The Secret Language of Photographs - Digital Photography School

The Secret Language of Photographs

by Declan O’Neill.

In my student days I was required to read a book called The Mirror and the Lamp by M. H. Abrams. At the time, it seemed rather a dull read about the Romantic tradition and literary criticism. The book argues that, before the Romantic movement, artists simply held a mirror up to nature. It was their job to reflect accurately what they saw. With the arrival of the Romantics, the artist was transformed into someone holding a lamp to illuminate the scene with their own passion and vision. For some reason I never managed to quite forget this book and its true significance emerged only years later as I began to question what I was doing as a photographer.

After many years of using my camera, I realised that most of the photographs I took were just reflections of the world presented to me. It was almost as if the photographs were taken at random – a pretty sunset here, a shimmering snow scape there. If I wanted to be more than a mirror, how could I use a lamp to illuminate my subject matter? Yet the idea that I should become some visionary with a camera did not appeal because I believe that images should stand alone without the presence of the photographer casting a shadow over them.

Scan courtesy of Masters of Photography

When I studied the work of the photographers I admired, one thing stood out. I thought at first it was a certain ambiguity: I would see one thing and my friend would see something else. Then I realised that what we were seeing was simply the power of metaphor. The image was composed so that there was room to shape it to our own meaning. It was neither a mirror nor a lamp. The picture was a cypher which allowed each viewer to decode it in their own way.

I doubt that any photographer deliberately sets out to create metaphors unless they are shooting material for image banks. You know the kind of stuff – a man in a business suit standing on the top of a mountain range clutching a laptop and looking into the sunset. Metaphors in our photographs are generally unintentional. When we talk about metaphors we are really saying that those images have a meaning for us beyond their subject matter. To help explain the role of metaphor in photography I need to talk about painting. 

I first discovered painting in my twenties through the works of the Impressionist painters. I fell in love with the delicate softness of Renoir’s women and the complex colours in Monet’s landscapes.

RENOIR

I still like them but they don’t satisfy any more. When I was in my forties I went to an exhibition of Rembrandt’s self-portraits in the National Gallery in London. It was an experience that transformed my view of art forever.

Rembrandt

The paintings charted Rembrandt’s changing view of himself. Beginning as a young well-dressed dandy in his twenties, the paintings moved through middle age to painfully honest studies of himself as an old man. His painting technique altered from slick and fashionable to rough, almost crude. His process altered deliberately as his subject matter coarsened with age. In a strange way his technique was a metaphor for the ageing process he was observing in himself.

It might seem a long way from this idea to the art of photography but, in reality, it is not. Many photographs I see on the web are beautiful in the way that Impressionist art is beautiful. Yet they leave me wanting more.

Every so often I will see work which is raw and visceral and which breaks all those sensible rules we are supposed to follow. It speaks of a total involvement with the subject but, more than that, it makes me ask questions. With Rembrandt I realised that I wasn’t just looking at a self-portrait. I was looking at a man coming to terms with his own mortality. More than that, it made me look at myself and examine my own journey from youth to age.

With some photographs we discern that the image has a concealed message. These images often trigger some internal reference and they will speak solely to us in a language we understand. Perhaps it is inaccurate to talk about the secret language of photography. It is not so much secret as intensely personal. As photographers, we control composition and technique but this is the just the beginning of what we do.  Our best work often offers layers of meaning that we may never have imagined. 

Declan O’Neill is a professional photographer living in the South Island of New Zealand.
site: www.newzealandlandscape.com

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  • Scottc

    A very interesting and well written point of view. Photography is personal, both in the taking and the viewing.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/5376443318/

  • Ben

    Good post – so many times people phrase artwork as something the photographer, painter, poet, etc. wants to say. For those who (still) see all of the material in the world and all of the others who have already explored it, quite thoroughly (the sunset hitting the buildings in Tbilisi would seem specific enough, but you can bet there have been thousands of blog posts, photographs, and thrown-away poems better than anything I could write about that subject already), it’s good to see that the personal does matter.

    I’ll probably never be convinced that what I hear the world saying is unique or matters enough to subject others to it but hopefully someone else isn’t quite that lost yet.

  • raghavendra

    wow, loved this article
    You gave a meaning to photography
    I think this article will be the best in this year DPS

    http://raghavendra-mobilephotography.blogspot.com/2012/06/old-and-beautiful-temple-in-vellore.html

  • Devang Gargieya

    A very nicely written article….it gave a very in dept knowledge of photography…loved it !!

  • http://quillcards.com/blog/ David Bennett

    I think what you say holds very true for photography – and it is almost as though the sharpness and detail of a photo betrays the ambiguity.

