Conceptual Awareness – Reflecting on our Photographs

Creating photos is also creating a trail of breadcrumbs. Looking carefully at the images we create can help us discover language and ideas about how we think about our work, and perhaps who we are as artists. Here is the first in a few articles that will be looking at a specific framework which was created to help turn photographs inside-out for analysis.

Just ahead of the middle of the twentieth century, as the GI’s were on their way back home and eager to dive into passions and professions, Minor White was given the chance to lead an innovative photography program at the California School of Arts in San Francisco. He seems to have relished his role helping to shape several years of students who were given the chance to dive head first and deep into professional practice and creative pursuits within the medium.

During this time White began developing his personal focus on using photography as a means of learning more about oneself as an artist and a human. He pushed students to challenge themselves and look closely at what they were like as photographers, and what their images could tell them in return.

In an article titled “You Concept is Showing” he outlined a conceptual framework for how someone could look at photographs and begin to sort out where they fell within a broad spectrum. His goal was to provide his students with a means to look at their own work as a means of archeology. To use the work that existed to get a sense for what decisions were being made, which could then be used to tease out further questions. By pursuing these lines of inquiry, the artist could go beyond the simple emotional reactions to a piece, and hopefully come away with new avenues to explore and questions to try and answer.

Any artist will likely have a sense of what they are trying to achieve with their work, regardless of the media they utilize. The question of intentionality contains layers, however, and White was under the strong bias that those who could speak more clearly to the choices they were making were also able to achieve more impactful results. Not necessarily in universality of their image, but in the ability to articulate a goal and describe how successful, or not, the final piece was in relation. He was clear and succinct in his description of a piece that had been created thoughtlessly, whether it was attractive or not: the ever-hungry wastebasket is right over there eagerly waiting.

The framework utilized five points from which to analyze a photograph. Each of these elements would provide some insight into the nature of the concepts which had been used to create the final photograph. He emphasized that no single element from the list was necessarily more important than any other, and that the process wasn’t a matter of tallying up a score based on the elements. Each image must be individually considered, and each of the five points may or may not end up tipping the balance either way depending on how it was utilized.

The five elements that he initially discussed can be summarized like this:

  • Treatment of the surface of the print.
  • Adjustments made to the image during the processing stage, such as chemical treatments or hand work.
  • Composition of the image.
  • Representation of the subjects and sense of reality.
  • Creative input and sequencing of creative execution.

Photography is a broad subject, and the number of ways in which an artist might describe their conceptual standpoint within the field are too many to consider. These five questions are not meant to pinpoint a specific niche. Rather, they are indicators of where an image may sit along the continuum between two poles.

White described the two poles, as he saw them, in this way. First, the photographer who uses a camera-as-brush. This may broadly be considered a way of taking photographs which are under the control of the artist, who is creating the image to share with others. Second, the photographer who uses camera as extension-of-sight. As opposed to the first, this may be thought of as an artist who is looking to find something to share by expressing the truth of subjects that exist outside of him/herself.

I find this broad spectrum highly compelling in that it seems to have many useful guideposts to inform any sort of artist who uses a camera. Clearly similar descriptions could be applied to artists in any media. I think that there is little stretch in describing all artists as either creating something from within them to share, as opposed to trying to capture something from without in a way that others will be shown what the artist has taken note of. For our purposes, and White’s, we will stick with photography.

At the time of his teaching this method, and writing about its implementation, the world of photography was in a golden age of technological breakthrough and maturity within the medium. Film photography was expanding through the availability of “miniature” cameras, and artists were exploring with ever more abstracted ways to develop and alter the exposure of film within the darkroom. Despite this, and in comparison to the technological advances which we are encountering today, the photography of the mid 1900’s was able to retain a purity of execution when it came to clicking the shutter release and exposing the image to film. I am curious to compare and contrast White’s core ideas to see how well they hold up in today’s world, and what they can continue to do as a means to inform our own photographic journeys.

Reflections in a shop window as captured by Minor White, on display California Historical Society in San Francisco through January 2022

During the next few articles I will look at each of the five criteria as they were originally outlined, while also speculating about whether, and how, they can continue to inform us today.

Do you consider yourself a Pictorialist, or a “Straight” photographer? Do you craft your images like paint on a canvas, or seek to bring forth the underlaying truths inherent in the subject at hand? I thought I knew before diving in, and I am eager to dig further. I’d love to know how your own perceptions of your conceptual framework stand now, and what you discover along the way.