12. Images, sans paroles

Merry Christmas Mr Parke

Not so long ago, a photographer wrote to me, taking issue with my essay entitled The case for the negative in which I used one of my own photographs to illustrate the point I was trying to make. Her criticism was based on the premise that a good photograph speaks for itself; and her complaint was that my essay was no more than a cynical attempt to “market” a photograph that was unable to speak for itself and was therefore, by her definition, not good.

The purpose of my writing this is not to defend or justify my essay or my photograph.  But rather, I was intrigued by her premise and I wanted to explore that further with a broader community. Is a photograph that requires explanation necessarily a failure?

In “The case for the negative”, I argued that our perception of an image is a composite of what the photographer provided, in terms of form and content, and what we, ourselves, bring to the interpretation in terms of our knowledge and experience. But having said that, I personally find it interesting to know how the photographer came to take that particular image and to portray it in that particular way. And I think it is important to recognise here the difference between academic and aesthetic interest. As a student of photography, I take academic interest in the processes another photographer uses to take a photograph; particularly one that I find appealing. But as a consumer of photography, I have an aesthetic interest particularly in those images that I feel are good but am not quite sure why; and I feel that if I could get inside the mind of the photographer, my own capacity to understand his or her work would expand and I would be the richer for it. So, I personally, am far from outraged when a photograph is explained, either by the photographer or by someone else whose superior knowledge and understanding can inform mine.

Let me tell you about an experience I had recently that might illustrate the issue as I see it.


Trent Parke is one of Australia’s leading contemporary photographers. He is the only Australian photographer who is a member of the prestigious Magnum photo agency; and his work is promoted in Sydney through the Stills Gallery[1], one of the city’s leading spaces dedicated to contemporary photography.

I went along to the gallery in November 2010 to see a new exhibition that took the form of a compilation of work of various photographers represented by Stills including Trent Parke, Narelle Autio, Mark Kimber, Polixeni Papapetrou and William Yang.  Images from Parke’s Christmas Tree Bucket series were complimented by a sample from his new Black Rose project. The Christmas Tree Bucket series comprises a portfolio depicting the detritus of a suburban home during the Christmas period, including a shot of Frankfurt sausages boiling in a pot on a stove which is identical to the one my mother had (pictured above). As an historical document depicting a particular culture in place and time, the images have a certain fascination; but I’m not sure that I’d hang any of them on my wall at home. On the other hand, I’d love to have the opportunity to discuss them with their author one day over a cup of coffee, just to find out what was going through his mind as he compiled the series.

The four images from The Black Rose project presented a different challenge; and here I was very fortunate to have an opportunity to discuss them with one of the gallery staff, a young woman who was generous with her time but impressed me even more with her candour and preparedness to share inside knowledge with me.

I don’t want to discuss each of the images in detail here because I don’t have permission to reproduce them and I feel that I might do them injustice by trying to describe them. But for the purposes of this article, let me say that I found two of them quite easy to understand; a third I interpreted in a way that proved to be very wide of the mark; and the final one, I looked at for a long time, I turned my head one way and another, I moved closer and then further away, and I still couldn’t understand what it was meant to be; and moreover, I wondered what on earth had possessed a photographer of Parke’s calibre to take such an image let alone put it on public display as a representation of his work. But this was where the information provided by the gallery staffer became invaluable.

I don’t want to prejudice you by spilling the beans about these images. Perhaps, if you get to see them, you will have better luck in understanding them than I did and I don’t want to spoil that pleasure for you. But my guide gave me an insight, a critical piece of background information, that suddenly put the series into a new light for me; and I actually doubt that anyone could have inferred that insight from the images alone. Instead of leaving the gallery perplexed, I left there feeling enriched, and profoundly touched both by the images themselves and by the intent behind them. Perhaps even more so because the event that triggered the series was similar to one I too had experienced recently and to which I could deeply relate.

So, my point is that, if Trent Parke, with his experience and credentials, can create and exhibit images that are so deeply personal that they require inside knowledge to be fully understood and appreciated, then surely the premise that a photograph must speak for itself, or be dismissed as inferior, is disputable.

For me, as a student of photography, understanding why a photograph was taken, what it represents and how its physical form connects with the photographer’s psyche is part of the learning process. Many photographs do speak for themselves and can be immediately understood and appreciated by a broad section of the community without explanation; but there are a number of photographers in my contact list on Flickr whose work challenges me on a regular basis; and whilst I admit that I like some of their images more than others, I never dismiss a piece simply because I’ve failed to understand it. On the contrary, those are the pieces that I’d love to discuss with their author; because those are the pieces I feel I could learn most from. But on the other side of the coin, when one of my own images fails to provoke the response on Flickr I expected it to, I see no reason why I should not ask what I did wrong, or what I might have done better. That too is part of the learning process.

