Photographing Things That Aren't: A Look Into Conceptual Photography

Photographing Things That Aren't: A Look Into Conceptual Photography

Photographing a thing for what it is, is the premise of photography — Fox Talbot called it "nature's pencil." It's therefore natural for us to see an object and visually record it. So how do we go about recording something that we can't see?

As humans we are massively visual creatures; about 50% of the brain is directly or indirectly devoted to visual processing and John Medina notes in Brain Rules that "Vision trumps all other senses." It's such an important sense that when we are deprived of it we feel lost. Photography is a natural accomplice to our optical system because it mimics our vision, permanently recording what is sees, where our brains might be a little more malleable in how they remember! However let's expand the notion of seeing what is in front of us and try to visualize something that we can't see. When we do that, then we can play with our own understandings and perceptions.

This is such a powerful area of photography that we are exposed to literally hundreds of images a day that tap in to it. For example, motivational imagery in the workplace might show a group of people collaborating on a project with the word "Teamwork" inscribed across the top. While they were all the rage in businesses in the 1980s, they now seem a little trite and condescending. That doesn't make our ability to represent concepts, feelings, and emotions through imagery any less powerful though.



This was brought home to me recently when trying to think of a suitably photographic Christmas gift and, in particular, a way of giving some of my images. After a little time spent sifting through photo gifts I was led to the photo cube. I like the fact they are small, slightly unusual, and allow you to have five or six different images visible. I settled on the glass variety so began thinking about five images I could use. I wanted to go for something abstract, that could be used to induce a state of mind. And there was my search term! You don't have to look far to find Yoga's Five States of Mind which are sufficiently conceptual that they evoke feelings and memories. While they have Sanskrit words for each state of mind, there is no easy English translation, rather a description.

Now if you were undertaking an ad campaign you'd develop a mood board with your client and then put together a set of key criteria before finalizing on your design brief and go out and shoot it. But it was a Christmas gift and I didn't have the time. Obviously I could resort to stock imagery, but that defeats the object of the gift. So to the archive it was and this is where you learn a lesson in keywording. I might be able to search on people, places and dates, but I never envisaged for a moment that I'd want to find a photo that conveyed:

The mind is dull and listless. A person might be holding a key yet still ask, "Where is the key?"

Of course I could keyword in the same way that I would when submitting to a stock site, but life's too short for that. So visual memory it was and the fruits of my labors are shown below.

Now that you've read the descriptions and seen the photos, do they convey each of the states of mind? Do you have any photos that would be better suited to some of these? What would you choose? And if you were to go out and shoot these afresh, how would you approach it? This was an abject lesson in conceptual photography for me and one that I intend to repeat in the future. So the next time you are thinking of a photo gift, consider a multi-image collection.

Photography has a long history of representing concepts — Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother" immediately springs to mind, but also Don McCullin's "Shell Shock" as well as Paul Strand's "Blind". You could equally title these three images as "Desolation", "Paralysis" and "Destitution." They describe a state of mind and the imaging of a potential physical outcome.

Of course there is one even more powerful approach to conceptual photography where, rather than representing something that isn't, we represent a object for what it is in order to induce a specific reaction in a viewer, usually an emotional one. To pick one example, the UK charity Oxfam is supporting relief aid to South Sudan. Take a moment to look at the imagery on the page. Some of it is information, however some of it is unashamedly emotional designed to evoke two main responses. One is sadness at the conditions, often emotively for a child. The second, for those of the aid itself, is happiness at the good work being done. This is not to belittle the situation — it is the reality of the photographer as presented through their lens and is the same for much press photography. In fact the World Press Photo award is routinely criticized for covering negative journalism. However, by inducing these specific emotions, many charities (including Oxfam) then request a donation which is the desired outcome.

This is the role of advertising and manipulation of the masses which has a surprisingly long history back to its modern foundation by Bernays. Where this breaks down is when we know that the use of the image has ulterior motives. Oxfam latterly became embroiled in a prostitution scandal which, besides the moral implications, involved the direct or indirect use of the organization's funds.

What this shows is that photography takes center stage in society. As individuals we respond to the visual and particularly when they play beyond the factual to the conceptual and emotional. Before you finish reading, try to list your top three photos from history that do this and describe the concepts they show. Then go out and try to shoot those same concepts yourself.

Lead and article images courtesy of freeGraphicToday and rawpixel via Pixabay, used under Creative Commons.

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1 Comment

Radisa Zivkovic's picture

Nice article!