Tag Archive: interpretation

Beauty 2

They’re pylons, generally seen as excrescences on our landscape, marching across hills, through farmlands, carving their way into wilderness.  Not seen as beautiful – necessary, ugly, perhaps dangerous with their radiation.  Visual pollution.

These pylons in Guangdong have been beautified – given multi-coloured coats of paint.  Why?  Does it change their essential starkness?  Someone, somewhere, thought that even this sign of modernity could be made more beautiful.  And in doing so, gave a little light relief to travellers on a long road trip, maybe changed the perspective of some.  Someone cared enough to spend money on painting pylons.

This caring, this expenditure, says something important.  Even the ugly, the plain, the utilitarian, can be given a coat of beauty.  And in doing so, greater beauty is created.  The spirit that created this idea is seen.  The essence of the object is changed. Possibilities have been seen.

What else can make these objects beautiful?

Their role in our lives.  Our perceptions. Carrying power to remote areas, giving light and heat to houses, generating power for industries that help feed workers and their families.  The promise of  future work or comfort for rural dwellers.

Even if these robotic soldiers of progress can despoil our landscapes, their lines of connection have to be eradicated from so many images, they pose danger if misused; they still have a beauty in strength, promise and use.  Someone somewhere saw this, wanted to change our perspective, wanted to create beauty from utility.

Looking at ugly, plain, utilitarian, practical with other eyes can show us a different beauty.




I’ve been wandering around museums and mausoleums lately and have been struck by the drive for beauty that seems to be innate.  Even back in Neolithic times, when, we imagine, life was more difficult, more primitive, more survival oriented than today, women still carved bone into hair decorations.

Our need for beauty that we create extends to everyday implements. If we need to identify our belongings, to me a simple mark would have been enough and efficient.  But instead from the beginning of thought we have created beauty with our markings.


Houses have been decorated as well – it seems that to create beauty for ourselves is an incredibly strong motivation.  This goes beyond identity, beyond practicality and into the realms of the spirit.  But most decorations aren’t based on a religion or pleasing the gods, but deeper into our own spirituality.  We create beauty to make our lives more meaingful, to add something beyond what is necessary to survive.

From adorning ourselves to adorning the world around us, from art to music, photography to sculpture, painting to collage, needlework to architecture, from gardens to natural scenery – we have a drive for finding and holding beauty.

Beauty is within us and is reflected by our external creation, by our search for it.


Art is never defect free. Things that are remarkable never meet the spec, because that would make them standardised, not worth talking  about. Seth Godin


I spend so much time trying to create perfect images, perfect articles and am never satisfied with what I have done.  I am delaying sending work to a professor for assessment because I have difficulty in choosing the right images.  The Seth Godin quote pushes me to think about perfection and standardisation.  Yes, I need an understanding of ‘craft’ to make art.  But I also need to know how to break rules, changes the standard and add a whacking great dose of emotion and feeling into my work to turn it into art.


The fear of being laughed at, of seeming inexperienced or unprofessional come in from the other side to push me to follow the rules, to meet the standards set by others for what is ‘good’.  If I stopped allowing those little voices, or the voice from the ‘lizard brain’ that Godin talks about in ‘Linchpin’ to control me, what would happen?


If I spent less time tweaking settings on the camera, playing with Photoshop  and generally trying to create the perfect image, would there be more images?  Would I have more time to be outside with my camera and using it instead of worrying, smoothing out one more bit of skin, adding or subtracting a titch of exposure?


Would I create a whole bunch of useless images?  Too right I would.  But I do that anyway, even with all the fiddling around. Godin reminds us that Picasso created over 1000 paintings, but how many of these do we know?  The paintings we know from any major artist are far fewer than the ones they commenced and tossed out or painted over.  Thrown out not because they weren’t ‘perfect’ but because the emotion and vision weren’t there.


By searching for perfection, I achieve less, I have fewer images and those that exist meet ‘the standard’.  How many of them have the ‘wow’ factor?  How many of them just CANNOT be created by anyone else who followed the same rules I followed?