So, what do you think? Should we shove our images out of the nest to fend for themselves? Should we only exhibit images that are capable of arguing their own case? Or is it okay to share more than just the images themselves on Flickr. I’d love to hear your opinion on this subject; and I won’t hold it against you if you use one of your own images as an example to make your case.

[1] If you happen to visit Sydney and are interested in contemporary photography I strongly recommend you visit the Stills Gallery; but equally strongly advise you to bring a map because it literally goes out of its way to avoid discovery.


8 thoughts on “12. Images, sans paroles

  1. I’ve heard some of these same points raised about poetry. If you don’t understand it, is it a bad poem? How much explication is okay, and when does the explaining get tedious and too involved with the personal experience or ego of the poet? Why should you have to know the bio of the poet to appreciate a poem?

    My feeling is this: the photographer can explain all s/he wants, and sometimes that deepens my appreciation of the image and sometimes not. There. Regarding “Merry Christmas Mr. Parke,” I might find that this kitchen was the only kitchen to survive a horrible city bombing, or the place seven people were conceived, or the photographer always has five pots or pans in his images, but the information, though intriguing, wouldn’t make me care much about the image.

    Hmmmmmm…I seem to have come out on the ‘shove it out of the nest’ side.

    • Thank you, Pat, for your comment.
      Regarding “Merry Christmas Mr. Parke,” let me be absolutely clear that I took this photograph of my mother’s stove; but I took it because I had seen a photograph by Trent Parke which featured the exact same make and model of stove. I really didn’t understand Mr. Parke’s image but it was explained to me that his image belonged to a series and as such, needed to be viewed in context to be understood. I still didn’t feel enamoured to it; but since I have no authority to display his image here, I thought I’d take my own (but different), just for fun.
      Besides a certain symmetry that I find quite pleasing; and a certain tension created by the scissors hanging from the hook; the image has no meaning (that I am aware of). But the potholder, with the Christmas motif, was already hanging there when I went to take the photograph; and I found that strangely ironic considering the title of Mr Parke’s series. 🙂

  2. I understood it was your image, appreciate your making sure about that. Perhaps a scene such as this, as part of a series, would be fascinating, and I skipped over that. It is ironic that you have the same stove as well as the Christmas motif. 🙂

  3. Learning more about the photographer, or the processes that went into an image, or a story regarding how the idea behind the image came about can all create a more rich experience of the image. And, really, don’t all our previous experiences cause us to view images and think of images in ever changing ways? So what we learn should influence us. But it’s still the image that’s being viewed.

    At flickr, I enjoy reading the author’s description under the title, and I often get a chuckle from the tags. They all add to a more full experience.

    But at the end of it all, the image still speaks on its own. After all, it is worth somewhere around a thousand words, que no?

  4. Certainly, photography is art, and some arts need highly creative imagination to interpret their meaning.
    But, even when I am in a museum, I still like to read the title or description of the projects, simply to get me somewhat in line with the creator’s brain.

    Good photograph can speak for itself, only if the viewer understand the same language.

    I, personally, don’t qualify myself as someone who smarts enough to understand all the languages spoken by numerous excellent photographs.

  5. I have been mostly off Flickr for the past six weeks or so, and I had begun to feel I wouldn’t go back to it, but I strongly agree with John Guarino who I think expresses my opinion better than I do, and with far fewer words. I realize I really miss your pictures, Keith, and John’s, and those of several people who put similar or equal effort into the the words as the images…and that might just draw me back to Flickr in a week or two, when I hope to have a little more time to devote to it. I don’t think I ever enjoy pictures without words as much as with them.

  6. Keith, I have been away from flickr for awhile also but keep coming back both for the pictures and the commentary, but not always for the same reasons. In this case, I would say the images that stay in my mind are most often the ones that do speak to me in some way. And once I become attached to one, or it to me, and have formed my own back story, I sometimes find later that I missed the whole point of what the photographer was trying to convey. But it really didn’t matter because I got something from it in my own way. It is the same with music for me. Whether it demands my attention from the start, or grows on me over time, it never really needs a proper introduction. I am happy to just fall under its spell. No questions asked.

    I also keep coming back to your blog because you manage to test my perceptions and cause me to reconsider my conventional thinking. Keep up the exellent work.

    • On further reflection and considering the responses I’ve recieved to this blog post, both here and on Flickr, I tend to agree with what you said: the most memorable images are those that make an instant connection with me; that talk to me directly in a way that I can relate to. And you’re right; it doesn’t really matter if I have understood the message the photographer intended to convey. What matters primarily is that a connection was established.

      But there is still a part of me that wants to understand; like the child who pulls his trainset apart to see how it works. Just watching the train go round and round is not always enough for me. But that’s just me. And how much less interesting the world would be if we were all alike. Thank you for commenting 🙂

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