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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.

Image: Scan courtesy of Masters of Photography

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.


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.


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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