Conceptual photography is about expressing a whole, complex idea in one image.
Consider the various styles of photography; street, portraiture, photojournalism, nature etc. All function in different ways to document or record an event, person or place in order to say, ‘This is beautiful’, ‘tragic’ or ‘worth saving’, for example. Alternatively, the conceptual style seeks to communicate a broad ‘concept’, sometimes with multiple layers of meaning. This style of photography finds it’s home in the realm of ‘Fine Art’.
Let's take a look at a few characteristics…
To the untrained eye, conceptual photography can appear a little strange, often featuring abstract images, distortion, blur and strangely placed elements. Why? To make you think!
Traditional photographic styles present the viewer with images containing visual codes that help you create meaning. For example, the photojournalist might include guns, destroyed buildings and desperate people in their images. These are codes that we associate with the tragedy of war.
Similarly, traditional styles arrange these codes using accepted photographic conventions or ‘rules’. For example, the importance of balanced composition, foreground, background focal length and correct lighting, just to name a few.
Conceptual photography uses these codes and conventions in alternative ways, to create more complex meanings. This new visual language has the power to express an experience or feeling rather than something seen. Another characteristic of conceptual style can be found in the image title. Ambiguous, broad, sometimes nonsensical titles are often used to make you work even harder to find a meaning.
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Finally, conceptual photography is all about the perception of meaning.
When traditional visual codes and conventions are scrambled up, so are the audience’s reference points that usually help them understand what the image is saying. This is where the safety net disappears and the audience must use their own experiences and perceptions to interpret a possible meaning that makes sense to them. Now we have arrived into the world of Fine Art!
Conceptual photography can be extremely difficult due to it’s complexity. Don’t panic! Break it down with this advice to help you get started;
Practice identifying how other photographers use codes and conventions in their work.
Ditch all the rules and shoot with your emotions.
I think it’s best not to plan a conceptual image too much- most of the time they just happen.
Use concepts that are universally understood like fear, hope, loss etc.
Keep your intended meaning open ended. If you define the meaning of an image to tightly, your audience has no room to use their own perceptions and experiences to interpret it.
When trying to interpret the meaning of other people’s conceptual photography think about how it feels before you try and decode it.