Ambiguity

Discussion in 'Philosophy' started by Norma Desmond, Jan 16, 2015.

  1. My main question, or at least topic for discussion, is whether ambiguity is an invitation to interpretation. I notice that very often a photo that seems to show something narrative (or even just an event part of which remains unshown or undefined) is often appreciated for the many literal/factual/hypothetical interpretations that can fill in the blanks of the photo. While this may sometimes provide amusement or interest, or even perceptual depth, other than in a forensic or strictly documentary or journalistic photo, can it also be a distraction at times? That is, is literary/verbal storytelling different from photographic/visual storytelling and can the instinct to interpret ambiguities in a photo actually mean missing some of the unique experience that is visual ambiguity?
    Mind you, I'm not talking about the practice of analyzing photos critically, especially in a critique setting such as PN has to offer. We may address exposure, composition, perspective, contrast and talk about how it makes us feel or how it affects what a photo is about or what it seems to be communicating. (And I know some people find this distracting to a more aesthetic appreciation of a photo.) But this is not what I'm talking about here. I think that's different from literal interpretation, especially interpretation in the sense of trying to guess what was actually going on when the photo was taken if it's not obvious in the photo itself. A woman dressed in fur and frills, aristocratic in appearance, is looking into a fancy antique shop and we see the shadow of someone inside the shop who she may appear to be talking to. Can we leave it at that or are we moved to guess at who the shadow belongs to so we can piece together a literal story out of what we see?
    I'm not saying all of us have to view photos similarly or should follow the same practice regarding interpretation and I'm also not saying any one of us should or would look at every photo with the same degree of guessing or interpretation. I'm questioning to what extent you do this and I'm wondering if it can be or you've ever found that it is a distraction to a less literal way of viewing photos.
    If some degree of mystique, ambiguity, or unanswered questions can be a good thing in a photo, do we undermine that when we try to resolve those questions or ambiguities by supplying interpretations that complete what is often an incomplete picture?
    Is incompleteness part of the beauty of many photos, which put a frame around an isolated part of the world, often removing information and context? Can a viewer err by trying to put back those missing parts of the photographic world created by the frame?
     
  2. >>> Can we leave it at that or are we moved to guess at who the shadow belongs to so we can piece
    together a literal story out of what we see? … I'm questioning to what extent you do this and I'm
    wondering if it can be or you've ever found that it is a distraction to a less literal way of viewing photos.

    I appreciate photos that have the power to release narrative in my mind. Ambiguity and mystery (among
    other attributes) can help pose questions. Photos that are complete and appear to "answer" all questions
    are not very interesting to me. And… Not only do I appreciate viewing photos where ambiguity is a major
    element, I usually strive to make photos with that in mind, to help suggest a narrative for a
    viewer. That can be any narrative, not necessarily one I may have had in mind (sometimes I'll have nothing in mind).
     
  3. Fred, your post made me ponder... There are many aspects to ambiguity. It's probably a 'feature' in all human communication (to a widely varying degree of course) and it can undoubtedly lead to errors - on both sender's/photographer's and receiver's/viewer's end.
    I think, essentially there is no big difference between verbal storytelling and visual storytelling and in all cases, following too quickly an impulse to interpret ambiguity (filling the gaps it opens) means missing some of the experience - 'enduring' the ambiguity may be rewarded by a deeper understanding.
    For curiosity I checked the dictionary (to avoid "ambiguity" :)) - and among others it may describe the situation of a symbol having more than one meaning - which can be very powerful - like in Harry Callahan's Weed against the Sky.
    Yet, you are probably more after another phenomenon: the tension a photo creates when it's subject (what is about) differs from what it actually shows - while the subject ideally escapes an immediate interpretation or understanding (the "mystery"). It may be achieved simply by the incompleteness that comes with the "frame around an isolated part of the world" (I like this a lot, because it's so essential to photography) or by any other means. Like Brad, I also prefer photos (or texts) that have this kind of ambiguity - maybe for two very different reasons: first, they leave the space for own thoughts (instead of just pushing a single narrow message - often pure cliché), second, they seem (i.e. it may not always be the case!) to carry more meaning.
     
  4. I've got difficulties seeing ambiguity apart from interpretation: I don't think one exists without the other, really. In photos, ambiguity is often a play with expectations or visual language(s) (or maybe better: dialects), playing with culturally ingrained reactions, such as symbols and so on. A planned ambiguity to me seems done purely with the audience in mind.
    But even whether or not the photographer planned the ambiguity, it still will need interpretation, else it's just a misunderstood gesture, or a gap, quirk or oddity. I think there is a firm parallel with language here: nearly every dialect has its own way of not saying something, and be understood. Be it gestures, facial expressions or a specific phrase. To those who speak the language, 'nuff said. To those who don't: ambigious and clear as mud.
    But imagine learning a language, you do want to get into that slang, understand what that missing part is about - so you go and learn, try to fill the gap and make the story complete. Not unlike what happens with an image.
    It is what I like about ambiguous photos: they tease me, make me work on them rather than spoon-feed me a story. I love the incompleteness, involving the viewer to become an active part of the experience. For me, it's certainly part of the beauty of a great deal of photos. It is not mandatory - there are brilliant non-ambiguous photos - the storytelling ones...
    Ambiguous photos make me the storyteller, as a viewer; what is commonly perceived as storytelling photos the photographer tells the story, and I absorb. I might extrapolate at the edges, but the core of the story isn't product of my fantasy/analysis/interpretation. Salgado jumps back to mind, though we discussed his work enough for now.
    I guess putting a number of ambiguous photos in a series is like the slow discovery of the story, but in a collaboration between artist and viewer, step-by-step filling gaps and find the story. A number of not-that-ambiguous photos in a series.. a documentary. The photographer takes me from A to B.
    Neither is wrong, I like both, but ambiguity involves me more, and makes me revisit a photo to rediscover, re-interpret and re-think. I do find that more satisfying.
     
  5. Most of the advertising images I see, which are omnipresent in our daily newspaper or Internet reads are freest I know of a presence of ambiguity, even if they purport in some cases to raise a question. The answer is clear. They represent an ultimate mastery of the use of the medium of still photography in the sense they overcome its constraints.
    Quite apart from designing in or perceiving of an incompleteness in a subject matter being photographed, the nature of the photograph imposes its own spatial and temporal limits on the image. What is going on or what exists outside the specific limits of the frame? What does the instantaneous image represent or not in the chosen split second (or even multiple seconds) of capture and what information is lost by not having chosen a different moment of exposure? What exists in the blurred foreground or background?
    Notwithstanding these physical limitations on the completeness of subject rendition, the photographer can, if he or she wishes to, provide a fairly complete representation. In the field of art, landscape, or human photography, to mention only three, such completeness can often be too expected, leading to a reaction from the viewer of either disinterest or "yes, it's pretty, but what more does it say".
    Incompleteness, enigma, obscuring of details, multiple possibilites of perception or interpretation (ambiguity), originality of point of view, surprise, and other such qualities are part of my love of the art of photography. They do not undermine the power or quality of an image, but just the opposite. They are part of why I photograph. They are also difficult to create without the gest of the photographer coming across as being too banal, too clever or devoid of tangible meaning to most viewers. Scientific photography is the opposite. The latitude for incompleteness and enigma is much smaller.
     
  6. Everyone to some extent is going to try and interpret a photograph. Our human brains are wired for purposes such as this. The extent of this and the conclusions they arrive at is entirely based on that individuals culture, life experience, and so fourth. When I look at a photograph it really comes down to "I like it" or "I don't like it" or mostly, "I'm not sure about it." We all have our first gut reactions to a photograph or any other work of art but really, one needs to spend time with the object in question because the way the work gets to us often occurs very gradually.
     
  7. Just to be clear, I was not saying that ambiguity or incompleteness undermine the power of an image. I was saying that when ambiguity leads to very literal interpretations to fill in the blanks, that can, for me, undermine the specialness of the ambiguity and of the visual art itself.
    Wouter and Wolfgang, I was wondering whether interpretation is necessary and to what extent photos, to be experienced fully, are best put into words or thoughts. If they get translated verbally, how literal do those thoughts have to be? Can the thoughts or words be more like poems or metaphors rather than essays or novels and would that, in many cases, make more sense?
    Often when I hear a viewer's very literal interpretation, especially one that is linear or guesses at what was "really" going on at the time, it feels to me like the photo has been boxed in rather than allowed to breathe. It's a little like the way I feel about the dancing hippos in the movie Fantasia. Much as I enjoy that "Dance of the Hours" ditty, I wouldn't want to go around translating music that way very often as I listen. In other words, I wouldn't want to come to rely too much on responding to most music with a visually specific translation like that. While I think it might be easier not to translate music into literal and linear ideas, I don't always literally translate photos either.

    Yes, ambiguity and mystery can be forced, but of course anything else can be forced as well. Authenticity is the key. I think one can will or purposely create ambiguity in a photo but when it's forced or trite that will often show as well.
    I don't think ambiguity is necessarily better than a more direct and straightforward approach. (I also think one can be direct and mysterious or ambiguous at the same time.) There's a lot of directness and straightforwardness in THIS NAN GOLDIN PHOTO, but I think it's a moving, challenging, and effective photo nonetheless. Sure, I guess some would find ambiguity and go on to guess who it was that gave her the black eye and under what specific circumstances she got bruised but we can muse about anything we see or here and get as far away from what we're seeing as possible. We always have the option of turning something fairly direct into something ambiguous by wondering all sorts of things. A direct photo can stimulate our imagination just as much as an ambiguous one.
     
