Thursday, November 3, 2016


I revisit this topic now and then, and I don't think my ideas have changed much, but maybe it's worth a re-run, maybe I have some new words I can use.

In my previous remarks, I made reference to the idea of a larger "story" that a photograph, or group of pictures, could be part of. I also have been known to remark that a picture should "say something", and there are probably a half dozen other similar turns of phrase.

In all cases I mean something that's not really a "story" at all, and I don't mean "say something" in any necessarily verbal way. My intention is something very broad, which is perhaps story-like in a sense. In intention is to convey the idea that a picture should in some sense act like a good short story, a poem, a novel, in the way it evokes something in the right sort of mind. The viewer, ideally, is left with some complex of emotional response, of new ideas, a sensation (not necessarily correct) of some insight. While it might be possible to express this happy result in words, it's not a requirement. I suppose one ought to be able to "talk around" it a bit, if you're one of those people (like me) who enjoys wrestling verbally with the non-verbal.

So it's not a "story", really, it's more like a result of a story.

I can't think of a good word for this thing that Art should do, it seems to encompass a lot. "say something", "tell a story", "challenge the audience" and so on, but there is more, and these aren't really right anyways. There's a little bit of that lame cop-out "I know it when I see it" going on here, to boot.

Perhaps there's a great word or phrase in another language? That would certainly be nice.


  1. Evoke, Resonate, Catalyze, Reverberate, maybe in some cases instigate or aggravate. At the very least the photograph should stimulate a "second thought"


    Some of the ideas in this might chime.

  3. I think you've pretty much nailed it, but I don't know a concise English or German word for it. I also believe that there is a certain symmetry between the act of taking a picture and looking at a picture, or creating art and looking at art. It's like an energy emanating from the stuff being photographed, which is sensed by the photographer. If the resulting picture "works", then this energy in turn can be sensed by the viewer. Maybe "resonating", as suggested by Stephen Cysewski, is even better than "sensing" (heh - it's borrowed from Physics, too, like "energy").

    But what causes this "resonance"? Is it acquired by our culture - some sort of "culture complex" - or does it go deeper, somewhere into our psyche? These are interesting questions ...

    Best, Thomas

  4. Hi Andrew,
    It does seem to be quite a tricky concept for some to get. Too many take the word story in literal way.

    Perhaps 'narrative' is an option. Or even 'substance'.

    I recall reading a comment by David DuChemin where he was discussing a persons vision. He wrote that if someone didn't understand the word vision in that context, then they should transpose the word 'intent'.

    Food for thought methinks.


  5. I've posted a comment yesterday, but was somehow lost in the dark intertubes ;^) I'll try to write it again:

    First off, I think you expressed it well, but I don't know a concise term in either German or English. In addition to what you wrote about viewing a picture, I believe that there is a kind of symmetry between recognizing a picture and taking it, and viewing the resulting picture. I'd say that certain scenes emanate something like an energy, which resonates with the photographer; a successful picture will also emanate energy, which may resonate with the viewer. As a trained scientist, I'm somehow at odds with this pseudo-Physics jargon. Nevertheless, I think it's a good metaphor. After attending an interesting exhibition, I feel that my spirits are lifted, like an energy.

    It's an interesting question to ask for the origin of this resonance. Is it acquired by our culture - a "culture complex" - or does it go deeper, right down into our subconscious?

    Best, Thomas

    1. Sorry about that! Blogger send to randomly drop comments on to spam. So now I've published both!

  6. I'd argue it doesn't even make sense to look for one word. I'd draw a parallel with movies - as there're far more tools available to the cinematographer, the possible "reaction space" is also much deeper and more nuanced, but still you wouldn't describe, say, Martian and Dead Man with one word/phrase (it challenged, it told a story, it evoked).

    My next problem is with the words suggested here - they're (mostly) verbs and saying something like "this picture evokes/provokes/tells a story" stops short, leaving out the important part - what does it evoke or tell?

    If we want to generalize, we could probably say that some photo "triggers emotional reaction", now the important part is the type of the reaction (sadness, melancholy, etc) and the strength of it (ranging from no reaction to being overwhelmed).

    You could probably even divide the types of reactions to different classes:
    * colorful drone photos from new angle certainly trigger some emotions (a superficial wow) when you're looking at your first ten
    * some compositions/tones just feel right (take your best friend Ming's pictures - you can't complain mostly, can you? This is also where most of the photo critique stops - "I don't like how the scarf cuts the edge of the frame")
    * the content - does it challenge your understanding of beauty? does it make you rethink your attitude towards homeless people?

    Food for thought - take a look at and (there's more Sammallahti available when you google). Both use the similar format - single BW pictures - how do they evoke/provoke/tell/challange/resonate with you and why. What's the difference?


    I have a habit not to write comments in the small window below the post, because I've lost many of them due to blogger/mistaken refresh/etc, so now, after going back to your blog from a text editor, I realized I might have not said anything new at all...

  7. How about engaging?

    I feel a good photograph can engage a viewer in any number of ways. It can cause the viewer to think of a question, tweak the imagination, stoke an emotion, or enter into a dialog of some sort, internally or externally. If those engaged responses can stick with you over a period of time, then the longer the better it presumably is. That's how I judge it anyway.

    Eye candy that can be ingested, digested and evacuated in a matter of seconds is perhaps something different.