I’m giving up on ‘perfect’ and going with basic knowledge plus emotion.


These young men are connecting with their ancestors.  It is Qingming Jie – a time to remember the ancestors and send them more provisions for their afterlife.  If you cannot be at home to sweep the tombs of your ancestors, then you head for a crossroads and burn money, pictures or models of cars, houses or food to send to the spirit world.

This need for connection to the past is interesting. Part odf it is hope that the ancestors will protect their family, part of it is respect for those gone on.

We can connect this to our customs of leaving flowers on graves or participating in Armistice/Memorial/Remembrance Day traditions.  Looking backward to remember the past, protect the future.

Photography is another way of remembering the past – and protecting the future.  Our connections with the things we create images of brings forward all of the personal experiences to express our feelings or our vision of what we are taking.  The photographs of lifestyles, lansdscapres, wildlife, people, war, beatuy … all preserve the moment and can serve to protect the future of them.

Galen Rowell, in his book “Galen Rowell’s Vision; The Art of Adventure Photography”  talks about an experience of photographing the Seven Simians – a family Dixieland band from the then USSR.  Later this band hijacked a plane to fly to the west.  Half of the band were killed in the ensuing gun battle.  His photo of the children in this band gained additional poignancy after their deaths.  They are now preserved, and a symbol of the desperate journey for freedom that people will take.

“Time always changes the meaning of a photograph” he argues.  Time creates additional connections, changes the way we see images.  Old images now are valued for their gateway, not to the person, but to the time – the clothes, the hairstyles and the activities. The photographer’s expression and vision may be lost because they no longer have a resonance with our times and thinking, and yet, the record of life they made, the pain, pleasure, beauty and horror are all still there.  Connections to the past, and if we use them well, connections to the future.

Reflecting on reflections

The excessive increase of anything causes a reaction in the opposite direction.

The one was taken from a boat inside a cave.  The arrows of light pointing in both directions drew me, as did the reflections.  I love reflections  – in mirrors, cars, water, windows.  They provide opportunities for interesting photographs.  The object doubled, distorted or seen from a different perspective creates new ways of looking at it.

There are times when it is hard to see where the reflection ends and the ‘real’ object begins.

This is the reflection of stalactites and mites above, but to me looks like a new cavern has opened up for me to explore.

The reflections give us opportunities to explore alternate realities, parallel universes perhaps.  Then the question becomes – what is real?  Which one is the reflection?  Are the images within us as real as the images external to us?  Are our visions more real than reality? Do our internal visions reflect a deeper and more real view of the world?

Defining ‘good’.

One photo out of focus is a mistake, ten photo out of focus are an experimentation, one hundred photo out of focus are a style.  ~Author Unknown

A Ming vase can be well-designed and well-made and is beautiful for that reason alone.  I don’t think this can be true for photography.  Unless there is something a little incomplete and a little strange, it will simply look like a copy of something pretty.  We won’t take an interest in it.

~John Loengard, “Pictures Under Discussion”

This photo probably should be tossed out.  It’s blurred, and technically far from good.  But something about it made me keep it.  I like the sense of movement and purpose the horses have.  I like the sense of ruggedness that goes with this country.

Good photos are supposed to meet certain definitions – clarity of at least enough of the image to begin with.  Technical expertise and planning.  With this photo – I was probably aiming at all of those good things.  But, the movement, maybe I panned a little as well, and whatever other problems that happened created something I hadn’t planned and yet it still speaks to me.  So – if an image speaks to you – is that a more powerful and perhaps more truthful definition of good?  If I am the only person the image speaks to, is it still good?

So many of my photos do not speak to me.  So frequently, when I see an image that I had great hopes for, I have a little swear under my breath.  I have to throw out something that doesn’t work, and I really wanted it to.  My planning and checking still didn’t make it work.  There is still something wrong with my understanding of exposure or focus or …  Or what I thought I saw, what I planned to create just isn’t there.  This is when photographs become like dreams – powerful and real during the dream, but in the waking state, they have no power and the idea is jumbled and unclear.

