned to free himself of rigid dogma and simply open himself up to experience and to make expressive images that were “the results of quiet action and discovery”. He advocated less thinking and more doing.
I happened upon this autobiography at a time when I was questioning the idea of meaning in my own work. As photographers, we talk often of meaning and making photographs that are personally expressive. But, what does this really mean? I know the common definition is that expressive images are those that are not of things, but about things. As White himself said, “One should photograph objects, not only for what they are, but what else they are.” Of course, the operative and somewhat ambiguous word here is the “else”.
But, does this mean that every photo must be a metaphor? With regards to my own work, was I truly making meaningful images? And if so, what was I trying to say in those images? Are my images metaphors or simply pretty or interesting photos bereft of any deeper meaning or message? I feared being guilty of fraud, of talking the talk but not walking the walk. Troubling questions indeed.