  8. The extent of this and the conclusions they arrive at is entirely based on that individuals culture, life experience, and so fourth.​
    Mark, sorry, saw your post after I had already posted myself. While this is true, it shouldn't stop us from learning to be better viewers. We shouldn't let our individual life experience and culture mean that whatever way we want to approach a photo is as fulfilling as any other way. Just as we can become better photographers through experience, study, practice, broadening our horizons, changing our ways of thinking, making mistakes, allowing surprises and accidents to sometimes guide us, we can learn to be better viewers. That's what this thread may be about on some levels.

    I do agree that often people respond with "I like it" or "I don't" and that can be a good beginning. And I agree that true appreciation of a photo often comes with time and more slowly.
     
  9. Fred, can you give an example of a photo in which ambiguity exists and a literal interpretation is the result (at least one that is evident for a large percentage of viewers)? I consider most photographs that are enigmatic or ambiguous as those which pose more questions than answers, so I would like to see some examples of what you mean (My apologies if this point is clear to most and it is my Métis-like (a Canadian half-caste analogy) frequent bridging between two daily languages that robs me of a better comprehension of English)
     
  10. https://stevemccurry.files.wordpress.com/2013/04/ethiopia-10109.jpg
    There's a story in that one from Steve McCurry. But there is also ambiguity when we approach that photo from beyond its simple story of broken buildings and broken body. That photo is from his blog post here: https://stevemccurry.wordpress.com/2013/05/01/beauty-in-imperfection/ where his approach is an approach to Nature that is much about ambiguity. My sense of wabi sabi isn't just about beauty in imperfection, I interpret wabi sabi as also about the imperfections from which future growth emerges, very ambiguous, full of change, mystery and incompleteness.
     
  11. Sorry for my laziness in not reading through all of the comments following the OP - just got home from the gym . . . hungry and tired.
    Fred, I'd appreciate some unpacking. When you ask "whether ambiguity is an invitation to interpretation," are you asking whether ambiguity is simply an occasional feature of an image leading to interpretation by viewers, whether it is a condition of interpretation, or whether ambiguity is desirable as a signal to a viewer to spend more time looking at an image. Of course you might have thought of something different altogether, which would render my list incomplete.
     
  12. Arthur, the idea for this thread came from the current POTW, seen HERE. If you look at the photo and read the comments, you'll see an example of an ambiguous photo given some very specific and literal interpretations.* I'm not saying it's not a valid way of looking at the photo. I am questioning, though, if that's the extent of the kind of looking that's done, could there be something significant that's missed? It's like there's an ache to escape the ambiguity rather than a desire to wallow in it and enjoy it for what it is. Do we need to settle on a story and do we even need to supply the various literal hypotheticals of what's going on to begin with? Can questions simply remain unanswered or even unanswerable? Can the unseen insides of taxi cabs remain anonymous and mysterious without demanding coherent specifics? Can the bride's being in a lonely back alley be dealt with as the conveying of a visual and emotional cue, reacted to for what it looks like and feels like as is without wondering what she's doing there? Nobody, even she herself, may actually know why she's there. Certainly, a photographer may just have happened upon the scene and felt something for the juxtapositions, the ironies, the tension, the contrasts, the lighting, the symbolism, the story as an unfolding and a mystery rather than a completeness. The literal details needn't be resolved or even guessed at.
    ________________________________________
    *It's unimportant whether I like the photo or think it's well done for the purposes of this discussion.
     
  13. Michael, sorry I was responding while you were posting. Hopefully, you'll find time to read through the comments, unpack the OP yourself, and provide a considered reply of your own. I want to hear your own thoughts, and there are so many ways to think about the OP and directions you can take it in. Much more interesting and constructive for you to take up that challenge than for me to narrow it down for you.
     
  14. Charles, somehow I missed your post as well. Thanks. When I look at the McCurry picture, I'm struck not so much to wonder what the guy is doing or what he's doing there as much as to feel his almost silhouetted presence in a very kind of located and closed environment. I'm struck by the storybook colors of the structures even in their dilapidated state. Now, the irony is that there may well be an important social and political story that goes along with this photo and that could easily deepen my appreciation of it. So, though I'm not moved by the photo alone to wonder what's "really" going on, if the photographer were to offer some wider context for what's going on, thereby giving it a social documentary way in which to be viewed, I'd happily go along with looking at it more literally as well. I'm certainly thinking that I often adopt both a literal and a more abstract viewpoint toward photos, simultaneously. Part of the tension and beauty of photos is that they are both tied to and severed from the actual events, people, or things that were taking place in front of the lens. I think that puts an interesting spin on the ambiguity part of things. In addition to whatever I'm looking at or feeling that's inside the frame, I am aware that something literally was going on at the time, and those original circumstances will be at play to drastically varying degrees when I'm engaged with a photo.
     
  15. The POTW http://www.photo.net/photo-of-the-week-discussion-forum/00d44V
    That's a pretty literal photo altogether and its literalness begs for more information; but more information isn't available in the photo. So viewing it ends up being a little frustrating for the viewer because the viewer naturally moves toward making up some kind of story and can't really make one up that isn't just a product of her own active mind, not the mind of the photographer. Although the literal details don't need to be resolved (can't be from the information in the photo) or guessed at (hence frustrating the viewer), the photographer set up that need in the viewer in the first place. If it was intended to be a story telling photo it failed. If it was intended to be ambiguous, its too literal for that.
    The McCurry photo works differently. It's literal enough, dilapidated man, dilapidated buildings and a viewer should generally know why, know there are any number of all too familiar stories a viewer may reasonably associate with the subject. And it isn't so literal that it becomes all about a particular person in particular circumstances in a particular place, that is, it isn't a news story picture. So it is non-specific enough, satisfyingly ambiguous and I think that McCurry then asks us in our viewing to say I'm broken like this man, I'm in broken circumstances and with his wabi sabi take on things, McCurry is at rest with that.
     
  16. When a situational literal significance in a story telling fashion is the main product of viewing, the photograph probably has some kind of value, but I much prefer less story telling and more philosophical incitations to interpretation, that is I prefer photos which are enigmatic or ambiguous that avoid situational interpretations (like Fred's POTW example or Curry's broken hamlet-broken man situation, although I prefer Curry's and wish I could read the sign as it may add something) and more philosophical questions. or. in possibly more concrete terms, the presentation of incongruities or symbols of content that we have to deal with in our mind and not just fill in the spaces of a plot. In other words, more interesting stuff, disposed in order to stretch our imaginations.
    Therein for me lies the real challenges of photography, art photography or other, and the value of incompleteness or ambiguity that seek something other than a situational (or other) literal interpretation.
     
  17. That's a pretty literal photo altogether and its literalness begs for more information; but more information isn't available in the photo. So viewing it ends up being a little frustrating for the viewer because the viewer naturally moves toward making up some kind of story and can't really make one up that isn't just a product of her own active mind, not the mind of the photographer.​
    Charles, thanks. Really a fascinating take on the photo and makes me think quite a bit about the photo itself and the topic at hand as well as why people reacted as they did. I can certainly see why you say what you say, though the photo's literalness doesn't have to, and doesn't to me, beg for more information. I'm perfectly content with a moment-in-time-suggestive-of-an-unknown-narrative type of picture. I don't find a problem with the balance of literalness and unknowns in the photo, though I do have other problems with it. What I do think is that from the standpoint of critique and from the standpoint of learning and photographers' studying and commenting on another photographer's work, your questions of balance of information, of the play between the literalness and the ambiguity, of storytelling capability and purpose, are more significant than musings about what might hypothetically be going on in the narrative.
     
  18. Arthur - "In other words, more interesting stuff, disposed in order to stretch our imaginations."
    Yes and with McCurry it does seem deliberate, an amplification of the sort of way of seeing he tries to put into practice photographically. Here's an example quote from McCurry's blog:
    It is only with age that you acquire the gift to evaluate decay, the epiphany of Wordsworth,
    the wisdom of wabi-sabi: nothing is perfect, nothing is complete, nothing lasts.
    – Paul Theroux
    McCurry seems to be expounding a design concept with some rigor, rigor I haven't yet found in the POW example.
    Wabi sabi design books too? Anyway I don't think the above quote conveys much, is an interpretation that doesn't also express that things don't last because they are in the process of becoming something else. The few times I've heard wabi sabi stories from Japanese people is in say intentionally not cutting up vegetables perfectly, and not cutting up an even number of pieces, or of using a trifold napkin in a place setting.
     
  19. I don't think the POTW can really be spoken of on the same level as the McCurry photos. I agree there's little "rigor" evidenced in it. I brought it up because of the literal commentary by some of the respondents.
    I find simplicity just as capable of stretching my imagination as ambiguity or mystery. Think of so much Japanese design, zen gardens for example, many of which have a very easily-understood and appreciated symbolism, many of which are much more complex.
    Feeling can be as present and important as imagination. My imagination isn't necessarily stretched when I look at the work of, for example, Mark Rothko. But it is as if I am immersed in the feeling of his shapes and colors and like I can almost touch his own feelings by being in sympathy with his paintings. There's no particular enigma or mystery I'm confounded by, certainly not one I'd dwell on in a literal way.
    While I'm not one to quibble with "philosophical incitations to interpretation" as I love them and am drawn to them, perhaps even TOO drawn to them at times, I'd kill myself if I had to make that my primary artistic inspiration or response. Too heady and, again, I don't shy away from heady. But I need and long for other more instinctual inspirations and reactions and I'm fine when a work leaves me unmoved to interpret and rather in a state just to feel or even just to be with it.
     