This frustration pushes me to learn more about photography, and I think my rate for ‘reasonable’ images is slowly increasing.  I comfort myself knowing that even those photographers whose work I admire and follow have a large ‘rubbish’ bin as well.

I keep many images that I hope will improve with ‘maturing’ in my back-up drives, but often when I review these treasures, they have soured even further and I toss them out as well.  My discernment grows with the more images I take and the more I read and work on improving, and I find it harder to please myself.  I am more critical of my work and my mistakes.

Not every image that looks bad is bad;  not every decision I made in my life that looked wrong, is; what looked good on the surface could often be empty.


In camera decisions and production decisions.  Both contribute to creating a good image.  The in camera decisions frequently have to be ‘snap’ decisions (sorry, I couldn’t resist!).  Quick assessment of light, composition, balance, highlights, focus etc.  The best photographers seem to do these automatically.  No thought really required.  This apparent ease comes from years of work, years of making mistakes, years of learning what works.  No shortcut through that path. For a beginner, I can only sigh as I examine wonderful images. Looking at the whole and then the components.  One day, one day…

When I take my photos back to the computer, that is when I, as a beginner, can more clearly see what I did or didn’t do well.  This reflective time is where I can learn more about my actions and decisions.  And, for the moment, it is where I can make some changes to improve on my mistakes in the field.

I shoot in RAW to give myself the best chance to improve the results.  The more information I have (or my computer has) the more chance I have of rescuing an image, of changing a decision.  I can change white balance, improve colours, remove extraneous bits and pieces.  I can do many things to make my image somewhat better.  There are also many mistakes I can do nothing about.  Those are destined for the trash bin, after I have learned what I can from them. My mistakes are as important as my good images.  Knowing what I have done right is important, working out what I messed up is equally important.  One mistake less next time.

Then, after fixing what I can fix, there is presentation.  How to present the image and the vision I had when I created it and refined it through my work and decisions, so that others can share this vision, or create their own visions from it?  How to see with the eyes of others?  How will my vision be seen by a stranger, with a different worldview?  Here I need to step away from myself, and see the image as unrelated to me.  Is that possible?

Not really, but I think I can gain a little distance from myself, through time away from the image or through refocusing myself on other things then moving back.  Books, photographs, other art work – seeing other visions through my eyes, then returning with my mind filled with those visions to re-evaluate mine.  These help me look at my work, the decisions I make now more dispassionately, more critically.  Moving away from the self is important to be able to see the self more clearly.

Then the most fearful part of all – putting this part of the self out for others to see.  How will it be received?  How will others judge me?  Will they see my vision, will I spark some recognition?  Will it be ignored?  Not worth looking at?  How do I see myself if others criticise or ignore?  Fear of exposure, of criticism, of being ignored, seen as valueless….  So much wrapped up in a few thousand dots on a page.

Meaning and creation

Our obligation is to give meaning to life and in doing so to overcome the passive, indifferent life.  Elie Wiesel

Creating an image is easy – just point and shoot, paint or write.  But will such an image speak to others?  Will it speak to or for us? Unless we see the meaning in our images, then they can neither speak for us or to us.  We must see a meaning before we create the image or it becomes pixels on a page.

What does this image mean to me?  I have no idea of the relationship between the couple – are they married? Neighbours? Siblings or cousins? Old friends?  I don’t know.  Are they talking deeply about philosophy or chatting about the effect of the weather on their yaks? Again, I don’t know.

Therefore I have to create the meaning for myself.  What attracted me enough about this couple to take the photo?  The intensity of their conversation.  Clearly these are not strangers, circling each other to find common ground.  Their body language speaks of a closer relationship.  For me they seem to have created a space around themselves to have this discussion. Whatever the conversation, it has an importance to them.  And so, I feel the importance of this exchange, even if I do not understand it.  I can relate to it in remembering similar conversations I have had.  So – we have a connection of sorts.

