A soldier

Above: A German soldier assigned to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), holds a G3A3ZF rifle with a Schmidt & Bender 3-12x50 PM II telescopic sight during weapons familiarization in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, June 19, 2011. ISAF soldiers conducted familiarization training so individuals could get acquainted with other nations' weapons systems. The elevation knob on top of the telescopic sight features Bullet Drop Compensation (BDC) settings. Credit: DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Burt Eichen, U.S. Navy/Released.


Where the visual iconography of cheese-and-cliche tends to deactivate the viewer's curiosity the opposite tends to be of true of images which are somewhat ambiguous (ODE: open to more than one interpretation; not having one obvious meaning). Such photos can draw a viewer towards them--activating cognition as they organize-and-decode what they are seeing ("What am I looking at here, exactly?"). This quality of the viewer being just a little lost is what many fine-artist photographers are actually aiming at. With most photo-images that one encounters in the general run of everyday life, the image is simply-and-quickly read--almost literally like reading words with no hesitation whatsoever. The fine-art photographer's pleasure, or need, or desire, is to seek to take the viewer out of their comfort zone of photo-image reading with a "curve ball" of an image that is at least temporarily unplaceable ... uncertain ... inconsistent. As fine-art photographer Noemie Goudal says "You will start to question and maybe look better at the image." Such photos are intended to only slowly reveal their visual logic to the viewer--in some instances it might retain its quality of puzzling-ness forever.

A fine-art photo can function like a trigger to aspects of the internal mind that are usually left untouched during the everyday grind. At its most extreme (and therefore successful) this activated decoding-and-orientation that the viewer carries out might also cause highly personal (and perhaps thought to be long-ago-forgotten) memories, childhood beliefs, or dream-images to flash across consciousness, quite unexpectedly. This is what Roland Barthes's book Camera Lucida is about--Barthes giving his specific super-personalized commentaries on how certain photos affect him (sting him sharply) for just such reasons.

When this activation-effect works well, the results can be spectacular with the photo becoming enthralling, thrilling, wondrous. It is also the reason why many creative fine-art photographers title their work "Untitled." When confronted with an unfamiliar and disorienting image the viewer will often immediately reach for the nearest "crutch" such as a title-caption or nearby text-panel, thus relieving the uncertainty that the artist would often ideally like to keep in-motion for as long as possible. For the fine-art photographer there is usually no prescribed-and-correct way to connect with one of their photos, and a caption could easily limit-down the encounter and reading.

One example close at hand is the index-page image of this website. A photo of a red-in-the face soldier aiming a rifle appears as the frontispiece (as such images used to be called in the days of book-publishing). There is no caption, the image is slightly unplaceable. When the full caption is added, as here, any quality of ambiguousness disappears.

(14 October 2018)