Paraphrasing a pattern language, in photography

Some personal notes, with photography on the mind and while beginning a new reading of “A Pattern Language” , by Christopher Alexander (and others)… the opening introductions on “How to use this book” and  “The poetry of the Language” – got me to thinking more about photography and the language of image symbols in a typographical way – than the implications on built environment.

My assumption: I am considering a generally shared boundary of my own cultural circumstance, which is a boundary  not altogether unlike the boundary of the language of the written or spoke word (that I understand) and the meanings contained in that form of communication… or as in the case of this book, a pattern language of the built environment which the book describes and arranges in a specific order in typological terms… It must be a comparatively easy jump to make parallels in the world of symbols and the photographic image.  That is to say, (perhaps this is overly obvious to most) but somehow fresh to me, something of an “aha” moment … when thinking about the language of images and the power of symbols this: a clear typological understanding of symbols deeply effects the communicative  potential regarding photographs and their meaning…

The quote that follows is modified by strikeout and [brakets] with my own inserts that gets at the point:

Finally, a note of caution. This language, like English, can be a medium for prose, or a medium for poetry. The difference between prose and poetry is not that different languages are used, but that the same language is used differently. In an ordinary English sentence each word has one meaning, and the sentence too has one simple meaning. In a poem, the meaning is far more dense. Each word carries several meanings; and the sentence as a whole carries an enormous density of interlocking meanings which together illuminate the whole.

The same is true for pattern [photographic] languages. It is possible to make buildings [pictures] by stringing together patterns [symbols], in a rather loose way. A building [picture book] made like this, is an assembly of patterns [symbols].  It is not dense. It is not profound. But it is also possible to put patterns [symbols] together in such a way that many many patterns overlap in the same physical [picture book] space; the building [picture book] is very dense; it has many meanings captured in a small space; and through this density it becomes [potentially] profound. – “A Pattern Language” by Christopher Alexander – page xli.

That said, of course there are some individual photographs that are more dense than others – perhaps even able to stand on their own, but there are also some very sparse photographs that fall short independently, but when coupled together become very dense simply by proximity, either through a building up of consistency, or radical dislocation, or recontextualization. Something to think about in constructing a photo book for sure.

In the context of the book “A Pattern Language”, the idea is … “that people should design for themselves their own houses, streets and communities. This idea may be radical (it implies a radical transformation of the architectural profession) but it comes simply from the observation that most of the wonderful places of the world were not made by architects but by the people.”

So, in that sense, I wonder if there is also a parallel idea to be had in photography: implying a radical transformation of the photography profession, that it to could come simply from the observation (or collection of) the most wonderful photographs of the world not made necessarily exclusively by professional photographers, but by amateur people… who grasp intuitively the power of symbols.


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