Just because a photograph is good, is it meaningful? I looked to bourbon for the answer and surprisingly may have given myself a bit of clarity! Read on to find out more.
What is a meaningful photograph?
Recently I was honored to be a part of a great conversation over on the Shuttertime with Sid and Mac podcast in which Mac, Bryan Minear, and myself discussed meaningful photography. Give a listen to that episode here, then come back to me. Better yet, let it play in the background as you give this article a read!
Ok, so as you heard, the things that make up a meaningful photograph can really vary from person to person. It’s truly something that only we can decide for ourselves. Following the release of that episode there was a twitter question from one of the fantastic Shuttertime listeners that made me stop and think.
Street photogs constantly say that u have to get distance from the emotion of the experience of taking a photo to know if its good. Seems like u is saying that it’s remembering the moment that gives the photo its meaning. How do u reconcile these opposite advice for photogs?
— Daniel (@DANgerou_s) April 10, 2018
This was my response, but I was still trying to find a way to put this into words.
I am also not a street shooter, so can’t speak as a street photographer, but I think Bryan is right. If I created photos that were all good, but had no meaning to me, I feel like I wouldn’t bother shooting. That’s kind of the same mentality to me as chasing IG likes/follows.
— Dave Szweduik (@daveszweduik) April 10, 2018
Then bourbon gave me the answer.
I know what you’re thinking. But trust me, it isn’t what you think. I say that bourbon gave me the answer because I was recently watching A Chef’s Life on PBS and they were interviewing a guy that has a bourbon distillery. They asked him to describe the difference between bourbon and whiskey. Fair question, I’ve often wondered that myself. After listing a set of around 6 important criteria he summed it up simply with this quote.
All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon.
Huh. That’s interesting. It got me thinking about meaningful photographs and good photographs, specifically how it applied to the great question from Daniel on Twitter. Let’s try to substitute some words in that quote and see what we come up with, shall we?
“All meaningful photographs are good, but not all good photography is meaningful” – David Szweduik
Well that’s an interesting thought, isn’t it?
I really think this statement rings true. However, before you start yelling at me because it isn’t true that all meaningful photographs are good let me explain. If you listened to the episode of Shuttertime I linked to above, you’ll actually hear me say that some of my most meaningful photographs are actually pretty bad photos from a technical aspect.
What I mean when I say all meaningful photographs are good requires you to look at things from a truly personal stand-point. If a photograph is meaningful to you, be it a photograph you created or a photograph that someone else created that means something to you, then you will surely agree that you think fondly of that photo? Again, it all comes down to the idea I’ve talked about before regarding success in photography. Why do we put so much weight into the opinions of others to tell us when something is good or not? If a photo has meaning to you, there’s nothing wrong with saying that to you it’s a good photo…warts, flaws and all.
The outside world may look at that same photo without any personal meaning to them and deem it a steaming pile of shit. Maybe it’s not sharp enough, composition is off, highlights are blown out….blah blah blah. But to you, the person to which the photograph is meaningful, none of that really matters.
On the other side of things, if you are finding a photo that someone else created to feel meaningful to you, the odds are pretty high that the photo is going to be a good photo. It will meet whatever criteria you have for determining what a good photo is to you, otherwise it won’t resonate with you.
So all meaningful photos are good…with a caveat… What about good photos having no meaning?
The last part of that quote is also true. How many times have we seen technically perfect photographs that we feel nothing for? Sure we can totally respect the work that the photographer put into creating the photo. Maybe it’s a super technical lighting setup that has been executed flawlessly but the subject is completely devoid of any emotional connection.
A photo that is technically sound in composition, color grading, and perfect light can still be completely boring and lacking creative expression. For all its technical perfection as a “good” photo, it’s just lacking that meaning and connection.
This is where Daniel’s statement comes into play. I totally agree that stepping back from your work can let you view it more objectively, both from a technical standpoint and from the meaning and emotional standpoint. This is a something I’ll dive into more in a future article.
For now just know that taking a little time, a few days to a week, can let you see your work with fresh eyes.
At the end of the day, it’s possible to have a technically perfect photo, with expert post processing, and no visible flaws, but the photo has no soul…no meaning…it’s not bourbon.
No meaning means it’s not bourbon.
I’m sure some will disagree with this idea, I’m cool with that and I’d love to discuss it with you further! As I said, this is just a thought that occurred to me and because it stuck with me for a few days I figured I’d share it here.
Here are a couple photos I’ve made that I’ve been enjoying recently.
Of course I couldn’t write a post about photography and bourbon without a photo of some bourbon. On the plus side, while I didn’t enjoy any bourbon while thinking about or writing this article, I did get to enjoy what was in this glass as I tore down my lights and edited the photos. There’s always an upside right?!
All photos were created with a Fuji X Series cameras and lenses.
Images all processed in Lightroom Classic with the Rebecca Lily Premium Color Grading Pro Set IV system as my base for all of my custom processing.
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