beauty in metaphor
“What is truth? A mobile army of metaphors,
metonyms, and anthropomorphisms.”
- Friedrich Nietzsche
Most images operate at both denotative and connotative levels, meaning that they serve both as depictions of things and as indicators of what those things might signify or express.
Underlying this signifying is a process that Alfred Stieglitz called "equivalence." To illustrate its power, the photographer famously experimented with shots of cloud banks that were framed so as to render them more abstract, their denotative content being de-emphasized such that the images' emotional resonances and associations for viewers could take center stage.
However one may feel about his deliberately alienated cloud series - which, as it happens, prompted a parallel experiment of mine with ice floes - Stieglitz's larger point about symbolic connotation was spot on: we experience a strangely charged kind of beauty that blooms outward from images that say something artfully at the level of symbol or metaphor.
About such evocations, one might say plus belle encore que la beauté: images of this sort somehow come to seem "more beautiful than beauty itself." And the converse is true, too: superficially attractive pictures that lack a compelling subtext - which describes, for example, most of today's commercial and fashion photography - may be gorgeously refined and decorative as eye candy, yet still feel lacking and emptied of beauty's deep ulterior resonance.
The validating correspondence between aesthetic form and embedded content works on both the fast and slow parts of the human brain: our minds instantly intuit a connection, and then unpack meaning through the more leisurely joys of appraisal and insight. When the physicists Crick and Watson were combing through hundreds of alternate diagrams that might convey the chemical structure of DNA, Watson paused at their model of a double helix and found himself blurting out, "This is too pretty not to be it."
Starting from Steiglitz's principles of equivalence, Minor White, decades later, worked out a way of thinking about metaphoric photography that has, in turn, informed my own outlook and methods (which are described in more detail in ideas). White's art proceeds from this:
"When any photograph functions for a given person as an Equivalent we can say that, at that moment and for that person, the photograph acts as a symbol or plays the role of a metaphor for something that is beyond the subject photographed. We can say this in another way: when a photograph functions as an Equivalent, the photograph is at once a record of something in front of the camera and simultaneously a spontaneous symbol."
- Minor White, "Equivalence, the Perennial Trend" (1963)
My work often plays with disruptive ambiguities between record and symbol. Regarding the photo sets grouped under beauty in metaphor, each gallery makes up a loose meditation on a given theme. The objects featured in these essays matter chiefly for what they may suggest to you or resonate unseen, as well as for how their meanings may deepen or change for you in the presence of accompanying titles, texts, and links.
The first photo-and-text essay in this group, titled hard journey, catalogs an array of personal hardships and life passages that befall some or all of us on the road of life, and that make existence a challenge to body and soul.
Other essays built around visual metaphor explore:
- the mysteries and madness of religious belief (what god wants),
- the tribal fragmentation and stereotyping that are pulling America apart (us and them),
- the curious twilight of our natural world in the hands of man (in our nature), and
- the ways in which people become disastrously attached to their misfit desires.
If you enjoy these meditative essays, you can find a similar approach to a number of other galleries elsewhere on this site, such as my essay on the intimate embrace between chaos and the sublime, which headlines the set of galleries celebrating beauty from disorder. It's a gorgeous mess out there. Such is life.