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Tuesday, 13 July 2010


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And while two of us will read a picture differently, their is a universal message in your, Ken's and Pat's discussion - that is the need to really look in order to gain from the picture.

I find it incredibly frustrating if people glance at my, or any other photograph, and comment without really looking. That superficial glance is close to, or even worse, than worthless. All that it allows is gaudy graphic prettiness, dismissing the rich seam of worth that is out there.


do mine next-I mean, look at one of my photographs and say what you think. no, really, no joke, serious. Haste has laid waste to my photo life, lo these last 30 years and I need to come out from running a small studio of little profit and see if there is any gas left in the tank and a small spark of approval would set the fumes going again.
(oops, wrong venue for this?)
Anyway, I like Benita's pose because I see comfort and repose.

I agree. Although lots of photographs are *made* to be consumed instantly, and of course not all photographs reward close reading (or long familiarity). But that most well-considered photographs never get the attention they deserve is probably indisputable.


To my eye, as a portrait this is cluttered, lacks any coherent dynamic and is actually forced into some kind of stasis by the many conflicting movements, shapes, weights and textures. I really disliked this image as soon as I saw it.

When a really good photographer honestly reveals their process, I consider it a generous gift. Thank you Patricia Dalzell.

Pat's words stir a great many thoughts, particularly since my intial training was with a gifted portrait photographer who worked solely in 4x5 B&W, but I'll limit myself to mentioning just one thing: "the whole process takes at least two hours." Pat, that is such a valuable thing to reveal to other photographers!

Fascinating topic. Look forward to more about "reading" a photograph. Kudos to Ken.

This really is inspiring—thanks. Hearing or reading good photographers on the subject of their own work is so often a great pleasure. I enjoyed and was intrigued by Ken's original comments; Pat's response to them might convey more than even she realises.

If there isn't already a series that works in exactly this way—a writer interpreting a photograph, and only then, the photographer responding—I can't think of a better place for it than TOP. It would also make for a terrific book. (I know you're short of time, Mike, not ideas. Still.)

There is sometimes incredible stories behind some of the photos. I think this is just that kind og case. Enjoyed reading it.

C. S. Lewis said something to the effect that every person who tried to explain CSL's work by attributing some inner motivation to him was *wrong*. And, because of this, he could never trust anyone trying to explain the inner motivation in others work.

I am thrilled that Pat made time to offer her artist's commentary. I think it's an important, but relatively rare, dialogue for a cold viewer to read an image for the artist and then to hear back from the artist. I am fortunate to get to do that occasionally but only.

Mike: "A reading of a picture is just one's personal interpretation of the likely reality; it involves intuition, experience, some detective work or responses to clues, interpretation, and maybe some educated guessing or informed speculation. Maybe even a little imagination. "

Exactly, and that's a big slice of the fun of photography for me. Reading a deliberately-crafted image is a terrific visual exercise, fun for the whole family!

Thank you, Pat. A wonderful portrait. I'm jealous of Mike.

Thank you for a fascinating glimpse into the 'reading' of a photograph. Ken Tanaka's reading is obviously very perceptive, yet he can't possibly get everything right. A photograph is not reality, any more than a map is the land it outlines. Much of the content of a photograph will be known only to the photographer and/or the subject; the rest of us are really just guessing. Some notionally sophisticated books of criticism strike me as parlour games; like trying to interpret the Mona Lisa's smile.

Of course, for a very simple and transparent image, it can be a pretty obvious guess. Wildlife or landscape photographs often seem to fall into that category; yet even here the evident simplicity can be misleading. One reading of Ansel Adams' heroic Western landscapes argues that the absence of humans silently endorses Manifest Destiny: just a big, empty landscape with no Indians in sight, waiting for us to enjoy it.

It all makes my brain hurt. In a good way.

An interesting article. Almost every line I read of Tanaka's had me disagreeing strongly with his reading. I'm not contrasting his reading with my reading. I'm saying his reading was like a shooting contest in Sherwood Forest: too many long bows.

