On Images: Beauty and Meaning

Recently, I watched a series on impressionist painters. It included my favorites—Monet, Manet, Van Gogh, and Cezanne.  I’ve seen their works in museums in Paris, DC, Chicago, Boston, and other cities, and I never tire of looking at them.   I’ve even had the opportunity to visit the Lautrec museum in Albi, France.   The series gave many interesting details behind the creation of famous paintings by each artist.  While I found the stories interesting, they did nothing to increase my appreciation of the works.    I like impressionist art because, to me, it’s beautiful. The stories behind each painting might give insight into the creative spark and I might even find those stories interesting, but the beauty is what appeals to me. 

I like “Flamenco Sketches,” the Miles Davis masterpiece for the same reason—it’s beautiful, melodic, enchanting—it resonates. I was gifted a book about the making of Kind of Blue, the album containing “Flamenco Sketches.”  And, as much I love that piece of music, the behind-the-scenes story never grabbed me.  How I  feel when listing to “Flamenco Sketches”  is more than enough. 

I have tried to become more familiar with the stories behind the art and music I like.  For example, I found the autobiography of Miles Davis absolutely fascinating as a peek into the jazz world of the 1950s.   An odd takeaway from that book is that I would not have wanted to be friends with many of the musicians whose works I admire. That didn’t change my opinion of their music, though.   I have read plenty about  art and jazz history, and what I found most interesting was how various movements began or a specific creative insight fashioned a career.   Still, while the works remain fresh in my mind, the words fade rather quickly.  

Literature is different.   When reading, regardless of form or genre,  I look for meaning.   Beauty is welcome, but a lot of beautiful words and phrases without an overarching meaning I can discern, leads to tedium, not enjoyment.   In college, I took a lot of literature courses, and existentialist novels often left me baffled and irritated.   In particular, after reading Sarte’s Nausea, I was nauseated and somewhat peeved. 

The above background is necessary because this post grew out of an attempt to learn more of the history of photography.   In the process, I’ve looked at a decent number of picture books and online resources.  For some reason, unlike music or paintings, few photographs resonate with me.   I tried reading a few artistic photography magazines to see what is current in the field. Increasingly, I cannot make any connection with the images presented.   The description of the image often reads like an improvised post-modernist essay.    Often, I cannot draw any link between the images and the text—I can discern no meaning.  I’ve come to realize that I approach photographs the same way I approach literature—I look for meaning.  I’ve also come to realize that I am not given to imputing meaning to images.   Although I once considered majoring in philosophy, and have read my share of the greats, I have grown to find philosophical speculation unrewarding.  

Obviously, I am in favor of artistic expression—everyone should create as they feel moved to do so.  Rather, I have simply discovered many images hold little meaning for me.   I suppose it’s analogous to what happens when I view abstract modern art  or hear Ornette Coleman’s free jazz riffs—nothing.  I appreciate the effort that went into creating these works, but the results fail to resonate. 

I have  annual awards issues of PDN and Communication Arts, and paging through them, the images begin to blend into one another.  Sunsets over rugged landscapes, abandoned gas stations on  lonesome western roads, a woman looking wistfully into the camera, a man stepping into the light between two deep shadows, an abandoned car—these and other images repeat. After a while, it’s difficult to find anything to draw me in.  

Thinking about the images I’ve made, I cannot say why anyone should be drawn to them.  Most of my images were made as tests,  to try a technique, or document the garden.   However,  I have made “intentional” images because I wanted to capture something meaningful to me—something that captured a mood, idea, or beauty.  One of my images that seems to evoke a response is one I also happen to like very much.  I like it because it captures a sense of place and time — me watching winter sunlight drift through a southern window, warming the floor and heralding spring.   For me that sunlight brings reassurance and hopefulness, and that image evokes those same feelings.  

After two years of making photographs, I find myself returning to specific images, to linger over them, to relive them.  And I am realizing that the meaning and reason for my intentional images is not “art,” but  because at some future date when memory has been crowded through living and revised by forgetfulness, I can return to my photographs, and be there as before.   For these images, I have no expectations of what others might see in them.  I can explain why I made them, but I am not sure what explanations might add to the viewing experience.    

Everyone has a different way of responding to art—I look for beauty and meaning. 

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