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.