Shortly before his death, and after an illustrious career, photographer Minor White was asked what he thought of the work being done by budding photographers. His response was: “There’s no particular class of photograph that I think is any better than any other class. I’m always and forever looking for the image that has spirit! I don’t give a damn how it got made.” As I read that, I felt a strong sense of agreement with and understanding of what White meant. It was obvious and intuitive to me to recall those images I felt had ‘spirit,’ and yet, I found it challenging to articulate in words what the term meant to me; it was one of those ‘I know it when I see it’ kind of things. Still, being the obsessive sort, as well as a writer who values words, I wished for a way to communicate this intuition in a non-ambiguous way to my students and readers.
The answer came to me through a process of elimination. I always found more value in images that expressed a photographer’s subjective notions – their own unique story – rather than those that were merely objective representations of fortuitous scenes and circumstances, no matter how aesthetically pleasing. Put differently, I prefer an image that is about something to an image of something. To me, those images that ‘have spirit’ are images about, and not images of.
In another article I refer to the elusive quality of ‘aboutness’ as the thing I seek to express in my own work. Paul Strand used the term ‘meaningness,’ and other artists often speak of ‘significance.’ They are, I believe, all referring to that same intangible spirit that Minor White mentions.
Robert Capa’s image of The Falling Soldier is more an image about war than it is an image of a dying man. Paul Strand’s Wall Street image is more about the juxtaposition of humans against the imposing façade of a corporate building than it is an image of pedestrians on a sidewalk. Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother is an image about the human face of the Great Depression, not just an image of a woman and two shy children.
What an image is about – its significance, meaning and story – does not come from any subject, tool or technique. It originates from the mind of the person behind the camera. When it represents the singular vision of a unique individual, rather than just the aesthetic qualities of the subject, the work is elevated in the sense that it could only have been made by that artist. It is, in a larger sense, their legacy, their contribution to art and humanity that would not have been possible without them.
Goethe made the observation, “Every author in some way portrays himself in his works, even if it be against his will.” Think about what your work portrays about you. Does it tell the world that you are one in a million or one of a million? Think about it next time you stand in line waiting for the all-too-predictable in a location already photographed many times before. What will that image tell the world about you other than that you were there or that you had some expertise in operating a camera? Truly great images – images that elevate the art of photography and the experience of those who view them – are not images of things; they are images about things.
Read this article, and many more, in High Definition, inside Issue 33 of Landscape Photography Magazine.