The Reciprocal Relationship Inherent in Visual Art (Or…Be Careful Who You Show Your Photos to)

Is This a “Good Photo?” I Think So…But It Means Something to Me in a Way it Wouldn’t for You.  That’s, in Large Part, What Makes it “Good” for Me. What Might Make it Good for You? Context Maybe?

I’ve spent most of my adult life puzzling over what “good” photography is, yet it’s only been in my later years that I think I have any real answer. There’s a reason for that, as I’ll discuss below.

Photography, an art form accessible to most everyone, seems especially susceptible to muddled standards of valuation. The average photo enthusiast, the type who congregates on photo-specific websites and forums, typically falls into the trap of confusing technical competency with artistic merit. As you mature photographically, if nothing else, you should learn at least one thing: whatever creates the perfect photo, it isn’t simply technical excellence. To the contrary, the pursuit of technical excellence often hijacks creativity by directing your creative energies into focusing on technical mastery at the expense of individual expression.

So, if we’re not simply speaking of technical excellence, then what?  Aesthetic impact, contextual appropriateness, personal response, or some undefined mixture of the above? And who gets to choose? We all do, but some choose better than others, because they have a more refined aesthetic sense. This statement, standing alone, seems circular, but it isn’t. As I’ve written elsewhere, the 18th Century German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) get’s closest to the truth with his claim that a person of wide knowledge and experience has a better basis to make aesthetic judgments. She’s seen more, thought more, reflected more, in the process refining her judgment and allowing her to better “see” a work of art by possessing a larger and more varied experiential foundation she can use to draw out the nuances pregnant in the work. Through her experience she has given herself the means to draw latent meaning from someone else’s work, work which, depending on the artist’s competency, allows a range of meaning. It’s a reciprocal relationship, the “best” photos possessing a range of latent meanings, meanings brought to fruition by an informed, cultured viewer.


A Simple Little Book by Dominique Pierre-Nina. It’s Full of  Beautiful Work.

Above is the cover of a small book of photographs, a gift sent me by Australian photographer – and Leicaphilia reader – Dominique Pierre-Nina. Dominique sent me the book as a Christmas present, a thoughtful gesture of thanks for the enjoyment he’s received from reading Leicaphilia. (I encourage you to do something similar). Dominique’s book “A Year with the Leica M3” consists of a written introduction and 38 B&W photographs. Sounds interesting, right? Some guy loves his M3 and wants to show others what he’s done with it. Given the parameters set by the author’s presentation, that’s the extent of what I expected, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Instead I found a holistic work of real effect, thought-provoking photos that work individually and collectively, clearly the product of someone who has learned the art of seeing the beauty in everyday things. The book is more than just a collection of individual photographs; Mr. Pierre-Nina has purposefully sequenced them (I assume) so that the impact of the work is a function both of the photographs as individual works and as one larger work created by the body of photographs sequenced and presented as a coherent whole.

Many of the photographs would work as stand-alone works, studies in form and content. While they do so, they benefit from being placed within the larger context. The context here is that chosen by Mr. Pierre-Nina. The context in which they’re been situated adds something to the work, something that’s not present in the individual photos themselves, no matter how interesting they are individually. Without context, you might no “see” their full content; with proper context, they transform from individual works to works engaged in cross-talk with other individual works, in doing so forming a larger coherent work, the book, the exhibition, whatever.

Two Sequential Pages – Left hand Page, Right hand Page. Ostensibly Nothing in Common…But They Work Together

It’s more than just content and context given by Mr.Pierre-Nina, however. It’s also about my receptivity to it. The Kantian critique above – the importance of the intellectual, emotional and aesthetic back-history that the photographer brings to the work – applies as well to the viewer. Visual art is always a two-way transaction between creator and viewer, its power the result of a reciprocal relationship between creator and viewer. The aesthetic value of any work will always be latent until recognized – better yet, discovered – by the awareness of the viewer. Mr. Pierre-Nina is lucky enough to have found an able viewer – in me. While I haven’t asked him, I’m certain he’s shown his book to others – family members, friends, a lover maybe –  and been met with the polite patronization all gifted artists are familiar with. Why? Because the reciprocal relation necessary to its proper appreciation has broken down on the viewer’s end. To put it bluntly, they’re incapable of appreciating the work because of their own deficiencies. The photographer has done his job – the failure lies with the viewer, who hasn’t done his/hers.