Dalzell was most gentle in her response.

Mike, Pat and Ken: thank you so much. In this raining, cold nigth, reading this post was a gift.


One of the best (enlightening, engaging, rewarding) articles on TOP - ever. Thank you. More, please!

Wow! I remember this, as well as other pictures by Ms. Dalzell, from the article you wrote in Black and White Photography. Her portraits impressed me so much that I ordered the composition book by Poore she mentioned both there and here. True, I don't really do portraits, and true, I tend to fall asleep reading that book, but it is still here on my case about 5 feet away. And I will finish it someday! Oddly, I never saw the menace in her face that Mr. Tanaka reports. For some reason, her expression has always made me smile instead. I guess that is why I never worried about what she may have in her pocket.

This Obama picture from the cover of the Economist really has been upsetting to me. I only recently discovered that extraordinary magazine (or rather, discovered that it covers worldwide news stories, not just economy issues), and had found that cover particularly poignant. I hope they have learned their lesson - I would hate to see them get caught relocating a pyramid or something.

Great article. Not many photography related articles that are so clear and based in classical theory.

Thanks for this. The reward from the effort made to "read" an appreciate a picture just drives home, by contrast, how easy it is to throw out some criticism of a photo that basically boils down to "It doesn't work for me." The former requires vision, while the latter requires a keyboard. Unfortunately, flickr and similar sites make it even easier to do this, even in relatively nuanced photography discussion groups.

I wanted to second that I really think this would be a great regular feature of TOP. An image that we can view and read, followed by the photographer's story.

I often do wonder if the photographer's version adopts some of the complexities and depth offered by overly verbose readers of their own work? I honestly believe that a great many excellent photographs, and especially portraits, are made with very little of this complex thought. I've always felt a tendency to over-intellectualize - not only on the part of the reader, but then of the photographer to justify the depth being read into their work.

And I think Obama might have been thinking to himself that all of this leading stuff, and the decisions that come with it, seemed so much easier when campaigning for the job.

Hey Mike - good luck with the "epistemology" - probably you'll need to come up with an ontology as well! But I'll be keen to read it. Whenever I've tried to get my head around "photography" it has turned into an extremely slippery bar of soap. In his introduction to "A Very Short Introduction to Photography" Steve Edwards ruefully surveys his subject and concedes that he might as well attempt "A Very Short Introduction to Writing"

Ken Tanaka's 'reading' of this photo
leaves me speechless. Is he using
magic mushroom sauce on his steaks?

excellent posting and congratulations to all participants. It just goes to show that meanings are in people and not inherent in words or photographs. Our impressions and responses are conditioned by many factors including cultural conditioning, memory, personality and our total ife experiences.
More postings like this please.


More of this, please !

I think it doesn't make sense to 'explain' a picture.

I find it incredibly frustrating if people glance at my, or any other photograph, and comment without really looking. That superficial glance is close to, or even worse, than worthless. All that it allows is gaudy graphic prettiness, dismissing the rich seam of worth that is out there.

I must disagree here. The first glance is absolutely the most important moment, at least from the viewer's point of view. The problem is, that for many people a glance is not enough, because the ability to perceive art is simply a gift. The first glance is 90% of judgement. If you classify the photograph as interesting or even an art, then, it is worth reading it. Ultimately, the photograph is worth for the viewer only as much as a he/she can see. I agree that it's painful for the creator. But in the end - either the photo is not that good or the viewer did not deserve to see it.

I have to fess up to a certain disconnect with this discussion. I certainly find this portrait interesting to look at. But I don't see the point in trying to "read" what Ken has read into a posed portrait. The possibilities Ken's readings suggest might make sense to me if this were a candid. But the possibilities he comes up with can be dismissed too easily with "the subject was simply posing". I find it interesting to read the story behind a portrait (sometimes) ... particularly some of the ones behind portraits of famous people where the photographer had limited time and had to interact a certain way to get a reaction from the subject. Without that back story, the photo stands on its own. We can guess, but when there's the very real possibility that the photo looks the way it looks because the photographer and subject created it to look that way, I don't see the point in guessing. Instead I just take it at face value.

