Lew Lorton Photography | The Meaning of 'meaning'

The Meaning of 'meaning'

April 15, 2013  •  4 Comments

'Meaning' in art simply describes some sort of connection or communication with the viewer. The viewer see something, and responds with some sort of understanding. That understanding may go beyond the intellectual response of knowing what the communication represents in literal terms into deeper emotional reactions as the communication triggers memories and reactions within us. The communication depends on some kind of shared symbols between the maker and the observer.

The shared symbols can be text like the number 13. They can be symbols, ideas, memories, literal history like the vietnam war. They could be low-level mammalian responses, like the way we react to babies.

So a photograph communicates, or resonates, or has meaning to an audience to the degree that it can connect with symbols and shared ideas.

The success or impact of any piece of art depends on how wide an audience, how universally accessible are the content symbols and of course, the nature of the connection - shared History, shared Stories, shared Symbols (religion, superstition), shared Animal Responses
To parse this a little more closely, there are, as I see it, at least four kinds of 'meaning'

The "descriptive" or documentary sense- conveying of basic information, and without any emotional content documentary sense -  where the photo tells you something or shows you something – but the information really is all that escapes the frame. e.g. parts diagram for a dishwasher or, as we see here, a defect in a hose. The information may be useful, even vital, but the content generally touches only the intellect.

The "associative" meaning - the description and emotion is tied in to what the person knows of the subject, whether this is a person, place, or event). The content of the photo has such specific hold on the emotions of specific viewers or kinds of viewers that any technical or quality issues are essentially unseen. e.g. pictures of babies or grandchildren or pictures of places where singular things occurred to the viewer. Again, the meaning is tied so much to the viewer that the photo is more of a catalyst that works on only certain substrate.

The evocation of emotion using various 'hot buttons" is something that the marketers try hard to achieve, but usually in their case, the emotions are of a rather shallow nature, "Oh that puppy is SOOO cute!" or "Wow - that's a really beautiful, sexy woman!", or "That dish looks so appetizing!" The next level of emotional evocation would be using cultural icons such as guns, flags, religious symbols and other objects that people associate with causes or emotional situations. These depend on the viewer knowing the meaning behind the icon. Still others rely on the common human experiences of a parent/child bond, or that between spouses, or between lovers, and our identification with the displayed relationship.

Of course, even when the intent is to produce only a simple documentary image produces intense reaction when the image shows something that is normally hidden and inaccessible as in the image of a mutilated body, or intensely personal, as in the case of witnessing someone's grief. In either case, the viewer's identification with the subject creates a very powerful reaction that is unpredictable and generally unintended.

Much street photography can be understood as trying to create 'documentary pictures with meaning' where the content of the photo has general ramifications that the viewer can understand and respond to. The viewer sees the photo and reacts perhaps both mentally and emotionally to what he/she sees. e.g. The execution of a Viet Cong Guerilla.  

The immediacy of the event as shown obviously has meaning, although the meaning is tied so much to the intellectual history of the viewer that the photo is more of a catalyst than a container.

Obviously these documentary photos with meaning rely a lot on the "context". But the context in which the viewer sees an image may be very different from the context in which the image was made and therefore, these images are subject to misinterpretation.

"this picture by Eddie Adams is the one that defined the conflict and changed history. In the sharp contrast with Capa’s Falling Solider, personalities and identities did matter a lot in this picture."



What I am usually trying to create is a fourth kind, an image that by its content and its treatment becomes not just a picture but a frame through which many people can see a reality that affects them. My intent is not to appeal simply to the surface emotions through association within specific persons but to strike deeper than that, to create something that resonates deeply with most viewers because it seems authentic and real and possible.  

This kind of image depends not so much on the personalities of either the subjects or the viewers but the universality of the 'themes.' The technical qualities of the image are not irrelevant in that they create the 'reality' but they must be so in tune with the emotions stirred by the image that they are ignored by the viewer.

And I have no idea what, if any, are the specific characteristics needed.  I can point to one image relatively easily – the picture at the left  taken by Robert Capa  -Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death, Cerro Muriano, September 5, 1936

I don't need to know the soldier or what side he is fighting on or even what war to be struck by the power of this image.

