Growing up, there was a framed photo on our wall of a sunset silhouetting a helicopter and some kind of rocky outcrop in the ocean.
As a kid, the photo baffled me. I would tell friends who visited that it was a picture of some kind of sea dragon — that rock there? A California Loch Ness Monster. That’s why they took the photo; it was evidence.
An alternative theory was that the helicopter was something special. Some kind of robo-helicopter, or a spy helicopter that had never been captured on film before.
The truth never crossed my mind: it was just a photo of a sunset and a helicopter and a rock. This never crossed my mind because I was under the impression that a photo had to show something — something intentional and informative — rather than just conveying beauty or a moment in time. I didn’t realize not all stories had climactic, bring-it-back-around endings, and not all photos were about making me understand something new. Sometimes, they just were.
But eventually I learned that lesson, and I think a great many writers and painters and other creatives did, as well. Some work is descriptive rather than informative — or put another way, it informs, but only about a moment. A feeling. Something intangible and not terribly useful outside of a larger story, but beautiful for what it is. Words that are beautiful words because of the order they’re put in. Paintbrush strokes that are beautiful paintbrush strokes, not because of what they depict, but because they simply are.
Learning this was important, but it also eventually led me right back to where I started. Telling stories, I’ve found, whether it’s verbally at a party with a drink in my hand, or told in a book using letters and punctuation, are better with meaning. We’ve all sat and listened as a friend meanders endlessly through a tale of something that happened to them only to find there’s no payoff at the end. And we’ve all hated that friend a little for building something up only to bring it home with an awkward smile and no punch line.
Of course, there’s a place for flowery descriptions of places and people, painterly strokes of the brush the exist to be beautiful, but that place — in most cases — is within a larger story; a larger painting. Because ideally beauty is extracted from life and presented, not just for the sake of beauty, but to express that there is beauty to begin with. That there’s something worth exploring in the mundanity, and as a result, something worth sharing.
A photo of nothing can be a photo of something, so long as you’re willing to step back and take in the bigger picture.