  20. I've dealt with a few close friends and relatives who've been gravely ill or dying recently. Sometimes the dialogue simply has to stop and we just sit with each other, feeling each other's presence. That can be extremely human and life affirming. Same is true for art. Some art is just meant to be with (maybe all art is at some time or another), not to stretch my imagination, not to pique my interpretive interests, not even to be deep or profound. Just to be. A friend. A companion. A love. Sometimes silent.
     
  21. I guess, for me, there are so many different kinds of art and so many different things art accomplishes and different states it puts me in that I would never limit myself by the need for all art or the best art to be ambiguous or mysterious. I don't find Mozart, for example, to be near as enigmatic as Brahms and yet it's Mozart's simplicity that I will often choose to allow to wash over me, not stirring up deep philosophical interpretations (as Brahms might) but rather bathing me in a kind of musico-logical certainty of sorts that I can be at one with for hours at a time. I'd say Bach and Mozart both seem to answer more questions than they provoke, they lead me precisely where they want me (in my view) and that's fine by me. Brahms is more likely to leave me with unanswered questions and take me to more shadowy places and his music is as significant to me but no more significant than Mozart's and Bach's for it.
     
  22. Many years ago in Hollywood after a day of shooting I stopped in a mini-mart for a snack to eat on the way home. The young Hispanic girl behind the counter had a black eye. It was already beginning to fade but was still fairly noticeable. I told her I was intrigued by her eye and asked her if she would come out front and allow me to photograph her. She consented and we walked outside where I stood her in front of a white wall and took several pictures. I later brought one back to her. Anyway, when I made the prints in the college darkroom I was using, people asked "Who beat her?" and assumed she was either in a fight or her boyfriend or husband hit her. The truth is that the black eye was the result of a recent car accident. As we walked back to the store she pointed out her car to me - the front bumper was smashed in.
    So what I want to say is what we already know: a photograph describes something or someone, but it doesn't reveal any truth except to those people/things in the picture. Everyone else just has to form their own explanations.
    Another example is the pay phone picture below. In a street photography forum on Facebook one of the photographers posted a picture of a pay phone, not unlike mine although mine showed a phone with much more grime. Anyway, someone objected to the photo because it was just a pay phone and therefore it wasn't really "street" and taking a picture of the computer he was using as he typed his response would amount to the same thing. So I responded and told the photographer that his picture was not so much about the pay phone but rather the graffiti and the empty liquor bottle on the top of the phone. I posted my picture and explained that we both were seeing the phones with the same mindset - that the other elements gave our pictures depth beyond a mere description of a pay phone. That this totally bypassed the person who objected to the photo just proves what I said in my previous post. People are who they are and how they interpret photos or any other works of art differes greatly.
    00d4ee-554159684.jpg
     
  23. but it doesn't reveal any truth​
    Marc, while I take your point, I think it depends on how you look at it. Take your woman with the black eye. Sure, if we assume she was beaten instead of in an accident, we haven't gotten a truth (or, in this case, an accurate account of what actually took place). But we don't have to go there, to the cause of the black eye. What if we just see a black eye, a symbol that something went awry with her body, a symbol of the body's vulnerability, etc. That's kind of what I'm getting at here. Depending on where we take the interpretation, we could exercise our imaginations and hypothesize about the scenarios we imagine may have occurred, guessing at how she "really " got the black eye. But there's also a case to be made that truth can be found in the picture if we don't project beyond what we see. We see a black eye and we don't see the cause. So, we can always stick to feeling and thinking about the black eye itself, what it means in terms of bodily change and injury and even what it could feel like, and not necessarily think about what caused it. Truth is often relative to the question being asked and answered. A photo can tell a great deal of truth even when we don't have an accurate picture of the situational facts that led to the photo. I think Nan Goldin's photo with the black eye has a lot of truth in it. And the fact of the matter is that we all know that many women get black eyes from being beaten, so if we feel something genuine about women's vulnerability to male attacks when we look at the picture of the woman you describe, we may not be experiencing accuracy to the specific situation, but I'd say we're still experiencing an important truth.
     
  24. To continue my last thought, the important truth might be that a lot of people have assumed that the black eye was caused by a man's attacking the woman. The fact that that was not the cause in this case, but that so many assumed it was, tells us something very significant. Truth is not only to be found in the matchup between what we think happened and what "really" happened. Truth is often quite a bit deeper than that.
     
  25. Fair enough, Fred. I'll respond by noting Souter's comment about having difficulty " . . . seeing ambiguity apart from interpretation." Therein lies my answer to the OP. Ambiguity encourages a viewer to interpret a photograph, but not necessarily so. There likely are other elements that may spur a viewer to make an interpretation - color, mood, perspective, etc. But it's also a matter of what a viewer brings to the table. As mentioned in the most recent POTW thread, too much ambiguity may detract from an image in the sense of discouraging interpretation. Some casual viewers in effect may want the image to do all the work.
     
  26. Over the summer of last year I created a series of double exposure photos, link: http://thomasakiss.zenfolio.com/p371303201
    I noticed that majority of viewers reacted with quick question about how my images were made apparently having difficulty absorbing them and asking for additional information. I do not know if I failed to produce uniform, if ambiguous, images or the viewers felt simply confused by them. My hope for these images was to trigger reactions without need for dissemination of processes which led to their creation. Maybe if a viewer feels immediate need for interpretation of unknowns is a sign of image failing to captivate, to charm rational mind?
     
  27. While I must spend enough time to read and think about the recent posts (skimming replies is not the best way), what Fred says about just feeling something from a photograph and the value of simplicity in an image are no doubt of relevance, and sometimes more so than devolving deeper meanings. Of course, the qualities of simplicity and feeling can apply to other image characteristics than ambiguity, to which they are not necessarily related. There are some photos I have made that I return to as they are very simple or unassuming and probably represent the feelings I had for the subject matter, whether it was (is) my fascination for their appearance or symbolism, their textures, purity of being, or ambiguity. For whatever reason, they seem to relay some truth for me regarding our lives and environment. But possibly just for myself. It is sort of a mixed bag in terms of images and personal responses, but I do agree that philosophical interpretations are only a part of what might come out of our imaginative extension of the image into other dimensions of thought or feeling.
    Thomas, nos. 2 and 7 of your double exposures seem to hit the mark for ambiguity rather than just examples of photographic technique or interesting graphics. They do not seem to need any explanation about how they were made and seem to create simply a questioning of our environment and its perception, which was enough for me to take away from them.
     
  28. Possibly off-topic, and not related to the first paragraph of my last post, but on the subject of multiple exposure, the following photographic accident of double exposure contains some elements of ambiguity (discount the inapt title that is too informative): http://www.photo.net/photo/11472750
     
  29. Seeing the POTW and McCurry examples, it seems the conversaion is primarily revolving around how individuals react to ambiguity rather the ambiguity in certain photographs. There's a tendency to trying decide always whether something's black or white, good or bad, etc - while it seems to be a challenge to allow and deal with ambiguities (or oxymorons). I like Fred's "Sometimes the dialogue simply has to stop ... Same is true for art." - we may jump too quickly to conclusions ('she's escaping from the wedding').
    Yet, in the discussion another - related - aspect surfaced: truth - is the black eye about male violence or vulnerability of the human body? How does context influence our dealing with ambiguity and perception of truth?
     
  30. You want ambiguity Fred? I got your ambiguity right here. The picture below is from last summer. Doesn't look like much does it? Even careless perhaps. Maybe there is more to it though, maybe not. Your interpretation is appreciated. Remember, if photographs speak to us in a symbolic language, then all photographs are metaphors.
    00d4mi-554187984.jpg
     
  31. Marc, I've been saying throughout the thread that I'm not that interested in interpreting ambiguous photos, so I'm not sure why you've invited to do so. In any case, I won't.
     
  32. Something I've been thinking about relative to ambiguity seems to be its opposite, though it probably isn't. What about taking a stand in our work? What about making decided commitments to a vision, an issue, a perspective, a way of wanting to show something? This way of approaching making photos is to commit to something, an idea or a perspective. We can visually take stands, which I actually notice many people NOT doing. To be honest, I often think lack of commitment in the name of ambiguity or mystery can be a copout. Obviously, not all the time. Ambiguity, as has been said, is wonderful and intriguing and inspirational, etc., but I dare say it can also be the excuse of many a faux artist. When I hear again and again that "I have no idea what my photos mean" or "I just go out to shoot with no idea and no purpose" I'm very often turned off. That's because I think a sense of purpose can be a very good thing and photos and all art can certainly have purpose or be purposeful. When does ambiguity, in your mind, become wishy-washiness and more of a banal lack of focus and voice and lose its power as an artistic challenge? And when does a clear visual statement, tmaking a stand, work for you? For me, it's NOT just in documentary or journalistic work. I think Brassai took socially complex stands. Mapplethorpe did. Goldin often does. Jock Sturges. That's not to say some emotional aspects of their work aren't still ambiguous, but it often comes within an overall very unambiguous visual perspective and photographic statement.
     
