Is the impact of the photographic series greater than that of an individual photograph? I would certainly say so. There is something about viewing photographs alongside each other that makes the viewing experience all the more evocative, enticing, compelling. Patterns are gradually unveiled, small reoccurring details emerge before one’s eyes, as a common recognisable style and increasingly coherent message begin to materialise.
An individual photograph certainly has the potential to speak for itself, but in a way that will always be strikingly different to that in which the series articulates its meaning. The language spoken by the series is self-referential, in opposition to the mostly referential function of the individual photograph. The dialogue immediately established from grouping images together yields the series its conversational function; whereby the aspects of the different photographs speak to each other, refer to one another.
In order for a picture to speak for itself, its language must in some way allude to something external to it, it seems. Whether by portraying something that has great meaning in itself, or by addressing (unintentionally) an experience or memory of particular, personal significance to the viewer. In that sense the individual photograph functions, predominantly, on a referential basis.
It may be argued that the single photograph may be freely subjected to any such association. Its potential is more wide-ranging and far-reaching, because of its lack of context. In a photo-essay, however, it is precisely the context that arises from a serial presentation of images that yields its greater meaning. The possibility of a photograph being rooted in and pertaining to a specific idea, style and project endows it with purpose.
Coherence and cohesion are perhaps the answer. Coherence and cohesion elicit a sense of recognition in the viewer, a sense of harmony and understanding. To appreciate a work as part of a greater whole rather than on its own is what very likely yields that sense of harmony, greater understanding and appreciation imparted by the photo series.
While a photograph may remain a strong piece of art on its own, I find that that it will perhaps never speak as loudly as when it belongs, as a constituent piece, to the collective unit that is the photo series.
Image by Michel Szulc Krzyzanowski.