Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Reading: The Nature of Photographs

Finally back in print, I recently purchased "The Nature of Photographs" by Stephen Shore.  This is by far the best introduction to the subject I have come across.  It is simple in approach and thus accessible, however, in a few words Shore manages to provide a deep insight into what makes up a photograph and what is in the mind of the creator of the image.

The Nature of Photographs: A Primer

Shore starts with a discussion of the "Physical Level", the properties of a print, the texture, the tonality and the boundedness of the photograph, i.e. the edges.  So far, in my photographic education 99% of my photographs exist in electronic form only, those that I print end up on fairly generic glossy paper.  I need to start to consider the physical side of the process and how different textures and framing can affect the perception of the end result print.

He then moves onto a discussion of the "Depictive Level", dividing the key elements of a photograph into 4 distinct elements:

  1. Flatness - the degree to which the picture offers up dimensionality through perspective
  2. Frame - what is contained within the picture and what is outside, and how the edges of the picture influence the content
  3. Time - the duration of the capture, from a frozen element in time to a picture that took seconds to expose permitting the imaging of movement
  4. Focus - where the focal plane is placed in the image and how depth of field influences the look of the image
At some levels this is quite obvious, but in reality how often do we think in these terms when taking a photograph, point-snap is frequently the thought process.  This is a model for thinking about how to make, but also how to look at a a photograph.  I found this very useful in helping me to think about my own approach to framing a picture in the viewfinder.

The third and final Level discussed, is the "Mental Level", what is in the frame and how does the viewer relate to it.  A photograph can have deep and complex depictive properties, but have very limited mental properties, an example could be a superbly worked Architectural photograph.  Conversely an image could be very simply, but contain a deep meaning, the 1945 photographs of piles of shoes at concentration camps would be an example of simple 2 dimensional images with terrifying psychological impact.

In the final section Shore brings all together in a brief discussing of Mental Modelling, the process in which a photographer combines these elements and progressively refines their approach to an image prior to completing a photograph.  The final paragraph sums up this process:

"It is a complex, ongoing, spontaneous interaction of observation, understanding, imagination, and intention."

This is my second reading of the book, I can be sure to read it many more times.  The photographs chosen to illustrate the text are key to an understanding of what he is saying, but need study to achieve meaning, my own understanding is still developing.

Already one of my favorite artists, this book further elevates his reputation in my eyes.

Note: in this blog as in previous ones I will maintain a record of what I read during my studies.  Sometimes the discussion might be detailed, at other times short, however, I will always try to convey what I have learned or understood from the particular work.  Each entry will be prefaced with the word Reading.  I also add a picture of the book cover together with a link to the book on amazon.co.uk.  It is not my intent to help Amazon to sell the book, merely to ensure anyone reading this text can obtain the book if they so choose.  However, I should disclose that I buy almost all my books from Amazon.

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