When we start with photography getting our cameras to do what we want and produce a well-exposed image can be a struggle. Later though, we should be concentrating on the content.
Learning any new skill is a progression. In the beginning it is all tied up with the technique: whether it is driving or photography, we have to concentrate on getting the basic technique right. As we grow in our skills these basic techniques drop to the level of something you do automatically. This is great, because it frees you up to concentrate on new things.
One of the things that is often lacking in photography is depth. I don’t mean depth of field or suggestions of dimensional depth and distance. I means layers and substance. You see many clever images, whether it is in books, advertising, from students, on lists or in exhibitions even. But the problem with many of these images is that once you have ‘got it’, there is little else in the image to engage you. In this sense they can be like a joke, once you get the punch line, you have a good laugh, you may tell a few people the same joke, but that is it.
Now think about what we might want from our photography, or think of what your clients might want if they choose to buy it (and here I am talking about fine art photography, rather than sport, editorial, etc). If I buy a picture to hang on my lounge room or office wall it is so I can look at it. It is so my family and visitors can look at it. It is, perhaps, so it can be a topic of discussion. I may intend to have that image on my wall for years and years. I want to be able to keep appreciating it, keep enjoying it, but also occasionally to find something new in it, discover something I hadn’t seen before or for it to get me thinking in a new direction.
An obvious image tells you what it has got quickly. That’s it. Thanks for coming, there’s the door. It may be stunning or shocking, or amazingly clever, but that it is. It may be kitsch or cliched, overly romantic, overly dramatic or whatever. But it may not be lastingly engaging. Boredom can set in.
An image with depth rewards study, rewards careful contemplation over years. Is like a fine port and keeps getting better over time. Can surprise and shock you years later. Such a work is stunning and a great joy. Having it on your wall becomes an ongoing dialog between you and the work, you and the photographer.
Depth can be in many forms. It can be depth of meaning, with layers of symbolism that you only access as your understanding advances. It can be layers of recognition or identification with some aspect or someone in the image that can change and develop over time. It can be the image acting as a mirror into which you can project and slowly recognize your changing self. Or it can be a crystal ball that allows you to have a number of spiritual experiences with yourself and the world. All this and much more.
This is no easy thing to achieve and there is no simple recipe or magick Photoshop plugin for it. And sometimes it is not obvious that you have done it. This is one reason I recommend printing and living with an image for sometime as you are evaluating it. But it is, I believe, always something to aspire to.