I’ve not written a testimonial for another Flickr photographer (yet!) because I’m afraid that it would make me sound as though I thought I knew what I was talking about. When someone, a long time ago, coined the phrase: “I don’t know much about art but I know what I like,” they were unwittingly talking about me. I do know what I like and I sometimes know why I like it. In fact, the photographers whose work I admire most are those who are taking the kind of photographs I, myself, would like to be taking. I know that I like their work because it speaks to me on an emotional level. But do I understand it on the aesthetic or intellectual levels? Sometimes I think I do; but most of the time, I’m not sure. In fact, I’m not even sure that it is possible for anyone to fully understand another’s work.
I find that the more abstract a work of art, the more difficult it is for me to judge. With a realistic interpretation of a familiar subject I have a frame of reference against which to compare the work; but an abstract representation of an intangible subject lies at the opposite end of that spectrum for me. For example, I once visited the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam to see The Nightwatch by Rembrandt. It was displayed in a small gallery, on the wall facing the entrance and flanked by two paintings of similar size and comparable subject – but totally different in their effect. In the other two paintings, the light was flat, making the figures look 2-dimensional; but in The Nightwatch, Rembrandt had used bright highlights and deep shadows to make the figures appear rounded and 3-dimensional. The technique used by Rembrandt in The Nightwatch was relatively easy for me to recognise and understand. But ask me to critique Picasso or Mondrian or Pollock or Rothko and I wouldn’t know where to begin.
I sometimes look at photographs that win competitions and wonder what the judges saw in them; especially when there were other candidates that were, in my opinion, far more deserving. And this raises the concern in me: if I cannot distinguish between a good photograph and a better one, how can I expect to produce photographs of quality myself? Perhaps this is why I find it so difficult to predict others’ reaction to my own images.
Recently, I uploaded two images to Flickr on the same day. They were both street scenes, taken on a visit to Hong Kong. Frankly, I don’t think that either of them was particularly striking in itself; but they were part of a series and I felt that the series as an ensemble did convey reasonably well the ambiance of the streets on that particular occasion; so I uploaded them. Of the two, I felt that the one I called “Queen of the Alley” [Q] was by far the stronger in the mood it captured. The other, entitled “King of the Street” [K] seemed to me to have little appeal on the pictorial or narrative levels; but because it included some signage in Chinese characters, it looked a little more exotic. I expected that [Q] would arouse more interest than [K]; but viewer reaction, in fact, was quite the opposite. To put it bluntly, [K] was Explored while [Q] was (comparitively) ignored. How could I have misjudged the reaction so completely?
Reviewing the comments received on the [K] shot (above), it would appear that the appeal lay in its tones/colours, the angle (looking down on the street), the clutter of bric-a-brac on view and the man himself. 14 people called it a favourite and I was invited to post it in 5 groups.
The [Q] shot, on the other hand (above), received less than half the number of comments, was favourited by only 3 people and I was invited to post it to only 1 other group. Several comments referred positively to the mood created in the shot while others appreciated the “framing” but clearly I had failed to convey to the viewers what I had felt when I happened to glance down the alley that day and caught sight of this scene.
Every work of art is an attempt at communication where the author seeks to convey to his audience the essence of something that so moved him that he felt compelled to share it with the world. Where the medium of communication is photography, the language of communication used is a visual language, based on a vocabulary of visual elements (e.g. shapes, colours, tones, light and shade) and techniques (e.g. DoF, contrast, grain, foreshortening, wide-angle distortion). Just as a writer assembles words to create the effect he is trying to communicate to his readers; and the composer uses notes and sounds to create the effect he is trying to communicate to his listeners; the photographer selects and uses the visual elements and techniques at his disposal to create an image that embodies and projects the message he is trying to communicate to his viewers. Of course, it is important for the photographer to have something to say; and the skill in communication lies in his ability to convey this message clearly and unambiguously.
Some images convey their message unequivocally; while others are more nuanced; more subtly wrought. In the case of the former, reaction is usually instantaneous and universal; whereas those images in the latter category require more thought and often produce a spectrum of interpretations as the viewer’s experience bonds with that of the author to create a dialogue between the two. Where the message of the photograph is not blatantly obvious, the reputation of the photographer plays an important role. Where the photographer has an established reputation for quality images, the viewer is more likely to take time to study the image, explore its nuances, consider its depth and seek out the meaning that he is confident resides in the composition of visual elements; whereas a challenging image from a photographer with no reputation may be quickly dismissed as a “dud”. With so many images to view on Flickr, it is understandable that viewers are more receptive to images that convey their messages quickly and clearly.
Generally speaking, we photograph what appeals to us. That is why some of us specialise in landscapes while others prefer to capture people on the street and others again are more eclectic in their choice of subjects. But whatever our proclivities are, within the broad arc of our interests we are each susceptible to fluctuations of mood and maybe we seek out or are at least more sensitive to subjects or interpretations that reflect our mood at a given time. Among the comments on my [Q] shot was an observation that the image conveyed a sense of sadness and perhaps this is why I felt that it was more meaningful (to me) than the [K] shot – because there was a pervading sadness in my life at the time I captured this image. And perhaps viewers who recognised this had experienced their own sadness at some point in their lives, which the image brought to mind.
The two images that I uploaded on that day were not pictorially dramatic; did not have big stories to tell; were not the kinds of image that grab your attention in a mosaic of thumbnails. But when I saw the old woman in the alley, something told me to capture the image. I do not know this old woman’s story; but I can imagine it going something like this.
I am disappointed that this image did not provoke the reaction that I had expected. I am disappointed for myself; but I am also strangely disappointed for the unknown subject whose story I attempted, unsuccessfully, to tell. So, this is my testimonial, to all those who find themselves in lonely, deserted places.
 I have elected to use the male pronoun because English does not provide a gender-neutral pronoun and the repeated use of “his or her” is very clumsy. My use of the male pronoun, however, does not imply that the point I am making does not apply equally to female photographers.