Thought for the Day

I understand the issue with the edited photograph but consider if you would fuss about a thousand editorial words (= 1 editorial picture), where tone and context, and the order and choice of words might distort the truth but be understood as a "stance".

Not suggesting two wrongs make a right but we seem to accept the one and villify the other.

And yet words ......

Or you could just look at the photograph and see a nice photo of a handsome woman.

Photographs are incredibly common. Good photographs are incredibly common. Even great photographs are incredibly common. But instead of interpreting that to mean that great photographs are worthless, I believe we should interpret that to mean that the world at all levels is incredibly deep and rich, that intricacy and detail of meaning are part of the fabric or reality, and that beauty is everywhere, not just in the details but also in the big picture, in the patterns and in the whole. The world is fractal. And then, the world is not only fractal in space, but also in time. The beauty is not just in the photograph, but also in the fact that you arrived at it.

To those who feel that "reading" a photograph is a pointless waste of time I can only shrug and offer the following thoughts for you to consider.

Photography, purposed as either art or documentation, is a medium of communication. That's a matter of fact. Every time you look at an image, whether you realize it or not, you're "reading" that image.

The overwhelming volume of imagery that we see each day relies heavily on research and assumptions about the average person's visual literacy, emotional triggers, and attention span to attempt to sell us something. Clothing. Booze. Food. Cars. The people who earn their livings crafting this imagery at the pinnacle of the ad world -- commercial photographers, retouchers, art directors -- succeed entirely on their knowledge of how to tattoo your brain, through your eyes, in less than 5 seconds. Every element, every highlight, every shadow, every reflection, every pore of a high-end ad image has been established toward communicating a clear message to viewers.

So now let's turn toward the world of art imagery. As we can see from her remarks, Patricia Dalzell has clearly devoted a similar level of attention in crafting "Benita at Home". (In fact, most accomplished photographic art portraitists do.) She has devoted careful consideration to every element in that frame. It is meant to be read, just as if it was a painted portrait.

The popularization of photography, largely as a result of merging it into consumer electronics, has precipitated a continuous nearly world-wide rainstorm of amateur imagery. The overwhelming bulk of this visual confetti is not crafted to be read; it's mostly very basic documents of personal presence. Family pictures. Travel pictures. My life snapped. But even these photos get "read" by their viewers, albeit often to rather unfulfilling ends.

Getting past "I like it" / "I don't like it" is absolutely fundamental to appreciating all art. It's also fundamental to expanding and enhancing your ability to more richly communicate with a camera. That effort requires, at least initially, a great deal of self-consciousness as a viewer. What do you see? What does it mean to you?. This is not about being right or wrong. This is about honing your cognizant skills, an exercise that's legitimately analogous to exercising your body; it must be done regularly to avoid illnesses such as onset of languid eye and visual sclerosis. But, also like physical exercise, the effort will likely pay many rich dividends among which it raising your own image-making skills and enjoyment.

Hey, speaking of cognizance, how about this "Invisible Gorilla" study, revived this week?

Let me briefly clarify my earlier comment on the point of "reading" a portrait. I said I find it interesting to look at.

By itself, this photo says nothing to me about the place or the subject. However, two words in the caption ... "at home" ... cause it to say plenty. Without that caption this could be anyone brought any place for a portrait. But knowing this is the subjects home lets us imagine things about the subject and the way she lives.

I would bet that the clothes she's wearing are the subjects; I would not guess whether she chose them that day with or without input from the photographer - I have no reason to believe this is how she dresses to hang laundry. I don't believe she's inclined to pause at the fence, but rather was told "stand there" by a photographer who carefully chose the composition to show something about the subject. And the look on her face suggests to me that maybe the photographer said "ok, now look serious".

It's the rest, about kinetic energy and a salesperson and staying out all night that I don't see the point in imagining, because it's a posed shot and I don't believe it was posed to simulate an imagined scene or an event.

