Of course, good photographs should at one level speak for themselves, as this wonderful photograph by Knut Skjærven does. But, I venture to ask, why do they?
There is so much else to a good photograph than the sum of its components.
It has nothing to do with beauty or the specific content of the photograph or the tonality or indeed any individual ‘property’ of the image, although these things contribute. They may be necessary but they are not sufficient. These things attract your attention, but they do not in themselves give you an aesthetic experience. The individual qualities of the photograph invite you to sit at the dinner table but you don’t get to taste the delicious food by doing nothing more.
The aesthetic experience occurs when you become engaged in recreation with the photograph. This is actually quite complex, but as the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said “…the only simplicity to be trusted is the simplicity to be found on the far side of complexity.”
At first, there is the encounter with the photograph as an object of experience, pre-cognitive if you will. Then there is a physical feeling – the photograph is objectified as being the subject of the feeling; a relationship of distance is recognised. This gives rise to a conceptual feeling which is the subjective reaction to the physical feeling, the distance. Other emotions and memories enter the arena of experience and thereby a relationship to the photograph evolves. It starts to become part of you. A fresh feeling emerges from the contrast between the ‘conceptual feeling’ and the ‘physical feeling.’ Finally the resulting relationship is contrasted once again with the ‘physical feeling’ giving rise to a ‘completed unity’. The energy behind this process, called ‘Concrescence’ by Whitehead, is causa sui, that is, self-generated.
At heart, therefore, is an interplay, a recreation, between the photograph and you such that the photograph establishes a you that is different in some way from the you of a moment ago. The extent to which this happens depends upon the ability of the photograph, acting as a whole, to set up the aesthetic experience.
And this particular photograph is very successfully at setting up such an aesthetic experience. We can analyse the components of it that create something ‘other than the sum of its parts’, of course, but the end result is that it is complete in-itself – causa sui.
So, yes this image speaks for itself at one level. But it opens up much more if you are quiet and listening.