Meeting 20 May 2013

Our May meeting was a small one, in terms of numbers present. But there were just enough of us to pay for the hire of the room at the usual rate of a fiver each (taking into account the £10 surplus from the March meeting) and perhaps it was a good thing that there were not more of us. Because what we were doing was holding a series of discussions about images, in which we examined them in great detail. These discussions took up the whole evening and a larger group would hardly have had time to look at them in such depth.

We had all brought with us an image by somebody other than ourselves, and another of our own. Interestingly, for the former, three of us had brought not photographs but paintings. Whatever our individual motives for doing this, the result was welcome, because it underlined the extent to which paintings are essentially constructed images. The painter has to begin with an idea before even putting a brush to canvas. And everything that happens thereafter is to a greater or lesser extent considered. While accidents must undoubtedly play some part in creating a painting, and the prior vision is subject to change, and probably does change, as the painter goes along, some kind of prior plan there must be. In a sense therefore painters are doing what we, as Contemporary photographers, are supposed to be doing: starting with an idea and working to illustrate that.

But photographers cannot easily work in this way with individual images, especially those of us who do not habitually practise in the studio, where images may be constructed from the ground up, and planned in every detail before the shutter is pressed. Most of us, photographing the world, must take it as we find it, and try to make the best of what we find. The photographs we looked at during the evening showed that many photographers are adept at doing that, not excluding some of ourselves. We saw some excellent photographs that gave us plenty to talk about, and many things to disagree about. It was, however, a good tempered set of discussions from which I certainly learned a lot.

So, what does make a good image? Trying to sum up our conclusions, I would say that first and foremost the image must hang together as a whole. Tensions within the image are welcome, things like compositional axes working in opposite directions to one another, or different subject areas each demanding our attention, or contrasts in colour, or large parts of an image being occupied by a block of colour or tone while the main attraction is going on outside of it. But take these tensions too far, and the image collapses and fails to hold the viewer. One might say there are positive tensions, which keep the image together much as a bridge is kept in place by tensions pulling in opposite directions, and negative tensions which occur when one gets too strong and pulls the image too far in its own singular direction. Ambiguity is another strength in an image. Ambiguity asks questions and keeps us guessing and that holds our attention, and it works best when it fails to provide any answer. And, perhaps most of all, a good image will suggest something to us, will seem to be telling us something, even if we have difficulty in deciding exactly what that is. And the more it goes on telling us things, even as we continue to look at it, the more successful it is likely to be.

I hope everybody else enjoyed the evening as much as I did. I know that my own interest in theory is not always shared by others who are perhaps more practically minded, but I think there was much in our discussions for all of us. Certainly, the time went quickly and we had to compress things a bit towards the end of the evening in order to finish by 10.00. We never got round to discussing our proverbial exhibition, which is once again left over to another day. Our next meeting is on Monday, 15 July, when Derek T will be supplying the theme for the evening, and leading our discussions. More of that in due course.