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Curious Frame - Issue #26 - Photography & Layers of Meaning

Curious Frame
Curious Frame - Issue #26 - Photography & Layers of Meaning
By Leanne Staples • Issue #26 • View online
We always choose what to photograph and what not to even if we are shooting more intuitively, less consciously. We are always responding to those things which attract our vision and we should learn to trust those times and follow them.
The true mystery of the world is the visible. Oscar Wilde. 
There are many different threads which I have been writing about over the past 25 issues. They all crisscross each other at some point and it is my intention to start weaving them together. 
The act of writing about photography provides the possibility of further understanding a medium that contains so many messages simultaneously, it requires standing back or standing under to discover the many meanings held within. To under/stand.
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Readers comments:
Don’t keep those thoughts to yourself. Curious Frame is about dialogue and I’d love to hear your comments or even questions or inspirations. And it’s easy. Just hit reply in your email.
Your opinions are valued. No advanced degrees or education required.
One reader wrote about the previous issue on Abstract Photography:
A good abstract, be it a photo, painting or another type of art, is much more difficult to achieve than correctly making a perfect landscape photo, can you understand me?
Maybe there is a confusion that the abstract is blurred, but I understand that the abstraction is the focus, a line in focus can become an abstract, the imaginary point that art takes us, and I love to travel looking at an art!
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Photography & Layers of Meaning
Life in Orange, New York City, 27 March 2021
Life in Orange, New York City, 27 March 2021
To understand a photo is akin to translating from a foreign language, each person will translate it in different ways depending on their own life experiences and relationship to the image. 
I began the Curious Frame newsletter with the topic Photography is a Language. It is all by itself a form of communication. The beauty of a photo is that we don’t need to speak the same language as the photog who took it. 
Typically, it isn’t necessary to understand the photographer’s intention in street photography. With conceptual forms of photography, documentary and photojournalism, we may be able to come to our own feelings about it and feel compelled to gain a greater understanding of the aim of the photographer.
Carrie Mae Weems. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. The Kitchen Table series which was completed over a two year period (1989 to 1990), and has Weems cast as the central character in the photographs. "I use my own constructed image as a vehicle for questioning ideas about the role of tradition, the nature of family, monogamy, polygamy, relationships between men and women, between women and their children, and between women and other women—underscoring the critical problems and the possible resolves."
Carrie Mae Weems. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. The Kitchen Table series which was completed over a two year period (1989 to 1990), and has Weems cast as the central character in the photographs. "I use my own constructed image as a vehicle for questioning ideas about the role of tradition, the nature of family, monogamy, polygamy, relationships between men and women, between women and their children, and between women and other women—underscoring the critical problems and the possible resolves."
The camera gave me an incredible freedom. It gave me the ability to parade through the world and look at people and things very, very closely. Carrie Mae Weems
Within a photo there are many possible meanings that each viewer can bring to it. When a photo works well, the viewer completes the story that resides in it. I should say stories, as while we may agree on certain aspects embedded in a photo, we will likely always differ on the exact meaning. 
The above photo by Carrie Mae Weems was expertly constructed to beg us to look for the meaning in it. One thing that most people will agree on is that there is a definite sense of tension in it.
The meaning of a photo is not necessarily dependent on the intention of the photog. We cannot stand outside of ourselves when viewing a photo. We bring ourselves to a photo when we view it. By design, some photos are a little more obvious than others.
Gerhard Richter. Roses, oil on canvas, 1994.
Gerhard Richter. Roses, oil on canvas, 1994.
To talk about painting is not only difficult, but perhaps pointless too. You can only express in words what words are capable of expressing, what language can communicate. Gerhard Richter.
For some, there is a feeling that we can actually say more with an image than we can with words. The above quote by Richter is perhaps somewhat ironic. Artists are expected to have a statement about their work. Richter is very experienced in that area and has written much about his art.
While Richter didn’t make the statement about this particular painting, you might be inclined to read further about why he liked to paint paintings that look more like blurred photos. You can also like the photo or not without further examination.
Whether you are highly literate, illiterate, or somewhere between the two, more can be expressed in a single image than can be easily expressed in writing. Photography like painting at its best can be the inspiration for a poem or other works of art. In short it can be like a form of visual poetry. (Photography & Poetry - Issue 17)
Ernst Haas, New York, 1962, chromogenic print.
Ernst Haas, New York, 1962, chromogenic print.
Therefore when we look at a photo, when we take the time to actually see the photo rather than merely glancing at it (Looking versus Seeing - Issue 3,) it will yield more information to us. We let the story unfold with our imagination.
When Ernst Haas took the above photo in 1962, we spent more time looking at individual photos. There were fewer distractions and life just moved at a slower pace. There were fewer opportunities to see photos.