  33. Over the summer of last year I created a series of double exposure photos, link:
    http://thomasakiss.zenfolio.com/p371303201
    I noticed that majority of viewers reacted with quick question about how my images were made apparently having difficulty absorbing them and asking for additional information. I do not know if I failed to produce uniform, if ambiguous, images or the viewers felt simply confused by them. My hope for these images was to trigger reactions without need for dissemination of processes which led to their creation. Maybe if a viewer feels immediate need for interpretation of unknowns is a sign of image failing to captivate, to charm rational mind?​
    Thomas, you certainly weren't ambiguous about avoiding "The Rule Of Thirds" in your compositions and you've done it so beautifully with an unbelievable amount of diversity and uniqueness in each one.
    My head is reeling trying to figure out not how it was done but how the heck you could pre-visualize so many different and the same time compelling compositions. I think you covered every positive/negative space combination of the photographic frame possible.
    You need to give a class on composition. I'm serious!
     
  34. Thomas, I also wanted to address your concern about viewers questioning you about process. I wouldn't take that in any way negatively or as a sign that your images fail in some way. In fact, just the opposite. I think it's great they're showing interest. Look at it this way. You introduced it as a series of double exposures and you've titled the series alluding to the double exposure as well. In fact, the process IS very much a part of the expressiveness of the work. You are working with the craft of photography in a creative way to make a different sort of picture and I think the process very appropriately and suggestively weaves its way through your work. I think many viewers who notice creative craft will make that part of the viewing experience. You've already recognized the significance of that process by including it in your title and introduction. Don't expect viewers not to wonder about it. Think about people like Man Ray, who also made the material aspects and the craft aspects of photography part of his art. Viewers and critics and curators spend a lot of time dissecting the various processes Man Ray challenged himself with. It's not a distraction from the work but rather a desire to learn from it and appreciate it for what it is. In this case, the viewer gaining knowledge by asking questions can deepen his appreciation for what you're doing. I wouldn't rest just looking at your photos as if they were straight compositions from a single exposure. I think I'd miss some of the interest and beauty of them. Being unfamiliar with many artistic processes, viewer's interest will be piqued when a process is used as such an integral part of the expression.
     
  35. When does ambiguity, in your mind, become wishy-washiness and more of a banal lack of focus and voice and lose its power as an artistic challenge?​
    When it looks like an obvious quick snap shot that doesn't give back to the viewer with regard to composition (i.e. interesting use of negative/positive space as in Thomas's double exposures)...chosen subject, lack of captured ambiance, no sensitivity to color or tone. IOW when it's utterly fatiguing to look at.
    What about making decided commitments to a vision, an issue, a perspective, a way of wanting to show something?...When I hear again and again that "I have no idea what my photos mean" or "I just go out to shoot with no idea and no purpose" I'm very often turned off.​
    For me, Fred, my purpose and meaning is realized after I get the Raw images on my computer and work them into my vision which I see as unique moments in time of my short existence on this planet and how I feel about my little local touristy town that seems on the surface not so remarkable.
    I compare them to B&W 1940's archived snaps of my town taken over the years by a long standing photo lab operator who donated tons of his personal B&W photos to our local heritage museum after he passed. His images captured and evoke a unique melancholy, nostalgia for the undeveloped, strange looking wilderness of this area back then that made it look like an unspoiled, prehistoric oasis very different from similar nostalgic shots of other towns.
    None of this guy's images look like random quick snaps with wonky, off kilter compositions often associated with personal snaps even though they mostly comprise non-posing families dressed for summer frolicking and lounging among the beautiful fauna and river recreation facilities. And they certainly appear more than just touristy post card fodder.
    Was the photo lab guy being ambiguous in what he was wanting to capture and convey or am I reading too much into his images primarily influenced by its nostalgia for a time long ago? Does the passing of time change the perception, out of context of the original photographer's intent whether it was ambiguous or not?
    Maybe the photographer was just randomly shooting snaps and happen to have a good eye with the intent of capturing the indescribable about a place the photographer saw as unique and meaningful. In a sense the photographer was taking a stand or establishing a vision for finding value in just the mere minutes within each day of a life the photographer realizes is quite short and fleeting.
    That's my purpose and meaning.
     
  36. Tim, you bring up a good point, which is that a photographer can intend to be ambiguous and can have a purpose and it may or may not show in the photos for a variety of reasons. And both ambiguity or purpose can show up intentionally and non-intentionally. Sometimes, a photographer may be clueless about his own purpose and yet his work will consistently show a point of view that is rather unambiguous. Sometimes a photographer will think he's showing a particular emotion in a portrait, for example, and yet the expression comes across as ambiguous because the photographer hasn't visually translated what he's feeling. And there are all sorts of degrees and permutations of this. A photo is not necessarily a direct translation of what one is feeling but one can certainly want to portray a subject in a certain light or with a certain twist or bias and fail at doing so.
    To me, your own photos show a sort of soft-spoken and matter-of-fact quirkiness. And matter-of-factness as a photographic accomplishment can be not that easy to achieve and very effective at engaging a viewer. Taken as a whole, what your pictures of town do so nicely is juxtapose detail with bigger picture shots. Having the photo of tubing on Stinky Falls right next to the picture of the soda bar, with its lighted tourist photo hanging on the wall (which may be of the same or at least a similar place) adds up to more than the two pictures would be if shown separately.
    In general, I'd say the ambiguity seen in individual photos can often start becoming quite revelatory and more telling as an individual's body of work takes shape.
     
  37. Yes. But the trouble is that human minds operate lexically (no pun intended). This basically brings us to the choise of presenting a photo to intelligent audience which unavoidably will make interpretations or present it to the unintelligent, so to say (which, hopefully, will make them more intelligent so they can ...) and so it goes. Lucky, we still have supra intelligent segment to challange.
     
  38. Ilia, yes, good point. We do operate lexically. What I'm getting at is the different grammars and vocabularies and lexicologies we use to respond to photos (and to create them).
     
  39. Exactly, Fred. I think one has to see the paramount purpose in personal creative endevours.
     
  40. Some people may better understand photos with all the blanks filled in. Some enjoy contemplating the
    possibilities when only provided with partial or ambiguous information. Nothing new...
     
  41. I never thought the word "ambiguity" could make such an interesting discussion but this thread has actually gotten me to think, examine and value more about what I do compared to other photographers (both amateur & pro) shooting my local town and the degree each of us communicate intent with regard to whether we see a touristy or a historically and socially insulated surreal like hamlet. It got me to notice how choice of subject with regard to composition, lighting and presentation (including post processing) can vary the level of ambiguity each of us communicate this intent.
    As my small town has grown rapidly in population in the last decade more financially sophisticated out of state development type folks are settling in and attracting like minded creatives including photographers whose images show how much out of touch they are compared to my vision and interpretation. But I had to have their work to compare in order to see this in my work. Now I look at my images has being less ambiguous and clearly having an intent and vision the more time passes and I keep going back and assessing what to keep and throw away.
    It's like the unsung photo lab operator who took all these beautiful snaps of this town no one ever saw until our local heritage museum scanned and made them public within the past decade. Even his work conveys an intent that now doesn't seem ambiguous compared to all the wedding, Chamber Of Commerce touristy and real estate driven images that dominate online and in print.
    Thanks for the analysis of my images of my small town, Fred. It's interesting and a bit weird to get an intelligent take on them since I've been taking them for granted in the years since I last added to my PN gallery. I feel like I'm going to end up like that photo lab operator where my work is going to be discovered out of cultural context of my generation 50 years from now by some heritage museum after I pass.
    I found this 1942 HDR gem, not sure if it's by the photo lab dude... http://www.edwardsaquifer.net/images/card373.jpg
    From this site: http://www.edwardsaquifer.net/comal.html
     
  42. Fred, for days I try to get back to a question you raised on page 1 (to Wolfgang and me), and even though I read all posts after it, and realising I'm putting the thread though a time-warp, I think it's still valid to get back to that question:
    I was wondering whether interpretation is necessary and to what extent photos, to be experienced fully, are best put into words or thoughts. If they get translated verbally, how literal do those thoughts have to be? Can the thoughts or words be more like poems or metaphors rather than essays or novels and would that, in many cases, make more sense?​
    Necessay is a tricky word. Nothing is necessary; just looking at a photo in awe absorbing it can be more than great. Not so much interpretating, but just emotionally letting things poor in. Not that this excludes interpretation, though for me it's not something I seem to do at the same time. And with those two not-so-mutual-exclusive approaches, what is the full experience? I really don't know - it depends heavily on the photo. Some photos provoke words like essays, some like poems, some just music.
    I think reading through most of the posts is something that's be nagging my mind on this topic from the start: 'ambiguity' isn't one thing - it's ambiguous in itself too quite often. As already notes, ambiguity can be a planned part of the photo (insert here quite a number of Fred's photos as very fine examples), or just a technical/compositional oversight, or at least something that wasn't very deliberate part of the scene while making the photo. And it's not always as noticeable what is what. But the first one is more begging for interpretation than the second.
    In the end, in a way I can get what your point is, but I see no mutual exclusives, no 1-on-1 relationships... A non-ambiguous photo to me doesn't take more stand, isn't necessarily more answer than question, doesn't necessarily avoid the need to interpret, as there is always context that isn't in the photo. And vice versa. These are all things happening in a continuum, partially conscious processes, partially not (I cannot suspend my interpretation-engine - good photos trigger my fantasy, and frankly I wouldn't want it any other way at the moment).
    __
    Thomas, impressive work on the double exposures. I've been having a go at them recently (some in my portfolio here), but just first baby-steps and oh my - it's one brilliant way to tax pre-visualisation skills to the maximum. Very satisfying when it works out, but it's going to take some time to get grips with it. All the more respect for your results, because they really work out great.
    The first few I shared (outside this site) people assumed I would have done it in Photoshop - in a sense, I don't mind they ask me for the process used. I don't mind Photoshop, nothing against it, but getting double exposures like yours to work "directly from the viewfinder" is a different thing.
     