 Read an interesting article with many links about the veracity of this photo at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Falling_Soldier.

Everything about this picture adds to the impression of reality of an emotionally significant moment. This depicts a situation that strikes right through me, that tells me something but I don't even know what it is. No description of it comes close to describing the way the image is effective.

An image of my own that typifies this kind of impact on me is the picture I took of this little boy in a doorway in Myanmar.

Even though the picture was originally shot in color using a digital slr, washed out in the sun and dust, in my mind it was in black and 

white. Nothing would do but that I would bring the image that I saw in my mind's eye out of the image that I captured. And when I actually did edit the picture, it seemed to have a life of its own. It was not that I made the image but only that I discovered something that was there.

A larger copy of this image is at http://lewlortonphoto.com/p678813058/h56ecf4fe#h56ecf4fe 


Is it arguable that post-processing to build this meaning, or to increase the impact or appeal to the audience is somehow cheating?

Of course not, it isn't any more cheating than what a sculptor does when he chisels away stone to reveal the form within that previously existed only in his/her minds eye.

So how does a photographer go about creating these pictures, looking for this kind of image? Well, I think it is more the case that a photographer must just let him or herself be aware, to take pictures like a good street photographer.

The photographer haunts his chosen environment where, perhaps, nothing is happening - people may be just quietly going about their business - and yet he/she to select tiny moments when an image can be snatched which is more than the sum of its parts - where some fleeting coincidence of expression, gesture, positioning, and movement come together to create an instant which holds some undefinable meaning."

There are two basic intentions that must guide the photographer – either while taking the picture or in the post-processing. First the content within the frame, everything,must be coherent with the intended meaning because the viewer sees it all, assumes it must be there because the photographer left it there and the viewer attempts to make a story. Everything the photographer includes should be aimed at allowing the viewer to create a story. By story I don't mean it has to be a literal plotted story but merely some coherent vision of what he/she sees that is comforting in that the elements in the image go together.

and second, the management of the image, post-processing, must both support the intended meaning and not introduce any elements that grab attention from the main point.

There is another discussion that can occur and that is whether "meaning" can exist without emotion. In my comments above, I have assumed that meaning is intimately related to the emotional content, but that may be a false (or at least not always correct) assumption. 

But that's for later.


(while I take responsibility for all the inanities of the final version, most of the graceful prose and clearer thought came from online friends at ThePhotoForum.com - pgriz, Derrell and Amolitor that I know only as Internet personalities but whom I think are actual live people.)


Clayton Bowman(non-registered)
My only comment is: The true intent of the photographer/artist, shows mostly/only in the
content of more than a few of their works...

Including: Content, Format, Context, Subject, Object, Color, Theme... Etc.

Margaret Sprott(non-registered)
Very interesting. My only question is: "Do you really mean that there must be a person or person's in the picture?" Because of your examples, it seems that way but I suspect there can also be meaning in a photo that has no people or animals.
Lew Lorton Photography
If there is something in the frame that isn't integral or supportive of the meaning then it's prominence should be suppressed as much as possible - cropping, darkening, blurring, lowering of contrast.
All those are hints to the viewer's unconscious parser that the 'something' isn't of much importance.
Interesting stuff, and I agree for the most part. I will differ on one detail, though, namely the statement that

"First the content within the frame, everything,must be coherent with the intended meaning because the viewer sees it all, assumes it must be there because the photographer left it there and the viewer attempts to make a story."

In many situations, especially the "street" or documentary photography you've used as examples, there are elements in the frame, or not in the frame, that are where they are because that was the situation that presented itself at the time. For example, is the viewer to look for meaning in the rifle and the shoes being cut off in the Capa image, or in certain people or buildings that are present in the background in the Viet Nam image? Some of this is an accident of "the moment" and does not really affect the meaning or power of the image. This applies also to some of the stuff I do, pictures that are "semi-abstract" images extracted from stuff on walls, etc., where one works with what is there. To some extent the images can be cleaned up, e.g., by removing some distracting specks, etc., but there is a limit to what one can do, and there will be some elements that don't mean anything that end up in the frame. Of course if there are too many or if they are too distracting, this can result in the image just not working as intended, but I don't think we should expect everything in the frame to have a meaning.
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