We could get lost in a photo easier back then. Especially as so much in the world of photography was new. We were seeing thing in photos for the first time. Photography’s influence began to have a very direct and immediate effect on us.
Tristan Eaton on Houston, New York City, June 2018.
Tristan Eaton on Houston, New York City, June 2018.
Now images fight for our attention. The bigger the better. We view hundreds of photos everyday by our choosing and those that just appear in our field of vision without our permission. Sometimes we stop and look.
Photos that appear without our choosing can have an effect on how we see and form our vision of the world. They define what we consider normal by the sheer repetition of them. These images become one way in which we perceive ‘reality.’
Tom Ford's Fall 2015 ad campaign was seen as a very diverse mix of models. But the thing that have in common is they all wear size 0 or 2.
Tom Ford's Fall 2015 ad campaign was seen as a very diverse mix of models. But the thing that have in common is they all wear size 0 or 2.
If the media only shows us photos of ultra thin women modeling expensive designer clothing and portraying a jet set life style, including heroin chic as if it’s cool to be a junkie, we will come to see it as normal.
So yes, Sex Sells (Issue 5) and the odd thing is that we know that, but we still fall for it. Whether it creates a problem in how we view our physical appearance and obsess about our weight or wanting to get plastic surgery, it creates a false sense of what the world is about.
Photography has a much deeper effect on how we view the world. I’m not suggesting that we censor fashion advertising. No, we should see the fashion industry as a form of art and perhaps we can make an effort to have more diverse images of people not only in fashion but all aspects of life.
Dove's Real Women Campaign, 2013.
Dove's Real Women Campaign, 2013.
You can look at the Tom Ford ad and the Dove ad side-by-side and the difference is remarkable, yet we don’t often see ads like the ones from Dove. These women are real people or at least they are creating a look that is closer to what we most often see.
Many years ago I was working in a furniture store in Midtown. I saw famous people on a very regular basis. In the space of a few weeks I saw Faye Dunaway and Meryl Streep in the store. They both looked, well I guess they looked like normal women.
I could say that neither struck me as beautiful woman of the Hollywood actress type. They didn’t have the lights and stylist and they were between films. It was necessary for me to do a double take to realize who they were.
On the other hand, Diane Keaton looked like Annie Hall and Mick Jagger looked like all of his photos. We see people at their best when they are in the business of looking good. They often appear quite different on the street, but not always.
While we tend to think of subliminal advertising like seeing a millisecond ad for popcorn and soda when watching a film at a theater, the fact is that subliminal advertising is everywhere and all the time now. It just isn’t what we normally think of as subliminal.
We are constantly bombarded with images that attempt to get us to conform to a marketing campaign. At some point, we easily lose track of that. We become prey to major corporations images that are fabricated.
The language of photography has many layers to it. The photos showing the rich and famous and the labels that they wear is just one of the methods that photography helps to instill expectations in society.
Lane Bryant ad, #PlusIsEqual
Lane Bryant ad, #PlusIsEqual
In the past, I recall seeing the Lane Bryant ad campaigns during New York Fashion Week. The ads featured plus size women dressed in sexy outfits and they were plastered on the sides of the tourist buses. It was their method of commenting on the fashion industry.
I recall men looking at the giant photos with their jaws down to their knees. I saw them discussing which women they thought were hot. I thought wow, now that’s something.
While diversity has become a nonstop issue in the news, mainstream media has been slow to catch up. Photography can fool us into thinking that what we see is true. Yes, seeing is believing is a topic that always comes up.
The Truth Will Be Revealed, New York City, September 2010.
The Truth Will Be Revealed, New York City, September 2010.
So while there is an unwritten language that influences us, not all images are entirely truthful or honest. The above photo is really an ad for a television series. I don’t even know which show, but they cleverly didn’t reveal what it was.
When we’re out shooting I always suggest slowing down to see what’s going on around you. You don’t really need to chase photos that often. They often appear right in from of your eyes.
As well, it’s good to stop and have a look at the photos that we didn’t choose have come into our field of vision. The only way that we can gain an understanding of the images around us is to look at them with a critical eye.
We shouldn’t be looking at photos to provide Truth. In an upcoming newsletter I will be writing and photography and the idea of belief. When we think of something as true, it is because we believe.
I look forward to your comments, questions and experiences on abstract photography. Let’s dialogue!
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Further viewing:
Here are 2 short videos about the work of Carrie Mae weems. They provide a good introduction to her photography and her methodology as an artist.
Carrie Mae Weems & Kitchen Table Series
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You can also find me at:
Artist, Photographer & Writer - Leanne Staples
Shop for Art, Zines & Publications - Leanne Staples
Walking Photo Tours & Street Photography Workshops in New York City
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Leanne Staples

In a world that is overpopulated with images, Curious Frame is where I share my thoughts on photography. It is always about ‘seeing with new eyes’.

I’m Leanne Staples, a photographer, artist, and writer living in New York City. Street photography and lens-based art are my passions, and Curious Frame is where I’ll be sharing my thoughts on these passions.

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