  43. Ambiguity is the result of a conflict between equally convincing points of view that might make sense of the same thing. I don't believe that something is ambiguous if it makes no sense at all.
    Ambiguity is inconsistent with the notion that there is one true or best point of view (interpretation) at least for the person who finds himself stuck up in the air between plausible but different interpretations. What's the point of declaring that there is a best point of view when you can't decide which one to pick?
    Consider the photo of the person who has suffered a beating mentioned earlier. The discussion around it described the subject as a woman. She's not a very feminine looking woman. In fact, I, for one, would be willing to believe that the subject is actually a man in drag. The way to find alternative interpretations is to ask questions about the subject and its setting. What exactly am I looking at here? What's going on? As matters of fact these questions typically have no answers evident. An object is simply there with little or no back story to make sense of its presence.
    So it's up to the viewer to stretch his imagination to make as much sense as he cares to for the photo. You can see that such things as a person's willingness to accept things at face value, inquisitiveness, tolerance for ambiguity, experience with things that the photo might suggest, etc. are all part of the subjective workings of the active viewer's mind. (An objective interpretation occurs when a consensus exists validating its plausibility.) My prejudice here is that a passive viewer would simply pass over a picture without putting very much work into trying to figure it out.
    At any rate I think that, when you find that the image before you is ambiguous, you have already given up as lost any notion that there is only one best explanation for it. You have the bounty of possibility before you. The idea of the one true interpretation gets in the way of you exploring the richness of your own mind. It could be a woman, but it could be something else instead...
     
  44. Albert that's said with precision and concision.
    I think the way Steve Curry's Ethiopia picture works for me is that because there are competing though uninteresting literal interpretations possible, the fact of that ambiguity leads me toward a meta interpretation more in the direction of McCurry's philosophical blog statements.
     
  45. Consider the photo of the person who has suffered a beating mentioned earlier. The discussion around it described the subject as a woman. She's not a very feminine looking woman. In fact, I, for one, would be willing to believe that the subject is actually a man in drag.​
    The fact of whether she's a woman or a man in drag can easily be answered. She's a woman. Nan Goldin has done many self portraits and is fairly well known in some circles. She's a woman and she looks like she does in many of her photos. But it raises a couple of interesting issues. Because often certain factual ambiguities get answered as we learn more about a photo or a photographer. So, reactions, interpretations, understandings, meaning usually remain quite fluid and changeable. It would be interesting to consider what would change for me if I learned that this was a big joke and that Nan Goldin was in fact a man dressing up as a woman. Surely some things would, especially the factual hookups I may have made. Other things wouldn't. Since men dressed as women are likely to be treated even worse by a lot of males even than women so often are. It wouldn't negate what I was thinking about violence against women. Instead, it would add some layers to it. Of course, sometimes my understanding and relationship to a photo would do a more complete about face upon learning something factual that I'd been unaware of. All depends.

    Since ambiguity and interpretation have to do with meaning, I would have to ask what a more and less feminine woman is like, especially given our 21st-century sensibilities? Would different make-up, figure, and hairstyle be thought of as more feminine? In this day and age? Just what meaning, what interpretation do we give to "femininity"? One reason I feel rather exposed when attributing meaning to photos or critiquing them is that I'm well aware that it often shows my own biases. That's why discussing these things with others is such a good thing for my own growth. Getting different perspectives allows me to see what meanings and interpretations I kind of take for granted and whether or not I can here and there be shown a different way of seeing things, one of the reasons I not only look at and talk about photos, but take them myself and listen to the feedback I get.
     
  46. Wouter, good points. I didn't mean to suggest that ambiguity and taking a stand were mutually exclusive. I thought I gave some examples of where they could reside together but may not have made that clear. So I'm glad you emphasized that point. But that they are not mutually exclusive doesn't mean that some people, myself included at times, don't use ambiguity as a way not to commit. It's not unlike how a lot of people are in relationships. I'm not sure what I want from the other person, and I'm not ready to commit, so I'll give lots of mixed signals. That can be done intentionally or non-intentionally but to the person receiving the mixed signals, in given situations, it can really fall short of being fulfilling. What I'm saying is that there are lots and lots of photos that have no mystique or ambiguity or unanswered questions that wind up being really boring and unengaging (though, as I said, plenty of unambiguous photos are great). But I also think that many who think they've hit an artistic stride SIMPLY by being ambiguous or mysterious are in fact not quite getting it either, for their work lacks the kind of commitment and the passion that comes with taking stands which has a very furtive history in art throughout the ages.
     
  47. FERTILE, not furtive, though sometimes these stances can be made surreptitiously I was thinking that many are taken very intentionally.
     
  48. Thank you for your thoughtful comments Fred.
     
  49. Fred, complete agree and certainly I would not want to imply that ambiguity is a free pass to making things interesting. A lot of ambiguity I see is merely a lack of (cohesive) thought, and more like an unfinished part rather than an integral part.
    I think bringing up biases in this context is good - maybe bias has a bit a negative tone to itself, but I take it you mean it a lot less biased, so to speak. As stated earlier, in my view, there is a level of inevitable personal interpretation, which has an inevitable bias (based on our experiences, cultural background, taste and all those othyer factors that shape us). We can't leave ourselves behind at the door as we enter the room to inspect it. Initially, this isn't a conscious process, but our very first impression of an image (or any piece of art) is shaped this way. We can overcome that with a more reasoned conscious study - and yes, for that discussions as these, or sharing critiques to me is vital - but there will always remain a trace of that bias, and that first impression will have a profound impact on how willing we are to listen to others and (ex)change ideas.
    Taking an image as-is, even if it's not ambiguous, obvious and near-literally telling me what's what, there still is a level gut reaction between me and that image. At the least colouring in the blanks on why the image was made, whether it fits into something bigger or smaller... some extrapolation that I can't seem to avoid (could be my defect, though). And even those literal images (product-photos of any kind of product for advertisements jump to mind) can become ambiguous once our fantasy starts to play with it.... Why show the product under a left angle? Is the other side a design-mostrosity? Etc. Not something we can always actively avoid from happening. In short: my question remains if the ambiguity exists before we see it, whether a photo is ambiguous in itself, or whether our interpretation from it makes it such. It's hard to pin down where things start and end, as they intertwine and amplify one another quite a bit.
    Not quite sure we're talking the same things here, maybe I'm thinking something else in the end than what you actually are aiming at. But with the continuum above I meant not only the various shades of ambiguous that an image can be, but also the continuous and continuous-changing play between a viewer and an image that can shift meaning and the 'absoluteness of its message' from left to right. In a way, we see what we want to see, none of us looks without coloured glasses, and that (to me) seems to always affect whether we regard something as ambiguous to start with, seperate from what the artist hoped to put in there.
    But as said, maybe my thoughts are off to something else entirely, in which case my apologies for the detour.
     
  50. Of course, you don't want ambiguity in pictures of food on a restaurant menu, a good one is apetitious and not suggestive of alternative and equally convincing points of view. So at least in a product shot we know the intent is to make a product appealing to the viewer and we can readily mark the point at which our individual tastes contribute to our assessment of the product, there being no underlying confusion about the intent of the photographer. Ambiguity as a design element can as thoughtfully be employed by a photographer as is clarity in product shots.
    In thinking more about Albert's "Ambiguity is the result of a conflict between equally convincing points of view that might make sense of the same thing." I don't think there is necessarily a conflict between equally convincing points of view, interpretations. Each interpretation if well supported in the image isn't necessarily in conflict with other interpretations, much like where a good poem could be read in several equally convincing ways. But just being vague, letting a photograph just support any number of equally unconvincing interpretations: to me that happens when I find that in a photograph I can only discover my own personal associations and for me, my own personal associations aren't interesting except if it is the case that either I'm trying to communicate or am trying to receive a communication. I don't like spending time with a photograph only to find that the photographer was must mumbling, being intentionally obtuse or intentionally vague for no worthwhile purpose.
     
  51. Wouter and Charles, much appreciate your last posts.
    Wouter, agree with you that we can't leave biases at the door. Also agree that some degree of objectivity, standing back from our usual perspective/bias to whatever extent we can, might be a good thing. For me, art is kind of symbiotic relationship between my own tastes, my own imagination, and my ability to empathize with something outside me that's also going on. If I constantly assert my own self into my interpretations and insist that "the viewer is always right" then I feel guilty of selfishness or at least self-centeredness. I much rather my experience of art have a sharing quality to it, which means getting outside myself when and if I can. That's the severe limitation, in my view, of "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." Maybe not, maybe it's in the eye of the artist and I, the beholder, am being led to see it by the eye of another. And, yes, to that continually-changing relationship between viewer and photo. Those are the keepers, the ones that change and grow over time. The more stagnant ones tend to be the less memorable and the less inspiring.
    Charles, very good point about there not having to be a conflict, even among quite different interpretations. Along those lines, we can think of arts such as theater and classical music, which each rely on interpretation for their being experienced. While I may have my favorite interpretations of a play or piece of music, some simply exist as equally-satisfying and enlightening manifestations of the works. I can think of four productions of Romeo and Juliet I've seen, each one making me richer as a viewer and finding things to emphasize in the play that hit upon something very special. And, I'd imagine Shakespeare would approve of them all. But, having said that, I think sometimes reasonable conflicts can and should arise, again getting back to that not every viewer's viewing is equal or as developed or mature as it could be. So, I think arguments about interpretation (and taste) can and should arise. It deepens the experience, the passion, and the understanding. Fact is, some interpretations are simply wrong or at least not supported. Yes, maybe "wrong" is too severe. So "unsupportable" would be better. When it comes from a place purely personal and can't be supported by reference to the photo itself, there's certainly validity to one's being struck that way, but there's also grounds for others to question just how carefully one is looking at the photo and just how empathetic to another's vision and voice one is being.
     
