The Nature of Photographs

Last week I read two useful books The Nature of Photographs by Stephen Shore and The Photographers’ Eye by John Szarkowski.

‘The Nature of Photographs’ is a nicely illustrated book and is intended to help the reader interested in photography to understand how to read photographic images in term of a pictorial language.  Stephen Shore divides his method of reading photographs in to four main areas: The Physical level, The Depictive Level, The Mental Level and Mental Modelling.

The Physical Level:  In this section Shore discusses the physical elements to a photograph and how theses physical elements play their part in the reading of the photograph.   He looks at it’s base qualities such as the material that it is printed on and the chemicals and dyes that influence it’s tonal range and colour hues.  The physical size and shape of a photograph for example dictates the boundaries of the image and therefor limits and controls the context.  “Colour expands the photograph’s palette and adds a new level of descriptive information and transparency to the image.  It is more transparent because one is stopped less by the surface – colour is more like how we see”.  What he means by “stopped by the surface” is that a black and white image is very different to how we see and therefor we will subconsciously see a black and white picture first where a colour photo is a little more like a window in to another moment in time on the subconscious level.

The Depictive Level: Shore points out that photography is inherently an analytical discipline as removed from the photographic studio a photographer unlike a painter can not start with a blank canvas but must select from a subject or subjects that is already before him and choose a position and viewpoint that best presents that / those subjects.  This is in the action of composition when the photographer will position himself to create an image that excludes certain elements and may align other elements to imply a relationship or create an element of design in the image.

Shore describes four formal characters of the image and these define the picture’s depictive content and structure and they form the basis of a photograph’s visual grammar.  These are: Flatness, frame, time and focus.

Flatness: – A photo is a flat image representing a 3D world, “the depth of depictive space always bears a relationship to the picture plane.  The picture plane is a field upon which the lens’s image is projected. A photograph’s image can rest on this picture plane and at the same time, contain an illusion of deep space.”  Viewpoint can be sometimes altered to create an illusion that brings together two elements in to a relationship that does not really exist for example a picture of a small child with her had held out flat with the appearance of the child holding a miniature of the family car which in reality is further away in the distance.  Some images are opaque creating the illusion of no depth to the picture at all.  Some images using the element of design such as found in architecture create a transparent effect that draws the viewer through the picture.

Frame: – The frame sets the boundaries / limits of the picture it isolates elements from the rest it can suggest relationships with other elements simply because they have been included in the frame.  The frame can help create order from chaos simply by zooming in on one area of the scene and excluding other elements to suggest order.  Alternatively a tighter crop can suggest more elements or that the subject reaches further out beyond the frame (Japanese woodblock art uses this technique). A tight frame can also corral a subject; so isolating it and containing it within it’s own tight world.

Time: – Time is another formal character, towards the success of an image.  For example when the moment one or more moving elements move in to the right position in the frame to create an illusion of an unusual relationship or capturing that moment when your subject makes the right expression.  The use of a longer timed exposure to create a sense of movement with motion blur and with a longer exposure a sense of a (‘parcel of time’ to quote Szarkowski, The Eye of the Photographer) can be implied.

Focus: – The use of focus to draw the viewers eye to a particular area of the picture or the help create a sense of depth perspective. ‘It also creates a hierarchy in the depictive space by defining a single plane of focus, gives emphasis to part of the picture and helps distil a photograph’s subject from its content.  Lenses with a bellows or tilt mechanism allow the plane of focus to be manipulated for Artistic pictures or for architectural images to adjust for converging lines.

The Mental Level: – Shore writes that ‘you see a mental image – a mental construction – ‘when you read a page from a book or a photograph.  He gives as examples photographs of scenes suggesting depth such as mountains, alleys, canons, street scenes, etc.  He explains that even though the image is flat and at one single distance from the eye, as the viewer examines the photograph more closely and the eye travels across the image we experience a mental feeling that our eyes are refocusing as it scans across the implied depth from the picture.  Another illusion is a sky that appears to come forward in the picture even though in reality it is in background.  Another interesting picture that Shore uses as an example of the mental level is a line of students on a park bench all interacting in one way or another which implies a sort of narrative.

Mental Modelling: – Shore writes, ‘The mental level’s genesis is in the photograph’s mental organization of the photograph.  When photographers take pictures, they hold mental models in their minds; models that are the result of the proddings of insight, conditioning, and comprehension of the world.  Shore goes on to explain that at one extreme the mental model can be rigid and ossified and in such circumstances photographers will have a narrow view with fixed ideas and only look for and recognize subject matter that fits their rigid mental model.  He goes on to likens it to a mental filter that only permits sunsets to pass through.  ‘At the other extreme, the model is supple and fluid, readily accommodating and adjusting to new perceptions.’  The point Shore is making is that we operate at an unconscious level not necessarily aware of our mental limitations / constraints but by recognising and being aware of the Mental Modelling we can stop and think and start to “think out side of the box” as the expression goes and therefor become more creative and imaginative.

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