    I am not sure I go along with your views on the Impressionists, though. Manet and Cezanne, for example, are full of questions.

  • http://www.wildlifeencounters.eu Steve

    It amazes me how manic professionals get about the rule of thirds and other so called rules. They are not rules but guides and should not restrict the emotion being conveyed by the image.

    With this image I never thought at all about any rules. I woke up one morning in Italy saw this image and said to myself wow and then grabbed the camera and just said how can I convey that feeling and that image to a photo so that I can share it:
    http://wildlifeencounters.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/Scenes-from-Italy-and-the-Alps/G0000ID.UepOSY4U/I0000T2OZwE2BgBg

  • http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/ Mridula

    Some pretty deep thinking. Much food for thought.

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/

  • http://portraitinspiration.com/ Jai Catalano

    This is very poetic and mind opening. Thank you for starting my Thursday off so nicely.

  • Felicia Broschart

    Great article, definitely has be me thinking!

  • marty golin

    Good article. Your wording differs from what I have used, but the general intent is virtually the same.

    ART in all its forms “works” when it provides a handle/aspect/rhythm/pattern/form (cypher as a message in code is very good shorthand) that engages an individual. Once someone’s psyche is involved, the artist gets at least a “C” for accomplishing that step. The higher grades (for lack of a better description) then depend on the merit of the photo/song/story/etc.

  • Juan

    I really enjoyed your article and will keep it in my Favorites.

  • http://steve-harrington.artistwebsites.com Steve Harrington

    An articulate and thoughtful article, Declan! You have caused me to revisit an idea I have been toying with: Shooting With Words. It is an idea that is in its infancy. Basically, I believe that we can dramatically improve our images by carefully defining the message we want to convey. Of course, this approach would require both rapid decisions and years of practice so that it can come closer to being intuitive.

    Thank you for awakening the infant. It is squawking to be fed. :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/BarbaraHerrnsdorfPhotography Bárbara Herrnsdorf

    I had just been speaking with my husband about this very idea only a couple of weeks ago. Great piece. You explained with great accuracy, an almost subtle, underlying current of art/artist/photographer. The examples you used to illustrate your thoughts and ideas were well-chosen and very poignant. This was wonderful!

  • http://www.alborrelli.com Al

    I think this is often what separates the wannabes from those that actually are artists.
    Having a vision, and being able to shine it all over your images is what makes photographers stand out from Gwacs/mwacs.

    It’s akin to having a style that is distinctly yours. Something that makes your images stand out from the crowd.

    Not saying I’m there, but I’ve seen for a while now that that’s what I need to work on.
    Nice piece Darren

  • http://www.sabrinahenry.com sabrina

    My understanding of photography’s power of metaphor is not that there is space for one’s own interpretation but that there is a common understanding through the visual language that often isn’t there in spoken word because people speak different languages. Images do have meaning beyond their subject matter but that meaning is something that brings people together in their shared understanding and that is what gives particular photographs their power.

  • http://FrancheskaIrizarryLovesPhotography Francheska

    Woa! wonderful post. It makes me realize that in fact, I was going with the flow without knowing it. I remember that the reason I started to like photography, where because of stories we can tell without talk…photography was the only way to capture the real meaning of my story.

    http://toughsinphotography.blogspot.com

  • http://www.newzealandlandscape.com Declan

    Sabrina, your comments are very interesting. I think there is a lot of useful discussion be had around the idea of Semiotics in photography. The Syntagmatic and Paradigmatic axes of interpretation in photogrhy would make a fascinating subject for an article but not, perhaps in a general interest forum. I am very interested in the intersection of photography and Semiotics. The only issue I have with your comment is that cultural context makes symbol different around the world. There are universals, I agree, but it would be fascinating to study the cultural differences in the interpretation of meaning in photography. Asian, Arabic, European and American contexts. Cultural norms have tremendous influence on interpretation. Much food for thought!

Some older comments

  • Declan

    September 2, 2012 08:22 am

    Sabrina, your comments are very interesting. I think there is a lot of useful discussion be had around the idea of Semiotics in photography. The Syntagmatic and Paradigmatic axes of interpretation in photogrhy would make a fascinating subject for an article but not, perhaps in a general interest forum. I am very interested in the intersection of photography and Semiotics. The only issue I have with your comment is that cultural context makes symbol different around the world. There are universals, I agree, but it would be fascinating to study the cultural differences in the interpretation of meaning in photography. Asian, Arabic, European and American contexts. Cultural norms have tremendous influence on interpretation. Much food for thought!