  52. I meant conflict as in a competition such as a race. Conflict is too strong a word for my intended purpose. I wanted to dramatize the intensity I feel when I work at choosing exactly the best point of view, but I can't decide which one to pick. NASCAR example: All the cars look good and the race isn't over yet.
    That is, is literary/verbal storytelling different from photographic/visual storytelling and can the instinct to interpret ambiguities in a photo actually mean missing some of the unique experience that is visual ambiguity?​
    Sorry Fred. I had no idea that I would offend you personally. Some possible interpretations or stories made of things are best kept to oneself. Apparently some of the unique experience of visual ambiguity is actually worth missing!
    For my part - No harm - no foul.
     
  53. Sorry Fred. I had no idea that I would offend you personally.​
    Albert, not sure what you mean. You haven't offended me in any way. I think this is a great discussion.
     
  54. Competing interpretations. I like that. So pulling a couple ideas together with Albert's: Ambiguity in a photograph results from a competition between equally convincing points of view that might make sense of the same thing, each competing point of view finding support in image elements, photographer body of work, etc. I think that definition works whether the interpretation is of a literal story, manifest content, or of meaning, values, metaphor, etc.
     
  55. Charles, why equally competing? Isn't there still ambiguity, perhaps sometimes even more ambiguity, when one interpretation seems to pull you more but another sort of nags at you from behind?
    And, I'm still not sure "interpretation" is necessary. Seems to me I've walked away from effective/challenging/haunting photos saying "I don't know what to make of that?"
    Is there a difference between understanding and interpretation? I think there is an aspect of interpretation that draws conclusions from what we understand. "Take an umbrella with you." If I pick up the folded thing in the corner with the black nylon partially covering the hooked wooden handle, I have understood what you've directed me to do. If I go on to think you're telling me this because you care about me, love me, think I'm stupid and would otherwise get wet, etc., etc., I'm interpreting what you've said.
    I'm not sure ambiguity needs to be interpreted just as I'm not sure everything we read or hear that we understand needs to be interpreted, though it's pretty hard not to. It may help, as a viewer of photos, to be aware of what we've interpreted vs. what we've understood. Ambiguity, of course, can arise from conflicting understandings or even a lack thereof.
     
  56. That's equally convincing, not equally competing. Equally convincing parses out unconvincing meanings. And it's equally convincing points of view, not interpretations, where point of view is meant more broadly than interpretations. Ambiguity is defined as understood in more than one way, having more than one possible meaning, so interpretation, meaning is necessary in identifying expressions that either are or aren't ambiguous. The expression "Take an umbrella with you" is unambiguously in the imperative case and someone taking an umbrella as instructed is compliant behavior which also is unambiguous. (The expression "Take something with you" is ambiguous, subject to more than one point of view about what the something might be.) The order is unambiguous, it's instruction. An examination of the mind giving the instruction: I wouldn't call that an interpretation of the order, rather, it's an examination of the reasons behind the order, not an interpretation of the order, the order having been expressed clearly, not subject to interpretation, not able to be understood as something other than commanding a specified act. The question of why the command is not a question about the command itself, not an interpretation of the order itself.
     
  57. I usually just lurk in this forum because the conversations generally get more involved than I'm comfortable with, but since I made the initial comment on the POW that inspired Fred's question, I'll comment.
    I do not think ambiguity necessarily makes a photo any more or less compelling, nor do I think a story must be completed for a photo to be appreciated and enjoyed, but I do find that coming up with interpretations is simply fun. It's ok to have fun with photography, right? When my kids were young, we'd play a game in the car where someone would start a story, and each of us would add to it. No two stories were alike, though my older son had some sort of fascination with a little boy fishing, and would always work that in somehow. I was applying the same sort of thinking to the photo. Given the POWs don't generate much discussion, I thought perhaps going down a path where viewers offered their own interpretations might generate some conversation. I was wrong. Personally though, I don't know how anyone could view a photo that has some ambiguity and NOT wonder what's behind it. It's like trying to make your mind blank. At the very least, you're thinking about making it blank.
    And Marc, my guess would be the older couple just had an argument, probably about sex or money. Is there anything else to argue about?
     
  58. Bill, what if the story were this: There's an anonymous person inside a taxi cab on an alley at night and there's a bride out there, which is very curious, since I don't know why in the world a bride would be out there like this. How strange? And how wonderfully strange . . . maybe, if it were a better photo, IMO.
    What if, instead of asking what the hypothetical story is that would fill in the blanks, we asked something like, why did the photographer take this picture? What about what's there and what's not there makes it, at least in the mind of the photographer, a compelling picture to have taken and one to share with others? Aside from the narrative, what are some things I'm seeing that could substitute for literal thoughts about what is happening . . . light, dark, texture, perspective. This may not be a great photo to do all this with, because there's not much there there, as has been said.
    What if we take Weston's pepper? Do I wonder which store he bought the pepper at and what dish he's going to prepare with it after he takes the picture? Or one of Brassai's prostitutes on a nighttime foggy Paris street. Do I wonder how much she just charged for her services or whether she came out of a hotel or an apartment (assuming I can't see which it was) or do I feel something with her in the dampness of the lonely night? And, no, it doesn't have to be either/or.
    When I'm in the car with kids, I think it's great fun to make up stories as you've talked about. The world is at our fingertips and anything goes. When I'm looking at a photo, I feel some responsibility to the photographer in terms of trying to connect the type of story I will tell myself to the photo itself. And it will be perfectly OK for me to observe unknowns and allow them to remain unknowns, as those unknowns AS unknowns can be key characters in the story, the kind of story that doesn't have all the details filled in and where not knowing things makes me see a situation differently than if I did know or had to guess.
     
  59. Fred,
    There are two different concepts being addressed - what was in the mind of the photographer, and what is in the mind of the subjects (well, unless you are talking about a pepper, in which case it probably wasn't thinking much). I see no harm in addressing either or both. I also think each of those can lend to the enjoyment of a photograph. What did Weston see in the pepper? What is the aesthetic appeal to me as the viewer. Sometimes things are just enjoyable to look at. In the case of the bride picture, perhaps it doesn't appeal as much aesthetically (though I rather like it), but appeals instead in its ability to tell a story. I think it's very similar to most street photography, which typically makes you wonder (or it does me anyway), when people are the subject, what their story is.
    That's not to say you cannot simply enjoy the aesthetic or the feel of an image, but I just find it impossible to look at an image like that bride an not wonder what's behind it.
    And it will be perfectly OK for me to observe unknowns and allow them to remain unknowns​
    I can allow them to remain unknowns as well, but not before I try to determine what they might be.
     
  60. Bill, got it, and thanks for going deeper into it.
    Further complicating things is that there's not only what's in the mind of the photographer and the subjects, there's what the photo shows, which can be different. This is why sometimes, even though we took the picture, a viewer can point something out we hadn't considered that rings true in the photo. That's because, like I said earlier, by isolating a scene or subject from its context and putting a frame around that little portion of the world, what we see can become (photographically) something very different from what it was. So, actually, sometimes our own minds (as photographers and as viewers) can limit us, especially when we know things about the situation when the photo was taken. We tend to line the facts of the original situation up with the photo. If we don't know what the situation was, we just see something photographic and that may look very different and be very different from what was actually happening at the time. This is why a photo has such transformative capabilities, even though it originally depended on the world for its raw materials. And it's why too much concern for what was happening at the time can prevent us from seeing all the possibilities in the actual photo before us, which is in many cases NOT what was happening at the time and not even ABOUT what was happening at the time. As a photo, it can sometimes be a very new reality, usually related to the original situation but often severed from it and very often no longer dependent on it.
     
  61. There's an anonymous person inside a taxi cab on an alley at night and there's a bride out there, which is very curious, since I don't know why in the world a bride would be out there like this. How strange? And how wonderfully strange . . . maybe, if it were a better photo, IMO.
    What if, instead of asking what the hypothetical story is that would fill in the blanks, we asked something like, why did the photographer take this picture? What about what's there and what's not there makes it, at least in the mind of the photographer, a compelling picture to have taken and one to share with others?​
    Fred, you're asking questions that don't have sensible answers. How can you tell the difference from the photograph alone between a model in a bride's costume and a bona-fide bride? Either could be used to create the same picture. To enter the original photographer's mind you have to talk with him directly. Nothing else will do as well.
    Unknowns? You don't get much of a choice on this one. Something can't be both known and unknown at the same time.
    But this is where story-making comes into play. I think that the importance of myth in our lives has been underestimated in the onslaught of the scientific method of inquiry. The lesson that everything has an explanation that humans can find, understand and prove is widespread. Yet one can find a belief in a story that makes sense in the very canons of science. Darwin wrote that the creatures on the Galapagos islands had reached a perfect stasis. Things changing over time is one thing, but how can you look around you and conclude that you are enjoying perfect harmony? That is the notion that there is no need for things to change any more. Things are always in flux. Nevertheless I have to admit that there is a great comfort in simply accepting the 19th Century myth that a perfect balance in nature is not only possible, but it exists right now in the natural world. Myth is a valuable tool for filling in the gaps in our minds as we try to explain what drives the world around us even in the sophisticated times we live in now.
    I think Fred is encouraging people who look at photographs to explore the same kind of myth building, but without quite presenting it as such.
     
