Musings on the Power of Interpretation

Throughout your measure of time learning photography and shooting, have you ever reached a point of realization that there is hardly a place left on the planet that you can shoot where someone else hasn’t already?  Especially the most remarkable places, we find they have been packaged up, guard rails erected, and signs posted that welcome us while at the same time restrain our ability to capture a unique perspective.  I’ve shot at some locations that are truly spectacular for the eye to behold – to my right and left are dozens of people wielding everything from cellphones to professional camera rigs.  We’re 30 abreast and 5 deep, all pointing our lenses at the same scene, each of us with the hope of capturing something that we can hang on our walls or post online.  That’s when it hits me the most:  What am I doing here with my camera?  Why did I bother to lug this equipment up 4 miles of treacherous trail just so I could shoot something that has been already been shot perhaps a million times or more?  What am I truly expecting to achieve from this effort?  How does that make you feel with regard to your own uniqueness?  Personally, these thoughts made me feel like selling all of my photography gear and find something else to do with my life.  After all, what’s the point of shooting what’s already been shot?  Then, one day, it hit me.  Music held the answer to my self-destructive pondering!

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I grew up in a household of professional musicians.  My dad and mom are jazz musicians and my sister is a classical flute player who later delved into the fun world of celtic music.  Naturally, I grew up hearing a lot of different music.  From Miles Davis to James Galway, I’ve listened to countless musicians perform their interpretations of well-known music.  Right there!  “Interpretations”!  Many of the great musicians I appreciate are not playing an original song.  Often, they’re playing an old Standard but in their own unique way.  Each musician – the artist – has their own signature sound and emphasis that enables them to make a song that may have been performed a million times before sound like something new and deeply personal.  The way they play a particular song is as important as the notes of the song itself.  I’ve had the honor of witnessing musicians play an old standard in a way so personal to them that they can barely finish a note for the welling-up of emotion in their throat.  At that moment, a “tired old song” was brought back to life and we, the audience, were blessed by the whole experience.  The musician’s years of practice and expenses have paved the road before them so that they may finally deliver to us the beauty of their interpretation.

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We photographers are no different than a musician in this regard; thousands of hours committed to learning our craft, and more money spent than we care to tally so that we may produce images that bear our own interpretation of often well-known “standards”.  Like music, there are so many variables that can alter the final presentation.  In photography – subject aside – we have time of day, weather, focal length, physical position, exposure, color, and the darkroom, to name a few.  How we choose to harness these things, and in what measure, is how we’re able to make personal – for ourselves and our viewers – what we decide to share.  I believe that it can’t be helped to reveal a little bit about our inner-selves when we create something.  Be it a painting, a photograph, or musical performance – the artist is seen in the art.  If we allow our awareness of this to grow we might better ourselves, and what we create might benefit someone else, if even just for a moment’s settled pause in an otherwise busy life.

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10 thoughts on “Musings on the Power of Interpretation

  1. You’re very correct about art! It can be both the most frustrating and most rewarding thing to the artist…. As you’ve grown up hearing me and your Mom play/sing…you’ve heard us express our frustration and fear of being “inadequate” to the task of producing something that others will enjoy. One thing I’ve found is that the artist has to focus on expression and our art and not get tied up into acceptance by others, as that is a very slippery slope! All art is subjective to the viewer/listener…there is not “right and wrong” in art. So glad you’ve developed your art to the point you have…where many of us are thrilled with what you’ve captured/created and look forward to every new submission you make! You ARE and artist…and a darn good one!!!!

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  2. Well, Tom- my dear friend- all I can tell you- is that when I see your photographs, I do not see something that someone else has photographed thousands of times before. I do not see something that bores me. I have never yawned in the middle of one of your postings.
    You have a way with a photograph that captures the essence of the beauty in the scent. A friend of ours once said- after a trip to the Jacksonville Zoo- that you two could be standing next to each other- taking a picture of the same thing- his shot would look like an amateur snapshot- and yours would be a piece of art.
    And it’s true, Tom- it really is. Your photos are frameable… printable… truly art. That is why I always look forward to your postings and pictures.
    You know what some of my VERY favorite photos are??? They are pictures of something that has NOT been photographed by millions of photographers… they are pictures of your family. Your family is beautiful- and set against the scenery you so carefully choose- they are just absolutely gorgeous photos, Tom… you have a very beautiful family.

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  3. Tom…
    I’m sure that, anyone that has an “artistic spirit”..has had very similar feelings, just as you’ve expressed!
    I think, that, I “inherited” my artistic abilities, from my father..he created beautiful wood-carvings & water color sketches.
    Actually, I believe, that our “artistic spirit” was given to us, by the LORD!
    Our(yours & mine, as well)families encouraged & helped us to further what “talents” we were blessed with. You have had wonderful “role-models” in your parents & sister.
    There will always be critics, someone whose work is impressive, etc….
    What makes your work, or mine, or your parents, etc..is, what comes from inside..your creative spirit! It’s what makes your photos stand out, in such a wonderful way! No one else could capture that shot(no mater how many people are taking that very same picture)…in, just the same way, that you captured that shot!
    It’s not unusual, for any of us..to “second guess” our work(to pick it apart)!
    WE are a “work in progress”..each one of us! One day,(with GOD’S help)we may learn to be “satisfied/pleased” with our “creations”. Again…the credit goes to HIM!
    Sorry for the “long-winded” comment!
    I think your photographs are awesome & you put a part of yourself into each one…especially the photos of your family!
    Please, Tom….continue to take your beautiful photographs, there are many of us, who appreciate so much about each one!

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  4. Cynthia,

    I couldn’t agree with you more; so well said. The Bible says we’re created in His image. He, being the ultimate creator, has imparted his creativity on us so, naturally, we too have that desire and ability to create. The best I can do with my photography is glorify God by making images that praise what He has already created for us to enjoy. A photo of His beauty seems a feeble attempt at that, but its the best I can do. 🙂

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  5. Lisa,
    Do it because you enjoy the process and the creative outlet. There is some self-discovery to be found in there along the way. What results from this right-thinking is an improved mindset/attitude toward what you make and this yields a higher level of personalization in what you produce. I believe that people want to look at works of art where some element of the artist may be discovered in it. When we get too caught up in trying to objectively measure or compare our images to those of another photographer, it can bring us down. Each person is at a different point along their own path in pursuit of their creative freedom. It’s good to look at other people’s work but try approaching it simply for the enjoyment of seeing a perspective shared by another artist. Then go out and make something totally different!

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