The Universal Photographic Language Does Not Exist

Landscape photography requires great mastery to use photographic language (bisons in a meadow under a cloudy sky).
Landscape photography requires great mastery to use photographic language (bisons in a meadow under a cloudy sky).

Artistic Photography Has Two Dimensions

Artistic photographs have two very distinct dimensions:

  • The vision: here, we focus on visual sociology. Works created in time, space, or in a given environment can be placed in a certain order. For example, photographs created in Dombes are identifiable by the medium because the species and environment are so unique. The vision is an approach that focuses more on ethnography because we identify the scenes.
  • The look: here, we focus on the sociology of the gaze. We focus on the effects of perception, reception, and production of content. The content itself is not analyzed, rather, it is the effect produced on the viewer that is interesting. The look is an approach that is more psychoanalytical because both photographer and viewer are included in the analysis.

By considering these two dimensions, one can easily set up a language to express oneself with a given writing.

However, the photographic language has the distinction of being understood in a multitude of ways. Each viewer can decrypt photos in multiple ways. I encounter this problem as soon as I create a new artistic collection. I propose them to a circle of very close acquaintances. I trust their judgments. They know me. They know what I expect from them. However, their impressions always vary from person to person. Next, I propose the photos to our family circle, which is smaller. The meanings and reactions are always more figurative. Often, people in the family circle take precautions before giving me their comments. They know my requirement and know that the words used are very important. However, these individuals’ perspective is always from a descriptive point of view, and each judgment given may be very different. This does not bother me, because some collectors who buy my photographic works do so from a criterion. They are present in the register of thought more than in the register of emotion.

During all these years, I learned that the photographic language is not universal but that it challenges each viewer in a different way. The important thing is the language used by the photographer. We must not forget that photography is an artistic discipline. The author feels the need to express messages and emotions, but he is limited by a given writing and his own language. Time will tell whether this language has been decrypted correctly or not by the author.

I think it is the viewers who ultimately make the photographs come alive.

The photographic language is in no way scientific. It is not like a spoken or written language that has specific rules. The photographic language is spoken both by the photographer who creates the work and the viewer who contemplates the work. This process is complicated and complex, which illuminates the beauty of artistic photography.

A Universal Photographic Language Does Not Exist

Over time, I came to understand that a universal photographic language did not exist. Even if we wanted to create one, it would not be possible, mainly because it is not scientific, due to its psychoanalytic dimension. The photographer symbolically places his neuroses, his emotions, and transmitted messages into his image. However, these symbols are uniquely characteristic to him alone, and thus can be interpreted differently by his viewers.

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The construction of a photograph relies upon the experience of the photographer. Reading a photograph also appeals to the viewer's experience.

Concretely, this means that the photographer will be in phase with some viewers because the language used will be the same. But it will be rejected by others because the language and interpretation will be totally different, due to a collection of different experiences.

Is this even important? I do not think so. It is impossible to achieve unanimity in an artistic discipline. If an artist chooses to be unanimous in creating his works, he will no longer deliver messages because his artistic activity will be watered down, smoothed over. Mediocrity will prevail. This is a general rule when one wants to address the masses. The messages are so different that ultimately, the authority does not know what else to deliver to the people, and the people may not even know what it is that they want. Thus, platitude reigns in general consumption. We as professional photographers strive to veer from this dangerous path, by delivering art that is different.

Although I do not believe that there is one universal photographic language, I do believe that there are several photographic languages. I will not go so far as to say that there is a language only understood by photographers, but that this is almost entirely true. Real photographers have the gift of harmoniously organizing the signs of writing to allow true sentences to flow smoothly without ever being spoken orally.

Creating your own language takes a very long time, but when you have found the codes, the words will fall into place. All that is needed after this stage is experience and practice.

But how can one write in photography? What tools are available for photographic writing? How can you prepare to develop the photographic language? These are the questions I will answer in the next blog posts.

Be humble, patient, constant, persevering, and persistent because the road to excellence is long.


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