Seeking Deeper Meaning

As a photographer, I’m striving to make not merely pretty pictures—I’m adept enough to make beautiful postcard shots—but to achieve what might be considered art.  What art is, of course, is a deep subject with philosophical considerations I’ll leave for another day.  For today, let me state it another way.  Influenced by the work of Edward Weston, Minor White, Huntington Witherill, among others, I am persuaded that there can and probably ought to be deeper meaning in good photos than the surface representation of what lies before the lens.  But how does one see that deeper meaning?  And, can it be defined in terms that are actionable?

I’ve just begun reading a used bookstore find, Wynn Bullock: Photography, A Way of Life, compiled by his daughter, Barbara Bullock-Wilson.  In addition to presenting a selection of his photographic output, it probes the thought processes he underwent in approaching his subjects.  Though I’ve only begun reading and studying this book, already I’ve gleaned some important messages.  I think they may offer me the handle I’m seeking to enhance the meaning in my own work.

Bullock recognized that the words we use to describe things and the categories to which we assign them, while helpful in daily living, impose often severe limits on our ability to perceive their essence.  As a photographer, it is impossible for me to represent that essence unless I’m able to strip away convention to see what exists in full reality.  Looking at the world though new, fresh, unburdened eyes is thus the challenge I need to undertake.

I am only at the start of my journey to enhance my capacity to perceive.  My intention is to study not only Bullock and his work but also Edward Weston, who Bullock took as his model.  I will revisit my books on contemplative photography to mine them for methods of stepping beyond surface appearances.  But most important, and most difficult, will be my attempt to approach the world with eyes not encumbered by convention, by established definitions, by culturally imposed constraints.

Sea washed and sun bleached, this driftwood tree is reduced to its skeletal essence

I’ve chosen three photos to accompany this essay.  They represent an illustration of my present ability to seek and portray deeper meaning through my images.  Have I succeeded?  How much better must I do to achieve my intention?  If nothing else, I think my choice of tree roots as my subjects quite unintentionally symbolizes the fact that I must, if I am to succeed, return to basics, to strip away the culture-bound way of seeing to which I’ve become habituated.  That prospect is at once exciting and humbling.

Embedded in a snow-dusted embankment, this gnarled tree struggles to retain its grasp

I’ll pose one additional thought.  The images I’ve presented are in monochrome.  Both Bullock and Weston are also noted for their extensive work in black & white.  Is there are necessary relationship between expressing the essence of things and the choice of monochrome to reveal it?  Does color inevitably get in the way?  What do you think?  I’ll leave this weighty subject for speculation on another day.

Published by Norman Reid

I worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture for 27 years in the field of rural community and economic development. I retired a few years ago and have been devoting my time to photography and writing. I've been a semi-pro photographer for more than 25 years and sell my work on the Web. I live in rural Virginia not far from the Shenandoah Valley.

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