Symbolism in Photography
A personal take on symbolism in photography.
I like photographing geometry. I am attracted to images where parallel lines, circles, squares feature strongly. This extends to the third dimension with the simple volumes all appealing, i.e spheres, cubes, cones and pyramids. I also possess the photographers love of and obsession with light. This combination is probably to be expected of someone who claims to be a minimalist. Minimalism and symbolism in photography are not so easy to pair up though.
If this were the end of the story I’d always be happiest working in the abstract, with objects that possess no meaning themselves but are only a means to affect light, to reflect, refract or absorb it or of any combination of the three.
I enjoy working in the abstract but I also get a deep sense of satisfaction from working with certain objects that goes way beyond their aesthetic properties. This actually goes against the grain of pure minimalism in the aesthetic sense as minimalist art, by definition, should be self contained and without need of external context.
I think that this enjoyment can come from one of two places. Occasionally a direct reference to something in my past but this is rare as, for example, I get as much pleasure from photographing food that I don’t like the taste of as I do from photographing food that I’d walk across broken glass for a spoonful of. It is all in the visuals – either it has interesting form and does interesting stuff to light or it doesn’t. So the direct reference thing doesn’t satisfactorily account for the connection with recognizable objects it has to be something else.
That something else is a type of symbolism. An object may represent many different things depending upon how it is lit and how it relates to other objects in the frame. This is where the minimalism comes in, the objects that I gravitate towards have very simple geometries such as the cubes of dice, the flattened cylinders of checkers pieces or even the combined sphere, cone and cylinders of chessmen.
I tend to use chess pieces a lot. The reason for this is that they can be used to symbolize so much and with a surprising amount of nuance. There are the obvious war and conflict themes but also others. Here are just a few possibilities, some of which I’ve explored and many that I haven’t:
- Protection – queen standing over pawn of same color
- Treachery – piece in shadow observing same colored king in a well lit area
- The Underdog – pawn next to toppled king of opposite color
- Uniformity – group of pawns arranged in a line
- Allegience – two kings given equal prominence
- Pawn – representation of the masses
- Bishop – representation of religion
These are just a few of the more obvious possibilities. 32 simple geometric volumes and simple board have the ability to represent war, peace, massive scales and personal ones. Everything from the death of a nation to an illicit love affair.
One thing I do not do is decide what concept that I want to illustrate, decide upon the symbols to use then set up the photographs. The actual process always starts from the object’s visual properties and works outwards towards the meaning. An example, I was going through some stuff in our basement recently and came across some dice that were translucent. The dice appealed to me on a non-intellectual level, they were simple solids and were likely to do really interesting things to light.
It was only while working with the camera and the dice and the camera that the other layers of meaning started to reveal themselves. I have always enjoyed doing probability related math and have always enjoyed games and sport. It was only after putting in the mental effort and seeing that photography requires that the connection was made – the dice were perfect symbols for me. They resonated. It was this resonance that made me pick them up and start to work with them, without it the images, and more importantly the accompanying understanding never would have taken place. The real take home message for me is that the initial attraction to an object is not intellectual but instinctive and that an object either resonates or it doesn’t This resonance is a combination of two things, an appealing aesthetic and the potential to pull together different parts of our individual experience leading to a deeper understanding of ourselves. It is the subconscious giving our conscious brain a heads up. The aesthetic is the key and the rest is the lock.