How does one look at a photograph? How do you approach it?
Back when I wrote a weekly column (and thought that was hard), I had in mind writing a long piece called "approaches to a photograph" that would illustrate some of the things that can be present in a photograph that allow viewers a way in. Really, it was more than a week's work. It was also difficult enough that I certainly wouldn't want to find myself under the gun of "having" to finish such an essay. What really stopped me up was the illustrations. My idea was to take one nondescript photograph and show some of what's in it—one illustration would block out lights and darks, another would present blurry areas of major color, and so forth. These turned out to be well beyond my limited Photoshop skills, then or now.
This is not that essay. I can't write that one because it absolutely doesn't work in short form. It needs to be "novella" length and I don't begin to have the time. I have the time to do the writing, but not the research and the thinking! And, as I say, I don't have the competence to make the illustrations.
Here are just a few random examples of the kind of things I wanted to discuss:
Tonality. You can think of tones of gray in a black-and-white (monochrome) photograph as being analogous to notes of music. A picture can be founded on different "keys" (we even call the basic extremes "high key" and "low key"). Different emphases are associated with different emotional in the way that a piece of classical music in the key of C is associated with "heroic" feelings and D minor is associated with melancholic or romantic feelings. Different tones placed next to each other have different effects, like two musical notes placed side by side, as does the "length of the scale" or the tonal range, two imprecise terms that refer to how gradated the tones are between black and white. You can conceptualize this last by first imagining a picture made up of, say, three values, black, white, and middle gray, and then the same picture divided into, say, a hundred distinct shades of gray. Most "converted" black and white I see these days has about the same effect on me as a child bashing on the piano keys has on a musician.
Atmosphere. Generally speaking, low contrast in black and white is atmospheric and high contrast (fewer grays, more of the tonal scale pushed towards featureless black or white) is graphic; graphic pictures lean more on design and atmospheric ones lean more on the description of space. It's no accident that Ralph Gibson, who famously has a high-contrast tonal palette, also enjoys, and has a feel for, graphic design.
Likeness. How coherent is the report given by the photograph to what was in front of the camera when the photograph was made? Sometimes some very primitive photographs can be greatly enlivened by "the slap of truth." "Description" was a property often ascribed to large-format contact prints and their exacting report of texture, detail, and nuances of light.
Colorism. Like tone, color is its own world, and the colors in a photograph can be detached from its other properties and appreciated or felt on their own. As with tone, a whole book could be written about how colors work; the best education is perhaps to look at paintings. It's very difficult to photograph in color well, and very few do. The biggest faults of color are that it can be too literal or too decorative. Where tone can be manipulated heavily for expressive purposes without violating the apparent "rightness" of the picture, color has a much narrower range of expressive possibilities. The greatest flaw of color photography is that color functions aesthetically as an overlay: even when all the other properties of a picture are perfectly managed, the color can be arbitrary because it has to be reported more or less as it existed, and Color can also often be at odds with the other properties in specific work, for instance in the work of Robert Bergman, a very sophisticated colorist whose work makes ravishing use of color in portraits of homeless people.
Eyepath. Photographers often play with how viewers will see their pictures..."see" meant literally, that is, how the focus of the viewer's eye will be led from one area to another.
In this photograph by Vanessa Winship, for example, the eye is led directly to the lower right so immediately that it induces a sort of vertigo; as we scan the girls' faces and decode their gestures (terror? pleasure?), we're then led quickly "back" behind them, both because of the extreme perspective and because, instinctively, humans are impelled, when we see someone or something fleeing, to check what it might be fleeing from. This leads us to the enigmatic man, who doesn't appear to be a threat but isn't obviously benign, either, and from there to the disconcerting fact that the perspective lines don't lead all the way to the horizon; the path is cut off by the sea. We might very quickly scan the sea and the pole to see if they're relevant, all the while flicking our eyes back to the expressions of the girls to read their feelings. (Note however how the pole with the cluster of hardware perched atop it increases the steepness of the shoreline with the white breaking waves.) Next we detour to the figure crouching in the rocks who might take a moment to decode...not big enough to see, really, in this small JPEG; is she fishing? No, the fishing pole is lying on the concrete; the girls are running over it. Along with the gritty tonality, the gray skies, and the barbed wire, the agitated, disturbed eyepath contributes greatly to the sense of unsettlement and imbalance in this picture.