If, as I do, you agree with Kant, then both the photographer and the viewer have certain responsibilities in the mutual transaction of understanding and enjoying photographic presentations. Mr. Pierre-Nina can try to give you that context through words, or he could place them with a larger sequence where the sum of the work starts to explain what he sees as their meaning. In either event, assuming he’s done his part, you as the viewer need to bring to the interaction a basis of knowledge and an aesthetic sensitivity formed from that knowledge, to make them coherent. No matter how competent an artist Mr. Pierre-Nina might be (and a good part of that competency is presentation), you as viewer have the responsibility to draw the meaning from them.

Which leads us back to Mr. Pierre-Nina. I don’t think he truly understands his photography – in the sense that I don’t think he can articulate via words what it might mean, what it might suggest to an engaged viewer. I’ve come to that conclusion after having first read his explanation of the work and then looking at the work itself. This isn’t a criticism of him. It’s a reality of the reciprocal relationship that creates the meaning of a creative work. His explanation, reproduced here, might tell you something of what he thinks about his photos, and that’s helpful to a certain extent. But it isn’t the final word. What Mr. Pierre-Nina thinks isn’t the end of the matter. What he thinks of his work doesn’t do it justice; it’s an impoverished understanding of what is truly remarkable work. If anything, this is a compliment to Mr. Pierre-Nina, a man who possesses an admirable humbleness about his work when in fact the work is exceptional. Really.

Likewise with the photo that leads off the piece. Standing alone, it doesn’t say much. At best, you might agree that its “interesting”. It needs context to be more. That’s my role as the photographer, and I fail if I don’t give you the context to make sense of it. But you fail me if, as the viewer, you are unable to properly parse the latent meaning of what I’ve offered you, unable due to ignorance, inexperience, closed-mindedness, arrogance. What separates excellent work from simple pretty pictures can often be as much a result of what the viewer brings to the experience than does the photographer.

This should tell you something: Be careful who you show your work to.

Which leads me to my next subject – Immanuel Kant tells you How to Make Beautiful Photos of Ugly People – coming soon.

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10 thoughts on “The Reciprocal Relationship Inherent in Visual Art (Or…Be Careful Who You Show Your Photos to)

  1. Archiver

    A few years ago, there was an exhibition by a photographer who took photos of gravesite tributes. The images showed close ups of tributes including those that were fresh, and in varying stages of disrepair and decay. On the outside, you’d just think it was a series of pictures of graves. Maybe you’d reflect on mortality and passing, on the notion of loved ones remembering or continuing to love those who have gone.

    But the artist articulated a very specific intention. She wanted to express how the human desire to immortalize and remember the deceased is, in itself, subject to the movement of time and decay. Flowers wilt, so we use plastic flowers. But plastic flowers become dusty and filled with spider webs. Tombstones themselves become weathered and dark. And so, despite the efforts of the living to remember the dead, time is the equalizer for us all.

    This intention would have remained hidden from me, had it not been shown in the exhibition notes, and I wonder how many would deduce that meaning by simply looking at the images. There’s often a disconnect between artistic intent and observer perception that is only bridged by further information.

  2. Pieter de Koninck

    In the artist statement for a series I am working on, I say that the “project started with the notion of celebrating what is given, what is ordinary, what is there. The images are independent of theme or context. Soon, however, parallel tracks started to form, one created by filling the space, the other by reducing it. Similar patterns, shapes and dynamics become apparent. By pairing the
    images, there is synergy: the sum becomes greater than its parts, the images feed off each other.
    The intent was never to present a narrative, but the pairing of the images invites the viewer to interpret and overlay a story if they so desire.”

    To paraphrase Janet Malcolm, photo critic for the New Yorker, “photography is nothing but an idea…more like math and chess than painting and drawing…”

  3. Dominique Pierre-Nina

    Hi Tim and fellow readers,

    Thank you for your kind words, I feel very honoured to receive a review. You are 100% correct in saying that I struggle to articulate in words what my work means! Not only is English is my third language, I’ve always been better at expressing myself visually than in words. I know my limits and leave the literary and philosophical commentary to experts such as you! When I go to a gallery, I rarely read what the artist says about their own work, I always take my own perspective on it.

    Apart from sending you the book as a gift of gratitude for all your thoughts on photography,
    I wanted to get a knowledgable outsider’s perspective on my work. Family and friends give me their opinions but in order to grow and better one’s work, I think it’s best to get other photographers to view and critique it because they will see what I don’t see, as I am so involved in the process.

    When I was curating the images, I wanted to portray a visual story line by relating the double page spread images to one another through a contiuum of shapes and patterns. But as my lovely wife pointed out, the first edit was a bit flat and dark without a coherent story arc over the whole book. Again I was a bit too close to the work! So she helped me make a few edits to create an overall journey, resulting in the final sequence. So I have to acknowledge her editing abilities!