  62. How can you tell the difference from the photograph alone between a model in a bride's costume and a bona-fide bride?​
    You can't. I agree. But then again, when I see a woman dressed like this on the street, I wouldn't know either, unless I had some objective way of knowing for sure. So, on that level, there's nothing uniquely photographic about that kind of ambiguity. Still, though, I wouldn't need to ask the photographer if it was a bride or someone posing, though that might be interesting to learn. I can see it as "a bride in a photograph" and "a bride in a photograph" to me means that, if I can't tell for sure, it could be either a bride or someone dressed up as one. Either way, the garb is a visual symbol of a bride and that becomes part of the meaning of the photo. Now, the photo would be a lot more interesting to me if the photographer gave me some reason in the photo for doubting whether it was a real bride, other than that I can never be sure of anything in life. If the photographer provided some clues that it could be someone posing but I still wasn't sure, that would be a kind of intentional ambiguity I could get behind, if it were well done.
    To enter the original photographer's mind you have to talk with him directly. Nothing else will do as well.​
    I don't find this to be true. I think many photographers actually give you more information about their minds and hearts in their work than they do in what they say about it. We all do that to some degree. I think of how much more I learn from people's actions than from what they tell me. Often what they tell me obscures who they are and their actions reveal more truth. Photographing and putting together a body of work is a significant human action which can tell me a lot about a person.
    Fred, you're asking questions that don't have sensible answers.​
    I don't think I am. When I ask why the photographer took the picture, I mean, why would someone, anyone, take this picture. Why has this picture been taken? What's significant about it? There ought to be some clues in the photo, and with good photography there often are. It's an empathetic kind of question. To me, it's so much of what art's all about. And it doesn't need a personal or verbal response. A lot of the why's can be found right there in the photo.

    ___________________________________

    I love your foray into myth and think it's probably worthy of a thread sometime if you'd ever care to craft an OP on the topic. It's important and thanks for bringing it up!
     
  63. And it's why too much concern for what was happening at the time can prevent us from seeing all the possibilities in the actual photo before us, which is in many cases NOT what was happening at the time and not even ABOUT what was happening at the time.​
    Agreed. But the original discussion dealt specifically with the ambiguity of a shot, and details within the shot are not generally ambiguous, unless I'm reading you incorrectly. The ambiguity comes in the storyline, and I don't think we lose or dismiss anything by trying to interpret it, though as you noted, you might miss other details if you concentrate only on that.
     
  64. Fred,
    Thank you for the compliment on my use of myth. I've never been an OP on this forum before. You have no idea of what you could be letting out of the bottle!
    Either way, the garb is a visual symbol of a bride and that becomes part of the meaning of the photo. Now, the photo would be a lot more interesting to me if the photographer gave me some reason in the photo for doubting whether it was a real bride, other than that I can never be sure of anything in life.​

    It's all in how you look at it. Consider the following captions for the photo.
    OMG! Where's the groom?!!
    Limousine! You call this a limousine?
    Its the story of my life. I was supposed to offer the PM a bribe not a bride!!
    Hugo! - I wouldn't have believed it. You really ARE late to your own wedding!​
    I'm afraid that I have not done so well in finding serious meanings hidden in the picture. This photograph is merely a starting point for my mind to play with. I couldn't say that any of my captions respect the actual intent of the photographer. Well, it's my mind after all. If I'm going to interpret things for myself, then, to paraphrase Admiral Farragut, "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!"
    Albert
     
  65. I couldn't say that any of my captions respect the actual intent of the photographer. Well, it's my mind after all. If I'm going to interpret things
    for myself . . .​
    Voila! I think you've come to the crux of my own question and the reason I started this thread. The thing gnawing at me is to what extent looking at photos (and finding meaning in them) is done by and for myself and to what extent it's a more empathetic, cultural, historical, social, and communal project. The extent probably varies from photo to photo and from viewing to viewing. I'm guided by a tension/harmony/dialogue of sorts. On one hand, thinking and caring about the photographer's sensibility, wanting to adopt or at least involve myself with his point of view . . . through his photo and to the extent possible. On the other hand, wanting to experience my own very personal feelings that are inspired by the photo. If I didn't feel like I was getting an intimate look into someone else's head and heart, I'm not sure why I'd bother to look at other people's photos and would probably stick to just making my own.
    Photography, for me, even when I'm alone as photographer or as viewer, is not a solo sport. And even though I may never know for sure (there's beauty and energy in this lack of certainty) what someone else intended, it's rewarding to me to feel an intimate connection through a photo to someone else and to someone else's feelings, point of view, narrative, vision, and potential meanings.
    I think photos are both private and public. There's a balancing act that I experience between the personal and the simultaneously often universal or at least cultural aspects of art. Interpretations that assert only half the picture usually, for me, fall short.
    _______________________________________
    "Moonlight" is a name given the famous sonata by an overly-romantic and sappy critic a few years after Beethoven's death. Unfortunately, it has stuck. Beethoven, at the first printing of the score, gave the less subjective and less specifically picturesque title "Sonata quasi una fantasia" (in the manner of a fantasy). It seems important to me to know this, in assessing the more popular title. Most students of music learn to dismiss "Moonlight" early on, because it's merely one man's literal accompaniment to the music and, more importantly, it doesn't represent either what Beethoven or the music actually has to offer in a much broader manner of speaking than one individual's take on things.
     
  66. I think that the series of jokes illustrates the strength of an opinion once it is formed. The mind seems to operate a little like a guided missile in making conclusions about objects around us such as a photograph. The mantra seems to be seek, identify and lock in. Fred pointed out in the beginning that once an impression is formed it can be very difficult to see beyond it to form another one. His concern is the quest for added meaning, perhaps sometime more significant than we understand at present.
    I think that it is fair to say that our brains are comfortable sifting out the personal relevance of millions of objects and people that surround us every day. Do I eat it? Does it want to eat me? Do I go there? Do I avoid it? And so forth on and on all the time. A strong conclusion satisfies the mind by bringing closure. - There's nothing more here so on to the next thing!
    If one of my funny captions strikes home, then you may find that it is meaning enough. This gets into real life issues such as how do you know that the current impression tells you all you need to know about a thing? Stereotyping is a likely concern somewhere in the direction our discussion might take.
    Rolling back to our bride at the taxi, it seems legitimate to ask how well the photo presents something we would be concerned about in real life? Genuine concern and interest motivate many conversations with people and exploration of interests. We show caring this way. The question would be, what clue is there in a photo like the one at hand that would lead you suspect that you might be missing something when you make an opinion of it?
    This question seems to have been close to the heart of the matter. My caption transforms the photo into an experience my brains records with my reaction to it. This is as personal as it gets. A strong bond satisfies my mind that I know enough about it. It is tough to unlearn one perspective to gain another.
     
  67. The mind seems to operate a little like a guided missile in making conclusions about objects around us such as a photograph. The mantra seems to be seek, identify and lock in. Fred pointed out in the beginning that once an impression is formed it can be very difficult to see beyond it to form another one. His concern is the quest for added meaning, perhaps sometime more significant than we understand at present.​
    Thanks, Albert, for a really good summation. Maybe we need to start the thread over again and address ways in which this quest can be undertaken. I think such a journey will affect not just our looking at photos but making significant photos as well. My suggestion was to question our own initial and more personally-relevant interpretations as a means of broadening the meanings we take away. Something else I've done is to pretend to like what I initially don't like. It has often led to my discovery of new points of view and meanings.

    You bring up something very important . . . clues. They're important and the taxi/bride photo lacks them, IMO. Well, actually there are plenty of clues, but no really meaningful ones, which leads to that lack of caring you are talking about. Any of Bill's interpretations, because of this lack of meaning and care, are equally appealing and also equally unappealing. That's not a kind of ambiguity I want to be involved with. The kind of ambiguity that would challenge and fulfill me might not have a definite answer, but I would get the sense that whatever answer/s I came up with would matter in some important way and would unlock something about the photo itself.

    OK, Albert, three new OPs for you to ponder: CARE, CLUES, MYTH. You've got your work cut out for you! :)
     
  68. It's challenging to come into this discussion after it has been going on for so long, and after so many different aspects and side avenues have been commented upon.
    My first thoughts upon reading Fred's post were essentially the same as Brad's comments below:
    Photos that are complete and appear to "answer" all questions are not very interesting to me. And… Not only do I appreciate viewing photos where ambiguity is a major element, I usually strive to make photos with that in mind, to help suggest a narrative for a viewer. That can be any narrative, not necessarily one I may have had in mind (sometimes I'll have nothing in mind).​
    I can't speak for Brad, but for me, the “sometimes I'll have nothing in mind” aspect comes into play primarily because the large majority of my photographs are taken in the streets of Chicago and its older collar suburbs. But is there truly “nothing in mind”? I think Fred touched upon this later in the discussion, not speaking specifically about Brad's comment, but questioning in general the value of ambiguity which arises out of no thought, aim, or intention. I have a very specific intention when I walk down the street with my camera but it is difficult to put into words (verbalization: another aspect of ambiguity that has been touched upon in this thread). The best way I could explain it would be to point to the one or two photos out of 50, or 100, or 300 that I might take and point to it and say, “Here, out of all these photographs, this one displays the kind of ambiguity and – (style, tone, atmosphere, light, feeling) – that I set out to find.”
    And, of course, the reaction to that one photograph that I point to could vary widely depending upon the viewer. “I don't get it.” “Nothing is happening, it's a random snap.” “Ah...contemporary alienation and social vacuity is expressed here in the way that bla, bla, bla, bla bla...” “Nice tones/light/atmosphere.” “This makes me sad/amused/curious.” “When I saw the thumbnail I knew it was your photograph.” And so on and so forth....
    But I don't want to limit my comments only to photographs taken in the street. Ambiguity, of a good sort (and I'm sorry, but I cannot define that, it is too subjective and contingent upon personal taste, experience, and the work to which a given individual has been exposed), can and does exist in almost all photographic genres.
    Alas, I must go off to work. I had wanted to explore some of the other aspects that came up: ambiguity and its relationship to interpretation; ambiguity and myth (I like that one, Albert...”Myth” deserves its own thread).
     
