If a picture says a thousand words, which thousand words does it say to whom? If we all wrote down what we hear, no two accounts would be the same. A picture of an antelope can tickle a palate, provoke wonder in the Lord’s creation, convey a medical factoid, illustrate the photographer’s technique, bore a teenager, etc. A picture of a destitute woman with child may provoke sympathy, wonder, or contempt (if she is seen as lazy, irresponsible with pregnancy, parasitic on society, etc.). The more "abstract" a photo, the wider its range of interpretations. So the question is: can a photographer convey a controlled moral message at all?
On the art of photography, we'll do well to recall Wittgenstein: "What can be shown, cannot be said." What a picture conveys, he suggests, cannot be fixed by words. Words are a subjective proxy for a picture, a separate creation with a life of its own.
In matters of appreciation, photography may well be closer to music. As forms of art, both are more abstract than, say, novels and films, which at least have words and ideas to latch on to. But novels and films are already notoriously subjective. The best writers know how hard it is to control interpretation. "The stories we write," says JM Coetzee, "sometimes begin to write themselves, after which their truth or falsehood is out of our hands and declarations of authorial intent carry no weight. Furthermore, once a book is launched into the world it becomes the property of its readers, who, given half a chance, will twist its meaning in accord with their own preconceptions and desires."*
So what hope is there for photography? One answer is that its subjectivity is no worse than other art forms. As a mirror to our protean soul, all art is radically subjective, making it impossible to convey a controlled moral message. But radical subjectivity doesn't mean that a practical convergence in appreciation is impossible. We still produce art, judge it, discuss and debate it, buy and sell it, all while relying on a shared cultural sensibility to give it meaning (i.e., a language game). Pictures, like music, can also establish broad appeal by tapping into many universal human archetypes such as joy and sorrow, wonder and delight, fear and revulsion, etc.
(Read Part 2 for a follow-on to this post.)