    The picture you chose of the men hugging was taken during a “smoke ceremony” of respected Indigenous Australians, Uncles Dean, Max and Noel, on the south coast of New South Wales. On that very spot where the photo was taken, the elder with the three white stripes on his left hand was born sixty odd years ago on his ancestral homelands, where sadly an awful massacre of his people by the whites took place before his birth. This smoke ceremony was done as a part of what the Indigenous people call “Sorry Business”. It was done to recognise the wrongs that happened to their people which are rarely properly acknowledged, and they generously invited a bunch of willing non-Indigenous people along to witness. When we asked “What can we do to help the plight of Indigenous Australians? We always seem to get it wrong!”, they said that just our witnessing of the ceremony helped them. We were touched and grateful to be able to participate in the healing. It was such a powerful and emotional day.

    Having been forced by this process of review and reflection to try and articulate something about what my work means, the best I can do at this stage is to explain what my process was in this project. I carried the Leica with me everywhere, everyday, but I didn’t seek to find images, I just looked at everything around me as I walked and suddenly something would jump out at me and I would see the framed photograph in my mind’s eye. I seem to be drawn to the same things repeatedly: chairs, hats, classic cars, architectural shapes and human faces. The camera is just a tool to record what I see. I love the Leica M3 because of the beauty and simplicity of its design, and that preference for simple beauty is evident in the images I shoot. Generally they seem to have a timeless, uncomplicated quality, maybe a nostalgia for a simpler time – “À la Recherche du Temps Perdu”.

    Thanks again for your generosity Tim. By the way, my wife had to edit this too 😉
    If anyone would like to follow my evolving work or purchase the book, check out my instagram account @pierreninaphotography.

  4. Andrew Molitor

    Your photograph, of the statuary through the fence, strikes me not as directly meaningful but as “pregnant” with meaning. It strikes me as a good word or phrase that could probably be used in many different stories to good effect, a good plot device for a play.

    I am, in some senses, wildly open-minded (and a horrible narrow mind bastard in many others) and I am willing to see opportunity in many a picture. Still, there are definitely pictures that seem richer, more “pregnant’ with potential meaning than others.

    1. Dan Castelli

      Is your book available? I’d like a copy. I’ll gladly pay or trade…

  5. Rob Campbell

    “Is This a “Good Photo?” I Think So…But It Means Something to Me in a Way it Wouldn’t for You. That’s, in Large Part, What Makes it “Good” for Me. What Might Make it Good for You? Context Maybe?”

    Two things make it work for me: the dirty, scruffy look it has; the filmic setting – it would be at home in several,crime series I’ve watched recently. Is it a cemetery, a tombstone maker’s workshop, an allegorical depository for lost souls? (Incidentally, it’s my watching experience to conclude that motion photographers have far better visual sense than most stills photographers.)

    I’m sick of the pretty, pretty, stuff that fills so much of the Internet websites that I visit; I can hardly bear looking at any more colourful images of different parts of the world, at a zillion sunserts/rises, misty poplar trees in Tuscany, Indians throwing coloured dust at each other, all mostly devoid of raison d’être beyond proving that somebody was there, then, and owns a Photoshop programme. Even street, as such, seems to have been taken over by those with no eye whatsoever, just large, confrontational balls.

    I feel one could wipe out most of the past twenty years of photographic input and the world wouldn’t have lost a thing.

    We live in the age of curator photography, where the artist’s statement is the “work”.

      1. Rob Campbell

        To each his own, Tim; my fix is probably different. Trouble is, I’ve forgotten what the hell it was – probably too much dust in my system from my own years out there.

        Keith, I largely have given up looking; the disappointment grows by the exposure. Which is why my computer time is now spent mainly checking out if something new pops up here, or on TOP.

        I feel there’s a lot of desperation coming along within the established photo-related websites; it requires an idiosyncratic hand at the helm, as here, to keep the juices alive. A site with the need to be nice about equipment, to provide never-ending pats on the collective back, is compromised from the start. I guess it’s all a part of the +1 ethic, filled with people with nothing to say but consumed by the need to say it.

        😉 or,alternatively, ;-(

    1. StephenJ

      Rob wrote: “I feel one could wipe out most of the past twenty years of photographic input and the world wouldn’t have lost a thing.”

      That’s good Rob, the chances are that it might well be wiped out due to the ephemeral nature of the modern combination of hardware and software.

      Those fool wot print on paper might leave something behind, but there is no guarantee it will be better than the rest.

      Which brings us back to the recent piece by Tim about Zen….


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