Concept Photography explained

I went to the supermarket today to buy some milk and some desiccated coconut so that Frances could bake a cake.  The requested ingredients were not listed on the aisle markers.  The aisles were marked as 1. Dog Food, 2. Flour, 3. Sugar, 4. Biscuits, 5. Cereal, 6. Eggs.  So I went down aisles 2 and 6 and quickly found what I wanted.  I reasoned that people buying flour might want other dry cake ingredients like coconut, and that eggs and milk both needed to be refrigerated.

The ability to group dissimilar objects is conceptual.  The Collins dictionary defines a concept as an idea or abstract principle.  The concept that groups coconut and flour is “dry cooking ingredients” and for milk and eggs is “refrigerated items”.  This type of thinking is common in our every day lives.

This is the basis of concept photography.  The photographer displays an image that triggers conceptual thinking to give the viewer an experience that is quite remote from the object photographed.  The brain makes associations and makes a guess at a greater concept.  Done well it is very powerful and evocative.  It is used extensively in advertising.  If you want examples of powerful concept photography just look at the ads in a magazine.  For instance the following advertisement for the “save water save life” campaign for world water day on the 22nd of March,

Concept photography is a visual message.  The meaning should be apparent to the viewer.  The American campaign to save water (above)  needs no other text than the picture.   I believe that when it is done well it is  effective without explanation.  You don’t need a title, a caption or text to explain the concept.  The meaning is self evident.

And it is not just advertising.  A lot of art photographers have their work described as conceptual.  Most famously Cindy Sherman who portrayed movie stills.  A single image that evokes an untold story.


In fact the term conceptual photography arose from the conceptual art movement in the 1960’s. In conceptual art the “concept” or “idea” take precedence over traditional aesthetic, technical, and material concerns.  Often mundane and ordinary objects are presented as art, for example Duchamp’s urinal.

The conceptual photographers, like Cindy Sherman, however did not resort to low tech methodology.  Their work is often elaborate and finely crafted.  The work is elaborately staged and set up, almost like a movie.  It is considered a rejection of the documentary and photo journalistic style, that preceded this era.

So what are the techniques of conceptual photographers?

I have had a look at a few web pages that give tips on conceptual photography (see below).  They all start with a recommendation to clarify the story or the message before you start photographing.  Write a story board, work out what is meant to be happening.

It can be difficult to generate new ideas.  Here are a few tips.  You can generate thought when you present the viewer with the unexpected.  Like that TV ad where an ambulance arrives and a paramedic slaps two fish together to provide natural healing.  You have to try to surprise the audience.  A common strategy is to pair dissimilar objects and create contradictions.  A fish and a bicycle.  The viewer becomes engaged in trying to work on a  resolution to the conflict created.

It is important that the photograph has impact.  An uninteresting or poorly composed image will not draw the viewers attention.  It is important to have sound composition, lighting and most importantly the image should tell a story.

Concept photographers often use symbols.  Red for passion, an apple for temptation, green for envy, a snake is evil, an owl is wise, a 4 leaf clover is lucky, water is calm.  Symbols vary from culture to culture.  There is nothing wrong with borrowing symbols from other cultures.  It is worth exploring the symbols that people use, the way people speak, or turn a phrase.  If you add symbolism to your images, you strengthen the meanings.

There is a lot of value in looking at word play and double meanings,  Grab a dictionary to look for alternative meanings or a thesaurus to help find alternative words.  Many images take advantage of a play on words.

There is an app on my mobile phone called, 4 pictures – 1 word.  It is a compelling game where you have to deduce the single word that inspired 4 completely different images.


The images depicted are a skin rash, a chemistry experiment, some people rejoicing and bad weather over the nuclear power plant.  What do they have in common?   I found the authors frequently used alternative meanings.  Sometimes I needed to put it away for a while and come back to it a few hours later, when suddenly I can work it out.  It’s a skin reaction!  They are all reactions.  This is very conceptual.  I think this kind of thinking is what’s needed in conceptual photography.

Many of the advertisements in the magazines will blatantly use software like Photoshop  to create the story.  However this is not necessary.  Cindy Sherman (above) executed her projects by doing self portraits, with sets and costumes and unusual angles and interesting lighting.  Regardless of whether you tell the story in camera, or in the dark room, conceptual photographers need to be masters of their medium.

One of our club members that never failed to raise a smile for his imaginative conceptual work was Eric Budworth.  His evocative visual gags relied on word play.  Can you guess the title of these two images below?  You can find the answer by hovering the mouse over the picture.

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