Why A Photograph Is Never Finished

A photograph is never finished because even once you release the shutter and capture the scene before you on film or as pixels, there are an infinite number of post processing possibilities that could be applied, from simple cropping or exposure adjustments to radical treatments that render the original image almost indistinguishable.

But even then, a photograph is never finished because of the infinite ways you can present and share the image, physically via anything from a keyring or tiny print to a framed picture or giant poster, in any number of printed publications or a vast and varied range of online channels from your own blog or website, to multiple social media channels and more.

But even then, a photograph is never finished because each person who sees it does so through their own unique and infinitely complex layer of filters and experiences and perceptions, so what might evoke horror in one person might be nostalgic for another, and what is embraced as exquisite beauty by another could be dismissed as abhorrently grotesque by another still.


But even then, a photograph is never finished because each person that sees it might be moved to share it with their partner, children, friends, colleagues, students, readers, which could number anything from two to 20 million and two people, and each of those could in turn share it with as many more, each of these new viewers applying their own individual interpretation to the image.

But even then, a photograph is never finished because the only print ever made of a single composition might have lain at the back of a dusty drawer for decades, and be discovered by fresh eyes, perhaps only the second pair of eyes who have ever seen it, who absorb it in their own curious way, a hundred years after the original photographer made the image and has long passed away.

When you next release the shutter and make a photograph, remember this. That moment is not the end of the photograph, it’s the very beginning.

A photographs is never finished.

What do you think? Is a photograph ever finished? 

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4 thoughts on “Why A Photograph Is Never Finished”

  1. Well into art and creation theory here, and the discipline of poetry is the place where it is most effectively written down, clearly defined.

    In manipulation/editing/re-editing – Auden’s paraphrase of Paul Valery: ‘a poem is never finished; it is only abandoned’. (So for the chances of enhancement, improvement, of making variants or even new ‘originals; of any motive where the source image may be a place of departure rather than a final product, I file my keepers as TIFFs).

    In the shift of variable perception(s), wheresoever one’s Rorschach may lead one: Wallace Stevens, ‘ Metaphors of a Magnifico’ – “Twenty men crossing a bridge,
    Into a village,
    Are twenty men crossing twenty bridges,
    Into twenty villages,
    Or one man
    Crossing a single bridge into a village…’, et seq.

    A slight twist, also from Valery: the photographer does not capture what he sees, but what will be seen.

    And that is only a beginning.

    Thanks, Dan: food for thought.

    1. Thank you William, more food for thought for me also.

      Love that last idea especially, the photographer doesn’t capture what he sees, but what will be seen. Which reminds me of Magritte’s “Treachery Of Images” – This is not a pipe.

      The photography (or painting) is an object in itself and not the original object.

      Which leads me to think about my old NLP training, and the map is not the territory.

      Plenty more to ponder!

      As you know, I’m not keen on post processing at all, so the infinite possibilities terrify me. This is why I love cameras like my Lumix LX3 that delivers b/w images I like straight out of camera.

      And I love the idea that a print of a photograph can be made, then almost lost for years, and someone else discover it, and it provoke a whole new array of thoughts and emotions for them. As if the photograph has been a creature in deep hibernation, and now by this new person’s discovery, its long winter is over…

  2. “…if the photograph has been a creature in deep hibernation, and now by this new person’s discovery, its long winter is over…”

    My cousin and I have just finished ‘cleaning’ and brightening-up a large batch of a friend’s old family photos – ferrotypes and stained paper prints made between 1870 and 1930. An eerie experience: as the software washed away the murk, the faces and people came alive despite the frozen poses before painted backdrops in the fringe-draped and carpeted studios. Not a smile to be seen until the shift to prints after the turn of the century, and then only among the children.

    I cannot say that it was fun; their look was of spare struggling rural lives and hardship. The owner had the grim family necrology of calamity: a young dandy later killed by a bad-tempered bull in a pasture, the scythes of childhood fevers and deaths, the raking-out of small towns and countryside by wars. Made me think how our own photographs will be viewed 80, 30 years hence.

    1. That does sound a fascinating project William,but very sad, and I imagine far more so for your friend whose family it was.

      Because most of us take so many photographs these days, it’s hard to have any kind of comprehension of how they look decades in the future.

      With the rate of increase in the worldwide volume of photographs, I wonder how long before we reach such saturation that people revolt in some way and stop taking so many, or any at all.

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