The weathered faces also speak to me of a difficult life, endured and survived.  My life has not been as physically difficult as theirs, but I can relate to parts of their lives, from my childhood, from being a parent, from surviving my own difficulties. Again, I can see connections between their lives and mine.

When they see me with my camera, do they see connections between us?  Probably not.  They see a stranger, someone from a  world unlike theirs.  But if we were to sit and talk, we could establish those connections. We could establish common ground over family, over food, over difficulties we have met and managed.

But for now, to give my image meaning, I have to imagine those connections, create them, give this couple a story that may or may not be true.  If I can create the image effectively I may be able to pass my connections and understandings on to those who look at this image.  Will they see the human connections between themselves and this couple?  How can I create meaning for others from this image?  How can I make the human linkages clear?  If I can create meaning in this image, then I have managed to move my images from the passive and indifferent, to the meaningful and connected.

Seeing what we see

Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.

Jonathan Swift

What do we see as we move through this world?  Each of us will see the same molecules and atoms but we will ‘see’ them differently.  Above is merely a piece of  root from an Australian eucalyptus tree.  The tree has been logged, dragged from the ground, the valuable parts harvested, and this root remnant left sitting in a paddock.  Just a bit of dead wood.

And yet for me, its form was suggestive of an animal feeding, its colouring and shape reminded me of visits to the museum to see dinosaur mockups .  I ‘saw’ it, not with factual eyes, but with eyes attuned to forms and shadows, shapes and light.

As photographers we see the world and interpret it through our visions and ways of seeing.  As people we do the same.  We look at the world and the people in it from our own perspectives, and interpret from our own internal visions.  These visions are wholly personal, and rarely factual.

I can present my vision to others, show them why I ‘see’ this object/person/concept this or that way.  But I cannot expect my interpretation to be accepted as truth.  And in turn, others cannot expect me to accept their vision and interpretation as ‘truth’.  We can only present, not demand; share, not impose.

There is nothing true anywhere, The true is nowhere to be seen; If you say you see the true, This seeing is not the true one.

Abraham Lincoln



When we take photos how do we interpret what we have taken?  Do photos mean what we want them to mean?  Do we take a leaf from Humpty-Dumpty in ‘Through the Looking-Glass”  and claim that “When I (take) a (photo) … it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”?  How do we interpret meaning in our photographs?

We can accept the conventional interpretation of a photograph – this is a mountain, this is a happy family, this is a beautiful flower.  This is the easy path, the simple and uncomplicated way of interpreting what we see.  But it is not necessarily the most useful method if we are to gain a greater understanding of our world or ourselves.

We need to ask what is left in the photo, what has been removed by judicious cropping and enhancements.  Questioning why this crop, that enhancement begins to clarify some of our views of this particular scene. Each time we move to find a better angles, change our pov or zoom the lens to change the focus of the shot, we are making decisions about what is important and interesting to us.  In our computer manipulations of the shot, cropping, enhancing, re-working the shot, we are eliminating the parts that do not say what we want the photograph to mean.  Our interpretation of that photograph becomes sharper and clearer each time we make a change.

We finally create a photograph that we believe means what we choose it to mean, no more, no less.    We have changed the original to meet our interpretation.

In this process we sometimes ask “Are we presenting a reality, are we recording a sliver of history, how accurate/reliable is it?”  In the end, we continue to manipulate and interpret the shot until it meets our version of reality, history and carries our internal construct of reliability and accuracy.

This process is incredibly freeing, for what we are doing is moving away from a conventional, classical categorisation of the world around us into a world where we can choose the way to view the world in a way that meets our changing interests.  We are not confined to an interpretation based on other conventions or beliefs, or religion or any other social construct.  This freedom also gives us the chance to accept and embrace changes within ourselves.  We know that change is possible, realignments of our interests or our beliefs allow us to see the world and ourselves in new and changing ways.