The Allegory & Metaphor in Pixels
Brace yourself...I love photography. I know, amazing. In general, I love art. Photography just happens to be the medium I enjoy the most and feel I'm the best at. One could argue either way on that last bit. I often ask myself why do I love art and especially photography. When it's all boiled down, I like to create things. I've been that way since I was a kid making airplane cockpits out of cardboard boxes and toilet paper rolls. The aspect of perfecting a technique or technical way of photographing will often grab me for months. But it's not the real reason why I like photography. The real reason is much more difficult, and a life-long endeavor to translate. I'm in it for the expressive side. The communication of ideas. I'm in it for the metaphors and allegories.
Metaphors and allegories you say? There are those in the photo world who firmly plant two feet and say the best photographs are the ones that are technically perfect and sharp. I contend that they are not. Some may feel this way, and that is just fine. I'm drawn to the photos with less focus and less than optimal aperture settings. The shots that give me the greatest joy to create and view are the ones that tell a story. That story may be an emotion, and with luck it's a metaphor or even an allegory.
Metaphor and allegory are the two most difficult concepts for any artist to master, and the two most amazing to use in conveying a story. Allegory, a device used in many art forms from literature to painting, is a symbolic narrative or representation of an abstract or spiritual meaning through concrete or material forms. Thanks to dictionary.com for some help on this. Think Animal Farm by George Orwell, where the farm animals represent the authors views or the ideologic meaning of Communism. A story where one shows the meaning of a concept through the story.
Often the base of allegory is a metaphor, which is pure symbolism expression via comparison. Sometimes obvious like, saying someones voice is music to your ears. In a more hidden way, I see metaphor (and others do as well) in the main character of the Iron Man comics and movies. Tony Stark is the metaphorical embodiment of Ayan Rand's Objectivism.
So, what does this have to do with photography? Well, it has quite a bit to do with photos. Just as literature and painting are a rich land (see what I did there, it's not really land to plow) by which to express ideas, concepts, and stories; I contend that the best photos are ones that do just this. Some of the best photos in my portfolio are ones where I either set out to create or felt a great sense of metaphor and/or allegory towards what and how I was shooting.
The photo above is called Mara's Veil and it is one of my favorite examples of my own work that gave me a tingle when I shot it. I often hear how bad it is because of all the damn trees in front of that pretty skyline. This was intentional. If you look at it long enough, you may be able to derive the allegorical or metaphorical meaning I was trying to convey. Often in photography we place hints in the titles because you may not know me well enough to get the meaning right away. This is 1/2 of the thrilling part of speaking in metaphor, how one can boil down the message enough to become universal. Difficult, yes, but something to strive for.
If you do know me and maybe picked up on the title, this is a metaphor and allegory around Buddhism. Two planes or worlds superimposed or juxtaposed against each other. Kinda like looking out at a pretty object we think we see, but it's through the thick dirty lens of our eye-glasses and only what we think we are seeing. Part of the story of Buddha and how he became a Buddha is how he sat for months meditating under a bodhi tree. He was attempting to find the true meaning of things, the "root" of the matter if you will. Mara was an evil lord of death and misfortune. As buddha sat pondering the truth, Mara sent her beautiful daughters ( desire, lust, and aversion) to distract him. She tossed arrows at him to hurt him, resulting in more Buddhist lessons. The crux of the story and belief of Buddhism is that we built our view of the world from birth. It's an overlapping amalgam of good experience and bad, beauty and ugliness, love and hatred. This becomes our dirty glasses by which we see through of the hazy "veil" we sit behind as we walk through life. Mara did everything she could to distract Buddha from seeing this, and realizing there was truth behind the veil.
Back to how this all played out in creating Mara's Veil. I'm constantly looking for how I can express my understanding of the world, or a concept I'm wrestling with, in a photo. One evening I was shooting the Portland skyline along the Willamette River, and I passed behind these trees. At first I was rather disappointed I couldn't get a clear shot of the city. Then it hit me. The obscured view, the trees, the sparkling city behind, each of them came together, and my thought was of how much this is what it feels like to have studied Buddhism and realize we see through an obscure lens. Snap! I took the shot, and the feeling I had was a good one. This shot has deep meaning for me. Our best shots should have great meaning to us. Will others derive the same meaning? Perhaps and we hope, but it's not required. If we seek to thrill ourselves first, who cares about the rest. This shot combined both metaphor and allegory to express my feelings.
Here are a few more where I attempted to convey through metaphor, maybe they hit the mark and maybe they don't. Some photos may be more obvious than others, and some even more esoteric because they only have meaning to the photographer.
In the above shot, Flower II, my feeling at the time was one of urban encroachment upon nature. Concrete pressing up against rock and grass. A strangely human-created flower coming out of the grass and casting a shadow back on the concrete. It's a metaphor on sprawl. How we push nature back to the point we want the beauty of nature back but to do so often means a synthetic beauty, the man-made flower.
In the shot below, American Landscape, the title offers a hint of sarcasm and metaphor. This could be just a quick snap of something I saw, but it wasn't. The week before it was. Literally a snapshot of a development in front of my house that irritated me. The snapshot was the iPhone photo I took to remember the phone number of what county official I needed to be irate with. A few days later, the sky was very dark. Everything in the back was obscured by fog. The idea hit me that this may make a good metaphor towards what is or isn't the American Dream. Houses in the back, obscured by fog. Oppressive clouds and green grass (obviously had to see in B&W) juxtaposed against this huge billboard for development.
I'm writing about this so as to improve. I want to put more metaphor and allegory into my work. I want to put intent into why I took a photo. I want to have a feeling and express that idea in a shot by setting things up to do just that. Moods and stories can be created and shot in photography all day long. A smile on the hardened face of a coal mine worker or the facial expression of a rural farmer in Mongolia who sees a cell phone for the first time. These are great, and something to strive for as well. They too tell a story. Just one of many ways to convey some meaning and story. Just as metaphor and allegory do.
To you, the above photos may not be as interesting as a crisp and colorful sunset. To me, sunset photos have become too much a commodity. We see them every night, probably everywhere, but where I live. Everyone likes sunsets. Everyone shoots them as they are learning photography. Add a unique framing or angle and you have a more interesting sunset. Weave a story and you have a lasting photograph.
The point of this post was possibly to argue why story matters more than technical skill, but I think that could be better argued in another post. The real reason was to express how I look at my photography, how I look at others photography, and what kinds of photos I find more pleasing. It's really about a story and if there is one. Why did the photographer take a picture of this? Why did I take a picture of this? If I'm feeling love and this sunset will surely convey that to another, have I placed enough elements into the shot that help get you there. A metaphor or two may help.