It Don’t Mean Nothin’

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Snow Tire Tracks, Natrona County, WY

Last week I attended the opening of a trio of gallery-specific installations. All three were created especially for, and with financial support from, the local art museum. During the artist talks, one of the speakers told the audience that her piece didn’t mean anything. Nada. Zip. That it could mean anything WE wanted. I thought this statement a bit dubious as, not only did the piece take weeks of planning and a couple hundred man-hours to create, but…and this is true…she already told us what it meant.

Installation art (think very large sculptures created for a specific venue) necessitates a great deal of planning, logistics and man hours. It is a deliberate process and, thus, has a deliberate, defined and refined meaning. It should have been easy to explain clearly and concisely.

If installation artists have a hard time explaining their art, what hope do we, as photographers have? Our art is, with the exception of highly-stylized conceptual imagery and studio work, a reactionary art form. We see something we like, we create an image. Often, this process is done with minimal planning and even less thought.  It’s instinctual. Little different than walking or breathing. We don’t know how we know, we just…know. And that often makes explaining our art a bit more difficult.

Does that mean our work has no meaning? Of course not. It does infer, however, a different thought process than some of the other, more deliberate, art forms. For photographers, the value and meaning of our work is often only witnessed well after its creation – after we have had time to analyze our experiences and reactions. Sometimes the meaning is evident, other times it’s quite subtle and  amorphous, like a name on the tip of your tongue which evades our memory. Even when realized, though, it can be difficult to articulately put into words. Instinctual actions often defy explanation.

We, as photographers, have the added burden of being expected to work in projects. Often our single images don’t mean a whole lot by themselves, but will later become an integral part of a larger portfolio.

While difficult, putting your images into artistic context, giving it meaning, relevance and purpose, can only make us better artists. After all, art is as much an intellectual process as it is creative. We need to make use of both, and we need to do so clearly and honestly. Otherwise, all we’ll be able to say about our work is “it don’t mean nothing”, and that would be a lie.