Concrete Abstractions (Common Sense)

Concrete Abstractions (Common Sense)
If I asked you the subject of this photograph, what would you say? Most people would suggest the cement truck, the foundation, construction as subjects… Why? Generally, because we can readily wrap our minds around objects, scenes, and events. We name them, picture them (hey, it is a picture, after all!) and our minds can easily catalog and reference them.

For me, though, this image is about teamwork, dynamic coordination, interconnectedness, and forming substance from a void. All abstract stuff that makes most of us yawn unless it appears matted with black, outlined in green, with “TEAMWORK” centered in self-important serifed letters underneath, and that all important tag line.

Why does this work? It gives us an object: we can now reference the “teamwork” poster, and it becomes as concrete as the truck.

But this approach lets us down, too.  By making it so obvious and easy, viewers of the photograph are denied that little buzz of discovery.

Sometimes the graphical power of an image can be its own buzz.  But when graphical power and meaning come together, the result can be transformative.

My first experience of this was W. Eugene Smith’s Minamata photographs as published in a Life article called “Death-Flow from a Pipe”, most particularly “Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath”. In his book, Smith writes:

“Photography is a small voice at best. Daily we are deluged with photography at its worst – until its drone of superficiality threatens to numb our sensivity to the image. Then why photograph? … Because sometimes – just sometimes – a photograph or photographs can strike our senses into greater awareness…photographs can demand of emotions enough to be a catalyst to thinking.”

Now, I am not photographing tragedy, and my hope is only that we break through numbed sensitivity, not only to images, but to our very lives and the lives of those around us.  I think we do not need sledge hammers to “strike our senses”.  Small doses of smelling salts may suffice!

The engagement I’m asking of you with this image is, therefore, a small one.  I’d like you to see these men for the amazing craftsmen they are, rather than lump them into an “unskilled labor” basket, just because their work is hard, dirty and dangerous.


I have been photographing this team of guys for about two weeks, now.   Smart, funny, hard working — they coordinate their efforts, their trucks, their tools with a precision usually reserved for battlefields and football fields. By the time this foundation is poured, I want a single photograph that communicates that dynamic cohesion.

I think this photograph works in this way when I wrap it in a cliche, but not quite as well without those props. What do you think? I wonder, without the giant green letters, did I provide enough clues to cause you to offer “teamwork” as the subject? Was yours an immediate reaction or a gradual one?
I love to photograph abstract concepts like love, peace, harmony, and the like: but I don’t love to call attention to it in big letters.  I really want you to discover that quality, and then go tap into it in your own life and your own work.
I hope this helps you make better photographs!

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