Connotation. This is personal and different for everyone, but pictures, like smells, often have personal associations that trigger certain feelings. I worked with a guy once who had a terror of the woods and hated trees; he's obviously going to have different connotations toward wilderness landscapes than a veteran hiker who's a naturalist and environmentalist. The "universe" of connotation in photographs is endless and rich, and is a primary reason for two interesting properpties of photographs in general, namely, why photographs are different for everyone, and why even wholly realized photographs can be only one part of the communication between the photographer and the viewer. Viewing can be is active as well as passive. There are many sub-topics of connotation as well, for example subject obsession; I saw some photographs recently by a man who adores firearms, and his interest was apparent to me within minutes. I could write a whole chapter in this nonexistent book about subject-obsession!
Personal association. And connotation, which might have nothing to do with what's actually in the picture but only remind you of something, is not the same thing as personal association. An obvious example is to imagine how a plainspoken portrait of a woman is different when viewed by a) a total stranger, b) her husband of twenty years. But association can be more general. When something is described in a novel, it's well understood that the novelist intends for the reader to fill in a great deal of the richness of that description from his or her own experience. Stephen King calls this "conjuring" in his book On Writing. If I say "the smell of freshly baked cookies," you probably just remembered that smell; but I didn't provide it for you. I'm depending on your experience to fill in the blank. The same holds true for many photographs. People who actually experience mountain vistas will get a lot more from a photograph of a mountain vista than a city dweller who has never been to the Rockies or the Alps. People use their own experience to fill in or enrich all that's missing in a photograph all the time, and that reflex can have a lot to do with what makes certain photographs relatively rich or empty for each of us.
Fact. Most pictures contain some facts, even if we don't know what they are. The photograph that I intended to use for the unwritten essay I'm sketching here was of a locomotive parked on a siding in exurban Chicago. A basic example of the facts in that picture are that the siding has a location, the locomotive is of a certain type from a certain manufacturer, it is run by a particular railway, identifiable based on its colors or "livery," and the letters and numbers stenciled on its side have a purpose. I didn't know what any of those facts were, but someone does, and those facts are there to be seen in the photograph for that person.
You get the drift. I'm only getting started, but I'm beginning to get tired, and it's 11:00, which means I'm late getting a post up, which always makes me feel a rising tide of deadline stress. But I could think of many more topics that these eight; not ten more, but fifty more, and twelve examples of each, and sub-topics for each, and discussions of the nuances of each topic could go on for pages. And if I wrote a 45,000 word essay on this topic with 200 illustrations bit by bit here on the blog, by the time I was done I'd have 170 very happy, satisfied readers left and I'd be applying for a job at Taco Bell to help pay the mortgage. We ain't going too much further down this hole.
(Old Jeff Foxworthy joke: If your wife is staring intently at the frozen orange juice because it says "concentrate" on it, then you might be a redneck*.) Suffice it to say for now that the practiced, fluent visual literacy that allows us to almost literally glance at a photograph and process it instantly is a highly developed skill indicative of great mental prowess and deep familiarity with the medium, but...(note that a "but" in the middle of a sentence has the effect of negating whatever went before it)...but you get much more out of certain things when you concentrate. A great deal of what there is to be gotten out of a photograph depends on the quality of attentiveness that we bring to it. It's a skill to look fast, but a gift to look slow.
*He's an American "country" comedian whose schtick is "If...then you might be a redneck." "If you think a 'turtleneck' is an ingredient for soup, then...." "If you've ever raked leaves in your kitchen, then...."
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