Just a little clarification to explain what I mean when I say I don't quite get "reading" a portrait. To me, it's very straightforward. A nicely done portrait made more interesting to look at by the caption that says the subject is "at home"; one that lets us imagine things about the subject based on the background, but one that says nothing of interest about the moment the shot was taken.

One difficulty with reading a photograph is the incredible diversity of images, constructions, representations and snapshots that are lumped together as 'photographs'. It would be folly to apply the same standards of interpretion to a one-handed grabshot and to one of the baroque constructed images of Jeff Wall or Gregory Crewdson. It seems self-evident to me that the 'meaning' often attributed to snapshots and vernacular photos—even to much of the work of icons like Winogrand & Arbus—is a gossamer confection spun from nothing. Any meaning beyond "here's what it looked like" is imposed by the viewer. On the other hand, the metaphorical fictions carefully assembled, theatrically lit and lastly photographed by Wall or Crewdson are all about the meaning. They have more in common with allegorical Renaissance painting than with most photographs. They're sort of like an intellectual Easter egg hunt.
Perhaps photographs like Patricia Dalzell's are the most interesting to read: images that have been crafted with care, without scaling the post-modern heights of absurdity. They make you think, without trying too hard in the process.

Very nice image Pat, and a good buy Mike.

I hope all is well with you Pat, it's been a few years now.



Ken Tanaka - "Photography, purposed as either art or documentation, is a medium of communication. "

Not necessarily, Ken.

The *presentation" of photography can be about communication, and oftentimes that communication is entirely non-verbal, existing only in the visual realm from conception (or recognition), to presentation. If we're being honest about it, words and explanations are often an afterthought, when the original motivation for creating an image was entirely visual.

Your own print-sale image is a prime example. I'd bet my bottom dollar that your visceral reaction to the storm, as it unfolded in front of you, was your motivation for making the image. The communication began when you showed us the picture, and no further reading was necessary - your communication was very clear. What I heard was, "Hey, look at this!".

In my book, that's more than enough of an explanation. Anything else would constitute an artist's statement...

i like this photo, perhaps in part because i too have an asymmetrical face, but also because of the tension between the pastoral scene and the strong/inscrutible woman; the "timeless" aspect struck me immediately, but i was then jarred to note the fence appears to be built of pressure-treated lumber (and a bit overbuilt at that)

My reading of Ken's reading is that Ken has recently had a scary encounter of the female kind!
(Just kidding Ken, really ;-) )

Personally I see no threat or malice in the image at all. Quite the opposite. But I think that's one of the most valuable features of visual images of any kind: once you get past the obvious, they teach you something about yourself.

As for whether the exercise is worth it, saxophonist Sonny Rollins famously said: "talking about music is like dancing about architecture." I'm not sure that applies in this case, but it's a cool quote.

Hmmm. Care to tell me more about that?

A "reading" of a photograph may indeed say more about the reader than the photographer or subject. In psychological terms, a photograph can become a projective device through which the conscious and/or unconscious feelings and thoughts of interpreter are revealed. Literally any form of art, object, noise, music, smell, etc. may do the same thing. Who hasn't laid on his back and interpreted clouds?

By the way, I really like the photograph. I suppose that it may have something to do with the cotton jumper which as I type this seems to remind me of mother as a young women. Up to the typing "cotton jumper," I just liked the photo. Now I think that I know why.

How's that for projection.

I have a conflict on the idea of "reading" a photo.

On the one hand, there is an analogy with listening to a piece of music. If you were to hear the relevant few notes on a bassoon, you might recognise the subject-matter as Prokofiev's _Peter and the Wolf_. Fine. But if I didn't know that, and that the music was programme-music where the bassoon theme was something to do with a particular figure, would I ever deduce the word "grandfather" from the notes played? Like heck. This is a nihilist approach to reading or listening: there is no intrinsic meaning or message to a bunch of notes. There is slightly more meaning if you allow for personal subjective association: Beach Boys, for me, is forever associated with being driven back home from summer camps in a Volvo 240 estate. (Ooops, diversion into vehicular territory, sorryyyy...)

