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Significant . . . meaning?

What is meant by “meaningful, expressive, or artful” when referring to a photograph?

This is one of those questions people hope is followed by multiple choice answers. I think it’s fair to say that as a generic question it probably should because there can be many answers. The more important question, however, is, “What does it mean to you, as the photographer?” That’s likely not a question anyone can answer for you. But, it is one we can learn to answer for ourselves.

Some will say it’s about beauty. That could simply mean a photograph that exhibits the aesthetics of its subject. There is certainly nothing wrong with that. It’s likely that aesthetics are what most photographs to be taken. It’s a pretty flower, an inviting tree-lined path or trail, a colorful sunset, a smiling child. Viewers are attracted by the same elements as the photographer . . . colors, lines, textures, perhaps something unusual about the subject, or simply the human response to a happy child.

Referring to a photograph as meaningful, expressive, or artful is intended to suggest the photo is more than a photo “of” its subject, but rather “about” it.

Others will say it’s about how the photograph makes you feel, a memory it recalls, an emotion that surfaces when viewed. There’s no right or wrong here. The creation of your photography is about what excites your inner self.

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Some suggest that to be “significant” a photo needs to be “expressive, meaningful, or artful”. That it needs to cause the viewer to stop, think, or feel  (or all three). . . perhaps linger awhile. They’re not fulfilled by the “wow!” For them, significant photographs engender emotional responses ranging from peaceful to enraged, from gentle to harsh, from recalling a fond memory to encouraging a specific action.

Do you intend your photo to be “of” your subject or “about” it?

Can an expressive or meaningful photograph come into being unintentionally? Of course. Even accidentally. But, do we want to leave expression to chance? Or, would we prefer to intentionally create images to communicate what we intend our photo to be about? If it’s artful enough it will cause the viewer to pause, to take notice, to consider in some fashion, whether knowingly or not,  the “aboutness” of the photograph is not merely what its subject is. More importantly, it communicates meaning not just to the photographer but also to the one viewing the photograph.”

So, when we seek to create expressive, meaningful photos our real questions are:

  • “What is our subject about”?
  • “What do we want our photograph to communicate?”
  • What elements do we want or need to include?”
  • Even, “What elements do we need to exclude.”

After all, a brilliant sunset will likely elicit a different emotional response for lovers walking on an ocean beach than it will a young soldier hunkered down on the field of battle. A single long-stem rose resting gently on a casket carries a vastly different “feel” than the same rose presented to a sweetheart on Valentine’s Day. To make each photograph communicate its unique message requires an understanding of the vocabulary of design and visual communication.

As one intent on creating expressive, meaningful photographs you want to answer these questions for yourself even before beginning to compose your image. If you can “see the meaning” or  “the story” you wish your subject to convey your next challenge is deciding what the elements are that will “speak” your intended message. Only then can the creation of a significant, as in. expressive, meaningful or artful, image truly begin.

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