I recently watched a Youtube post on conceptual photography that made me think about artistic expression once more. I always struggled with the question whether a visual artist should consciously have something to communicate thru his/her artistic work, whatever that work might be. In the written word, literary or not, it is rather imperative that authors should always have a message to pass to their intended audiences, either clearly stated or in a hidden, rather ulterior way. It is universally assumed that texts are used to communicate ideas, points of view, impressions, facts, and emotions about anything authors might choose to focus upon. Is it thus the same with visual artistic expression? Do visual artists have to communicate a message preferably based on a concept as well?
One should reasonably expect that motion pictures, whose objective is visual story-telling, lust like in literature, do plan to communicate 'something' known to the Director and his/her crew even before production starts. Whether they are successful in achieving this effectively only their audience and/or film critics will eventually tell. In fiction movies, as well as in documentaries, there is always a story to be told, a message to be passed to the audience. Thru cinematography, actor performances, stage design, editing and the soundtrack they are also adding the necessary emotional impact to their statement to engrave the story into the memory of spectators for ever, as emotional memory is always the strongest and the most persistent.
How about photography? This is where 'conceptual' photography enters the stage. There are 'committed' photographers who make their life's work to shoot certain subjects and those alone, in certain conspicuous styles they preferably invent for themselves, all in the service of telling their story in their own special way. There's a thought process behind each photograph of theirs and this could be around emotional impact in its weakest expression or emotion enhanced with actual information in its strongest form. Shooting for instance photographs of old people, counting their remaining days in a 'home', and using black and white sharpness to draw even stronger the sensation of human body decay, tells you something about the photographers continuous intent to illustrate a mostly hated part of human life: ageing. There are thousands of subjects that have been used by conceptual photographers in their quest for passing a message and a concept. One known Japanese artist I have read about (Hiroshi Sugimoto) made a tour of the US and visited theaters, especially older classic ones, and photographed them systematically, using insanely long exposures (for the duration of the film projection) on a 4x5 Technical camera. By doing this he managed to eliminate any moving objects from his frame (mainly men and women spectators). His concept was to reveal the element of time in photography. The result, due to the size of his negatives and the advantages of using technical cameras to manage frame geometry and lens aberrations better than any other photographic technology, was a series of stunning photographs of the interior of hundreds, maybe thousands of theaters that he eventually printed in a book for the aficionados of the genre.
On the other side of the 'scale' we find photographers like Bresson, Frank and Leiter who photographed what appeared in front of their lens that happened to move them aesthetically and emotionally. They simply wanted to share that personal experience with their audience. Is there anything wrong with that? In interviews Saul Leiter has given about his art, he categorically ignored and rejected critics who tried to discover a concept behind his photography. You simply shoot a frame because you just feel the need for doing it, not because you planned it like that. If it then happens to create specific emotional experiences to any future viewer of that picture, so be it, so much the better... As for Bresson, and his impeccable framing of subjects, I don't quite believe that he was staging beforehand each and every frame he shot. That would be silly to assume for example that he has been waiting for hours the young boy stepping forward with an oversized in comparison bottle of wine, and catch that moment of his hilarious childish look, shining with pride about his feat under way. It sounds too improbable to believe that Breton set that up. He simply took advantage of a remarkable in those days portable camera, the Leica, and his photographic eye and personal interests made him capture the decisive moment the way he felt fit. He shot as a photojournalist, spontaneously. Anything wrong with that? Certainly, many Bresson experts, long after the facts, built a myriad stories behind each and every photograph of his to prove their point of view, that only photographs with a 'concept' can eventually claim genuine artistic value.
I personally believe there is merit to both photographic approaches. Often, conceptual photography is not aesthetically interesting per se. As an example, I remember a temporary expo at the MOMA, NYC, not long ago of a woman artist, who filled an entire room (or was it several?) with frames of alike dimensions containing small uninteresting pictures and supporting documentation of individuals from India, who all shared a common detail in their lives. While still alive, they were declared to the authorities by their relatives as deceased in order for the latter to pocket the victims' inheritances. The 'concept' was an interesting one indeed, but what has this got to do with art whatsoever? Apparently, in the mind of many art aficionados, a lot!
I quite admire those photographers and other artists (including architects), who create works as a result of a concept they carefully developed beforehand. There is a lot of brainpower necessary to build artistic concepts. In many occasions, the artists concerned will simply and exclusively do that alone. Develop the 'concept'. Jeff Koons and Jan Fabre are examples of artists who often do that. Koons' Michael Jackson and his pet monkey sculpture, sold for millions of dollars, and Jan Fabre's Pietas that appeared in the Venice Biennale a few years ago were entirely built by professional craftsmen who simply followed the artists' instructions. Intriguing! At least Michelangelo and Caravaggio built their own works for the most part... Not Rubens though...
However, there's still a lot of value in the works of photographers, whose frames express their accidental state of mind at a given moment. Like I said, such photographers' intent is to freeze time and capture the moment for reasons of own personal excitement the very instant they decide to click their camera shutter pointing to a given scene that they are looking at thru their viewfinder. During post-processing they might possibly enhance that impression even further just to make their personal vision more explicit. Nevertheless, the original frame was indeed shot spontaneously, and not following a grand scheme of premeditated thought stream.