  • Francheska

    September 1, 2012 10:41 am

    Woa! wonderful post. It makes me realize that in fact, I was going with the flow without knowing it. I remember that the reason I started to like photography, where because of stories we can tell without talk...photography was the only way to capture the real meaning of my story.

    http://toughsinphotography.blogspot.com

  • sabrina

    September 1, 2012 07:28 am

    My understanding of photography's power of metaphor is not that there is space for one's own interpretation but that there is a common understanding through the visual language that often isn't there in spoken word because people speak different languages. Images do have meaning beyond their subject matter but that meaning is something that brings people together in their shared understanding and that is what gives particular photographs their power.

  • Al

    August 31, 2012 06:26 pm

    I think this is often what separates the wannabes from those that actually are artists.
    Having a vision, and being able to shine it all over your images is what makes photographers stand out from Gwacs/mwacs.

    It's akin to having a style that is distinctly yours. Something that makes your images stand out from the crowd.

    Not saying I'm there, but I've seen for a while now that that's what I need to work on.
    Nice piece Darren

  • Bárbara Herrnsdorf

    August 31, 2012 08:03 am

    I had just been speaking with my husband about this very idea only a couple of weeks ago. Great piece. You explained with great accuracy, an almost subtle, underlying current of art/artist/photographer. The examples you used to illustrate your thoughts and ideas were well-chosen and very poignant. This was wonderful!

  • Steve Harrington

    August 31, 2012 07:11 am

    An articulate and thoughtful article, Declan! You have caused me to revisit an idea I have been toying with: Shooting With Words. It is an idea that is in its infancy. Basically, I believe that we can dramatically improve our images by carefully defining the message we want to convey. Of course, this approach would require both rapid decisions and years of practice so that it can come closer to being intuitive.

    Thank you for awakening the infant. It is squawking to be fed. :)

  • Juan

    August 31, 2012 04:56 am

    I really enjoyed your article and will keep it in my Favorites.

  • marty golin

    August 31, 2012 03:00 am

    Good article. Your wording differs from what I have used, but the general intent is virtually the same.

    ART in all its forms "works" when it provides a handle/aspect/rhythm/pattern/form (cypher as a message in code is very good shorthand) that engages an individual. Once someone's psyche is involved, the artist gets at least a "C" for accomplishing that step. The higher grades (for lack of a better description) then depend on the merit of the photo/song/story/etc.

  • Felicia Broschart

    August 30, 2012 11:42 pm

    Great article, definitely has be me thinking!

  • Jai Catalano

    August 30, 2012 11:15 pm

    This is very poetic and mind opening. Thank you for starting my Thursday off so nicely.

  • Mridula

    August 30, 2012 06:49 pm

    Some pretty deep thinking. Much food for thought.

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/

  • Steve

    August 30, 2012 06:06 pm

    It amazes me how manic professionals get about the rule of thirds and other so called rules. They are not rules but guides and should not restrict the emotion being conveyed by the image.

    With this image I never thought at all about any rules. I woke up one morning in Italy saw this image and said to myself wow and then grabbed the camera and just said how can I convey that feeling and that image to a photo so that I can share it:
    http://wildlifeencounters.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/Scenes-from-Italy-and-the-Alps/G0000ID.UepOSY4U/I0000T2OZwE2BgBg

  • David Bennett

    August 30, 2012 05:24 pm

    I think what you say holds very true for photography - and it is almost as though the sharpness and detail of a photo betrays the ambiguity.

    I am not sure I go along with your views on the Impressionists, though. Manet and Cezanne, for example, are full of questions.

  • Devang Gargieya

    August 30, 2012 05:08 pm

    A very nicely written article....it gave a very in dept knowledge of photography...loved it !!

  • raghavendra

    August 30, 2012 01:33 pm

    wow, loved this article
    You gave a meaning to photography
    I think this article will be the best in this year DPS

    http://raghavendra-mobilephotography.blogspot.com/2012/06/old-and-beautiful-temple-in-vellore.html

  • Ben

    August 30, 2012 01:21 pm

    Good post - so many times people phrase artwork as something the photographer, painter, poet, etc. wants to say. For those who (still) see all of the material in the world and all of the others who have already explored it, quite thoroughly (the sunset hitting the buildings in Tbilisi would seem specific enough, but you can bet there have been thousands of blog posts, photographs, and thrown-away poems better than anything I could write about that subject already), it's good to see that the personal does matter.

    I'll probably never be convinced that what I hear the world saying is unique or matters enough to subject others to it but hopefully someone else isn't quite that lost yet.

  • Scottc

    August 30, 2012 09:06 am

    A very interesting and well written point of view. Photography is personal, both in the taking and the viewing.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/5376443318/

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