Poetry—according to the author Matthew Zapruder—is a way of encapsulating and transmitting emotion. To him, poetic language is a conduit for expressing a feeling that can’t otherwise be described. Here’s how I quoted him when I wrote about the photographer Manuel Álvarez Bravo a few years ago:
“I have found that the poems which have meant the most to me (…) retain a central unsayability, a place where the drama of truly looking for something essential that can never quite be reached is expressed.“
Photos can accomplish something similar, become shorthand for a particular feeling a photographer has felt by encapsulating it visually. An essay in Stephen Shore’s Modern Instances touches upon this effect, describing it as “a picture that embodies or engenders a state of mind or an emotional state”. Shore calls such a photo the “Objective Correlative”, a term coined by T.S. Eliot:
The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.
But how do you get there? How do you turn something concrete into something evoking emotion? Shore is fully aware that not all pictures do, calling photography “relentlessly specific“. The criteria is muddy at best, esoteric at worst. And yet I found myself nodding along to what he writes:
Photographers sometimes find themselves attracted to certain content, not for its political or sociological meaning, but because it, for some reason, touches them-stirs something in them. This content, in this light, means something.