  69. I've gotten hopelessly lost in this thread a few pages back. All photographs are infused with ambiguity to one extent or another (it's just a nature of the medium) and how an individual reacts and processes it differs greatly. OK then, so what? If a photographer is so concerned with this to the point that they feel it to be necessary to change their whole working methods in order to produce work that as many people as possible will understand it, then who is in control? Look, I can stand in front of a Jackson Pollack drip painting and be utterly mesmerized while there are other people who will just see paint splattered on a canvass. Again, I ask "So What?" That doesn't make me any more intelligent, sophisticated or what have you. All works of art once they enter the public realm have to stand on their own. Some people will get it, others will not. I think it's a very dangerous and slippery slope for an artist to be concerned with such things.
     
  70. Steve, what came to mind reading your post is how my having nothing particular in mind when taking a shot, which happens, doesn't necessarily translate to a thoughtless photo. I think you come up with thoughtful photos (and they don't all have to be thoughtful, there are other qualities as important if not more important) because you're generally a thoughtful person, as evidenced in your posts on PN and in your blog and in our various conversations. Thoughtfulness, I think, can become instinctual and one's shooting can bear it out even when one is acting at that more instinctual level. I've said a lot that I do a lot of my thinking in the shower and laying awake in bed at night. That gets infused into my work later on, sort of by human osmosis. It's kind of like photography itself. Because we're framing an isolated part of the universe and often removing it from its "factual" context, the photo may have a very different meaning/interpretation from the meaning of the situation at the time of taking it. Likewise our mental state. What gets implanted in the photo will often be different from what we were or weren't thinking about at the moment of snapping the shutter. Now, on the other hand, I take many decisively thoughtful shots as well, where I think about what I'm doing as I'm doing it, or at least in the moments leading up to snapping the shutter. That can work, too.
    _________________________________________
    Marc, I'm not getting what the danger would be and where the slippery slope would lead for a photographer to think about and discuss ambiguity. And I would want to draw a distinction between "concern" (which may have a negative bias) and care. Are we, in this thread, expressing a concern with it or just an interest in it? Very often, it is thought that issues we discuss here are things bothering us or concerning or worrying us. Maybe the things we discuss here are actually inspiring us and talking about them sorts them out a bit and is a means of sharing experiences with others and furthering our individual endeavors with photography.
    If a photographer is so concerned with this to the point that they feel it to be necessary to change their whole working methods in order to produce work that as many people as possible will understand it, then who is in control?​
    I'm not sure why you say this. Do you think anyone in this thread has expressed "concern" to this dysfunctional a level? It seems a bit extreme. My guess is that most of us here have realized a long time ago that NOT everyone will understand or even care about our work. If everyone did, it would likely be the type of pop pablum most of us don't like and that can be found on the top-rated photos pages of PN. The more commercial photographers are probably concerned with having more universal appeal (though even much commercial art is made for a targeted audience). The more independent photographers probably realize the limited audience for their work.
     
  71. >>> But is there truly “nothing in mind”?
    Sure. Many times there's something odd in the distance that I think could make a nice WTF moment when captured and processed. When I captured this photo I don't remember giving any thought to potential released narratives.
    .
    [​IMG]
    San Francisco • ©Brad Evans 2014
    .
     
  72. Sure. Many times there's something odd in the distance that I think could make a nice WTF moment when captured and processed. When I captured this photo I don't remember giving any thought to potential released narratives.​
    Brad, yes! And the photo you displayed has a lovely ambiguity to it (to say nothing of it's geometric elements)...that very "wtf!?"" to which you refer. My point was that I think there IS something in mind. I can relate to seeing something, saying "wtf!?", and photographing it. I very rarely take a photograph with the thought of releasing a narrative unless I am working on a specific documentary project (some of the Balkan dance and culture projects I worked on were like that) and even then I can't fully control what a given viewer will ultimately make of it. But when shooting in the street, maybe all I have in mind is an attempt to photograph something interesting.
    Marc -- I think you have a point that every photograph has a certain ambiguity to it. But I think there are degrees. A tack sharp image of a bird with a fish in its talons can be said to have ambiguity, but the ambiguity is more along the lines of "where was this taken?", "where did the bird go?", etc. The point of the photo, however, is pretty much wrapped up in the tack sharp portrayal of the moment with the fish in its talons. I think Fred is talking about a different type of ambiguity, but then that's silly to say because I know you already know that, and I don't want to put words in Fred's mouth.
    Fred -- I only mentioned the link between thought and ambiguity because I think it's a valid consideration, not as something that had to be defended. Nor did I think you intended it as a criticism, even in a general way. I was just thinking on my feet as I was writing, trying to figure out what, if any, thought attaches itself to my own process of capturing an unfolding moment on the street. What I did not do, is follow through on the notion that someone could justify any random group of photographs they take as being brilliant on the basis of their ambiguity -- and in that process fool themselves. Sometimes the thought comes in the editing. And there are situations where I have very specific thoughts in mind -- as in attending a rehearsal of a Balkan folk troupe and intentionally placing myself in a certain position to catch a close up of legs and feet performing a particular step that I think could be interesting. But this starts to wander into intention, rather than ambiguity and I fear I am getting a bit lost here!!
     
  73. >>> My point was that I think there IS something in mind.

    Thanks, Steve... There were things considered. Many times when shooting on the street I try and capture supporting
    context, more so with stranger portraits. In the above photo though, I purposely composed and timed to minimize context. Otherwise viewers would
    have understood what was going on and the photo would not have been interesting. In other words,
    purposely withholding information can drive ambiguity. And ambiguity can stir viewer imagination. By
    supplying all or most of the answers (via surrounding context) that would not have been the case.
     
  74. Fred, I guess it all comes down to how much of a persons identity is wrapped up in their being a photographer or an "artist." I see many photographers who give me the impression that approval from others is the over riding motivation for their work. I see some very cliched work that always gets a lot of approval because it's safe, predictable and non-challenging for both the photographer as well as for an apparently large number of like minded folks. When such photographers start down this path, I guess it's just too addicting for them to grow beyond this and start doing more risky, personal work but I keep hoping to see something different from them. I've mentioned before the various forums that I visit and it's been a real eye-opener to follow the critiques and see really how a cross section of people view a particular photograph and some of the (in my mind) preposterous stretches some may make in their gushing over a mediocre photograph.
     
  75. Marc, I think you just have to push aside all of the noise and do what you love doing. Energy much better
    spent than worrying about what happens to others.
     
  76. That's what I mean Brad. I love these topics Fred brings up that makes me think but at some point it seems to just result in a lot of navel gazing that doesn't reach a conclusion. Someone on another forum suggested that I think too deeply into the photographs that are uploaded to that page. Maybe, but why not? I mean if we don't think about the photographs we are looking at then why not just take pictures of wallpaper and leave it at that?
     
  77. Marc, I took my first Philosophy course as a freshman in college. By my sophomore year, I had learned to stop looking for conclusions. For me, that's not what it's about. I don't expect the existence of God ever to be proven or disproven and I don't expect that the debate over whether we have free will or not will ever be settled. But that doesn't take away from the fascinating issues posed by the questions and all the great thinkers who've addressed the question in all sorts of stimulating ways. It's not unlike how I look at photography. I am not in search of the perfect photo. All I really want is to keep evolving and growing, seeing in new ways, and expressing myself. To me, these discussions are more about ideas than conclusions, ideas that inspire and open me up to more and more. Not conclusions. Possibilities!
     
  78. Ah, I see your point Fred. Like I said, I look forward to these topics you set fourth here; they really do make me think, but thinking has never been one of my stronger attributes. It reminds me of the time I was having lunch with a friend of mine, a man who happened to be a family/marriage counselor and I was telling him about my latest train wreck attempt at a relationship. I told him all I wanted was to meet a woman who would take all the guess work out of things and simply speak her mind. "I just want a sure thing," I told him. He smiled, shook his head and said"You're never going to get it; it doesn't exist."
     
  79. "whether ambiguity is an invitation to interpretation"
    Well, yes, what do you think?. But I like a chat about babul as much as anyone. Of course we can all disappear up our arses in the discovery of ourselves and the meaning of something.....
    Something to mind my is about worthwhile photographs. There are always just a precious few among the babul who post photos to illustrate their understandings...a mystery really because photography is about photographs not just endless babul about the meaning of this word or that.
    A thousand words folks.
     
  80. Babul trees can flourish in dry and arid regions. They are medium-sized trees, reaching an average height of about 12 m. Babul trees find use in households as well as in farms and fields for shelter and foraging purposes.
    Just a thought.
     
  81. Jeez, why do i think im a bad boy.
     

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