Flipping back to photography, unless a work is intentionally abstract, the chances are you can see a subject, and some technical toys deployed in the making of the photo (eg the workflow from scene to film to print to scan to JPEG) and *some* rules of composition such as "the photographer meant to emphasize these bits, so they put them on a third". What I can't deduce or read is much more of a mood than that. I'd never get into position of limbs as symbolising an idea such as relaxation.

So, by all means bring it on. I'd like to know more about reading a photo, if only to see if there is potential for meaningful consensus or a load of pretentious waffle, and how to anti-alias the line.

"As for whether the exercise is worth it, saxophonist Sonny Rollins famously said: "talking about music is like dancing about architecture." I'm not sure that applies in this case, but it's a cool quote."

Famous, all right, but it wasn't Sonny Rollins who said it. The earliest attribution in print (Oct. '83) is by Elvis Costello, but Costello himself says he got it from the comedian Martin Mull. Several other ~1983 sources also attribute it to Mull. I've seen it credited to all sorts of musicians, from Laurie Anderson to Frank Zappa. The jazz attribution you're probably thinking about was probably Thelonious Monk, to whom it is sometimes credited, rather than Rollins.

Oh, and I've always heard it as "Writing about...."


Hi Mike,

This has been an especially nice read over the last few days.

Your paragraphs about interpreting (reading) a photograph reminded me of a piece your buddy Gordon Lewis did over at his Shutterfinger Blog back in January. It is entitled A Photograph is Not Reality.

Worth a read for those that haven't.



I didn't spend a lot of time looking at this image the first time I saw it. What I noticed was the excellent lighting, composition, and toning, and the timeless nature of the photo. Upon second viewing, after reading Ken's and Patricia's comments, I still believe these elements are more important than a theoretical mismatch between the subject's shoes and dress. (What if she had been wearing barn boots ... ???)

In any event, the photo certainly excels at many levels of analysis.

"It would of course be possible to draw a diagram, with lines and arrows and shaded planes, to explain crudely what the picture itself explains precisely. But what conceivable purpose would this barbarism serve?" -Szarkowski, on a photo by Lee Friedlander.

This has been a wonderful, informing discussion. My original reading of Patricia's portrait of Benita hinted that it was a portrait of a friend, which we now know to be the case. It is interesting to speculate whether Pat could have made this portrait if she didn't know the sitter so well.
Many thanks to both the photographer and her strong subject.

"Famous, all right, but it wasn't Sonny Rollins who said it."

I've been gypped! The article I first encountered it in attributed it to Rollins. And it was an article linked to an interview with Rollins so I just assumed it was correct. What probably happened is that Rollins quoted the quote, and the reporter, not knowing any better, made the mistaken attribution.

Whatever, it's still a heck of a cool quote (and I quote it often ... which means that there are now a few people wandering around in the belief that Rollins was the originator ... oops).


I just want to let you know I really enjoyed this post. This is the type of photography dissection that is so hard to find in this age of gear-oriented internet discussions/blogs/forums.

For the last 2 years or so the UK paper the Guardian has been running a weekly series of interveiws with photographers discussing their best shot - the lastest is here:


(Warning this one is a bit bloody)

Some of the early ones have lost the photos but if you enjoy photographers talking about photographs picking your way throught them is a great pleasure


Some images communicate directly and immediately off the print, page or screen, yet continue to reward further viewing - an excellent example is Ken Tanaka's image of Chicago in the storm; others require deconstruction, analysis, history, justification, yet continue to be unrevealing and uninvolving in spite of all that.

Prettiness is not something I look for in an image though it should not of itself disqualify an image from being serious, or from serious consideration. Both Tanaka's and Dalzell's images are certainly pictorial if not actually pretty; many of A. Adams' images were extremely handsome yet I believe many would still regard him as a serious photographer.

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