The Concept

| January 13, 2013

The following essay was originally published in Landscape Photography Magazine.


When teaching photography workshops I always emphasize the importance of starting an image with a concept – the thing that stops you in your tracks and whispers in your ear “there’s something here worth photographing.” A concept has no visual characteristics, and the role of the photographer is to find a way of expressing it through line, form, color and composition. What the concept does have is meaning – a message, an emotion, a statement, a metaphor, or a story. The resulting image is not a picture of something, but, rather, a picture about something.

Regrettably, many photographers never consider the need for an image to have a concept. In fact, it seems that most pursue the opposite approach: they set out in search of aesthetically pleasing subjects and compositions, without considering any ulterior meaning to be expressed through them. This may be the equivalent of writing a text in beautiful hand-drawn calligraphy, while paying no attention to the actual meaning of the words. In both cases a viewer may be momentarily impressed with the artist’s skill but ultimately find little to hold their attention or enrich their experience beyond it.

When in the field with a group of students, I often ask them to articulate their thoughts about the scene – what they feel about it and what makes them feel that way. It is surprising that while all humans share an understanding of the visual language and are affected by such things as graceful lines, bold color, visual order, etc. few are able to express themselves in it. At an early stage it is worth trying to articulate the concept in actual words. This helps bridge the gap between the spoken language, which most of us are taught to communicate effectively in, and the visual language. This may be the equivalent of learning how to translate simple expressions from your native tongue to one you are not as fluent in. Still, it is worth keeping in mind that, like any language, the visual language also has its own expressions and nuances that may not be expressible in others.

Legendary film director Federico Fellini expressed what, to me, is one of the most profound truths about art when he said that all art is autobiographical. This simple sentence illustrates the gravity and importance of thinking about our images as more than just attractive photographs. Someone who had not yet understood this premise may ask: “is this a good image?” The serious artist, however, knows that a far more important question is: “what does this image say about me?” Do your images say that you are creative? lazy? thoughtful? formulaic? sensitive? an imitator? an artist? unique? generic? When you consider that the image reflects the person who made it, you must also acknowledge that everything that may be said about your image is ultimately said about you. More than that, it means that you have the power to control your artistic legacy. Rather than repeating formulas or producing images devoid of meaning, make sure there’s a concept behind your images – something deliberate you wish for them to express – something of your own making and that represents you – your thoughts, your relationship with the things you photograph, and the meaning you wish your viewers and critics to find in your work.

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About the Author ()

Guy Tal is a published author and photographic artist. He resides in a remote part of Utah, in a high desert region known as the Colorado Plateau – a place that inspired him deeply for much of his life and that continues to feature in his images and writing. In his photographic work, Guy seeks to articulate a reverence for the wild. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art.

Comments (8)

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  1. Dan Baumbach says:

    This is absolutely fabulous, Guy. I couldn’t agree more with everything, down to Fellini’s quote. I’d love to see this expanded into an essay one day.

    – Dan

  2. Well said, Guy. This is something I do at the computer after a shoot, but I still need to do it more consistently in the field.

  3. Jamey Pyles says:

    Guy, your words are always so deep and thought filled. This very thing is something I have been working on in the last few months as I have been extensively writing about nature’s affects on my soul… I’ve been forced with the question of: So what? What is the significance, why does it matter.

    Like you said, the art is a story told about the artist – you can tell the what, who, when, and where, but often I think we need to more deeply consider the why and so what.

    The idea of a visual language is also fascinating to me.

    I think when you live and venture among places in the desert so often your mind is pushed to think.. I know it transformed me this last year.

  4. I have always disagreed in part with Fellini’s statement. While I do believe that the CREATION of the art is biographical, the art itself, its interaction with the viewer, its impact, its importance, is beyond the control of the artist. Aside from blatant and destructive over-explanation and emotional coercion, all the artist can do is watch from the sidelines and hope for the best.

  5. Excellent Guy. I hope your one sentence “What does this image say about me?” makes everyone pause and ponder when searching for the right image to capture – I know it does that for me.

  6. Hi Guy,
    I don’t always agree with what you say, but your essays always make me think, which is more than I can say about 80% of the web I see.
    I do believe that we need to feel/commune/empathize with photographs more like other art, but, I believe that we are too entrenched, at this point in history, to separate how we appreciate photographs as opposed to snapshots, because they are “created” the same way, with a camera and called the same thing. Everyone(especially now) takes “pictures”. A photograph (as art) still has the same English word to describe it as a snapshot taken without thought.
    I think we need more time for the rest of us to come to the realization that a photograph is heartfelt, takes work to create, is thought provoking and is different from a cell phone picture taken as gratification of the moment, in other words, without much thought.
    It may come to be, in time, but it’s hard right now.

  7. Joe Becker says:

    Perhaps being able to create a photograph about something, a photograph with a concept, separates the photographer as artist from the photographer as recorder of events.Regardless, I need to be more conscious of the concepts behind the photos I take and the need to articulate, if even only to myself, why I take a particular image – something beyond that I like the color, or the contrast, etc. Thanks for the reminder.