In the previous post I briefly, indeed too briefly, touched upon the nature of languages and moved from object-oriented, to icon oriented, and ended up in symbolic languages like the spoken or written English. In this post I will try to wrap up the series with an eye to the language of photography. Clearly, this very broad subject cannot be finalized in one short post even with its previous accompaniments. The elements of the photographic structure are the components of this language.
Let’s return to photography and try to understand its elements. Photography may be the most obvious magic trick everybody sees but nobody notices. Let me state the obvious because often times this point eludes many: “a photograph, any photograph is a two-dimensional entity; a print is a piece of a substrate where the photograph resides mainly on its surface.” It is not the flower you photographed, nor is it little Joey, the building, and so on. It consists of markings created by light reflecting from various surfaces and shows what a light-sensitive device recorded at one point in time. If we want to explore the language of photography we need to focus on this surface and the markings on it. A photograph starts to speak with its lines, shapes, forms, tones, color, texture, etc. In other words, it is writing with light, “photos” “graphos” from its origins in Greek. This is the foundation of the language. In an earlier post, I explored the idea of reading photographs which may be a good one to accompany this post.
Think of a dream that you enjoyed or one that frightened you. Now, narrate that dream to yourself, and if you dare, to a friend. Just as you talk about your dream with its “unreal” elements and describe the feelings, emotions, the joy, sadness, fear, you can do the same with photographs. It is just more customary to talk about dreams than about photographs for most people, and they may feel outright uncomfortable to talk about photographs for fear that they may say something “wrong” whereas there is no such fear in narrating a dream, it is a dream after all. There is a lot to photography beyond “beautiful,” at least why it is beautiful. A photograph may indeed be beautiful not because it was captured during the golden hours, or because the object photographed is considered beautiful. As I said in an earlier post one can look at photographs as windows through which the object is seen, or look at them as surfaces, maybe even mirrors, to see the scratches on it made by light and what they may mean to the viewer.
Elements of the Photographic Structure
The “markings” on the surface of a photograph are organized in a particular way. The type of elements, their size, tone, location in the frame, and their relation to each other make up the structure of a photograph. Generally, this is called “composition.” Some argue that a good photograph will capture the eye of the viewer from 100 feet, so will yelling but we don’t consider yelling inherently “good.” The elements inside can be considered in themselves or as metaphors for other ideas. Clearly, seeing the metaphor requires a greater understanding of the language. The foundations of the photographic structure, and consequently the photographic language are:
Figure and ground
Pattern, texture, many
Perspective and depth
Reactive or planned
Simple or complex
A single point
Black and white
Chiaroscuro and key
Color in composition
The combination of these elements can create literally infinite possibilities. We can make a photograph foreboding or joyous, dynamic or static, modern or traditional, coming forward or receding, balanced or imbalanced, and so on. The chosen elements and the relationship among them create the encoded message which we put in the medium of photography, with the intention and hope that the receiver, the viewer will decode the message the same way, thus establishing a commonness of minds. That’s when a photograph really communicates.
It is also important to emphasize that photography is an analytical medium where the photographer analyzes the surroundings and chooses one frame from an infinite number of frames because of what it includes in it and what it excludes from it. All photographs are “lifted” from the physical world by capturing the light at a particular moment in time. This is distinctly different from painting which is a medium of synthesis where an empty canvas is filled with elements of the painters’ choosing. Photographers take what is there, painters put on canvas what is missing from it. So, the idea of “composition” or the “structure” of a photograph mostly consists of imposing a frame to include the elements that cohere in a manner photographers want. Of course, in studio photography, we can add or subtract one element at a time to end up with the proper relationships among them. However, most photographs are taken without such luxury.
What a photograph communicates, the meaning it may trigger, and the message it carries need not be a profound social commentary. It can be, and in successful photographs it usually is, a simple element, a gesture of the hand, the movement of the wing of a bird, the smoke rising from the chestnut peddler’s cart, can all be shared as moments enjoyed, moments of sorrow, moments of amazement and so on.
The trick is to keep reading as many photographs of different kinds with the intention to “understand” them rather than to “like” or “dislike” them. It is only then we will hold the Rosetta Stone of photography. Color adds realism; symmetry provides balance; curves provide movement; lines may provide harmony or conflict, and shape; tones provide form; B&W abstracts; gesture communicates; gaze directs the eye; and many more relationships exist in the structure. The list can go on, but the idea is clear: to better understand photographs the better we need to see the structural relationship. To get the idea rolling, you may try first to spell out why you like the photographs you like. Are there common elements among them, can you see the photograph separated from the object and see it as the elements summarized above?
I will provide some examples to better illustrate the points, even then this post will merely scratch the surface of the idea of photographic language. Once you start seeing photographs in terms of its structure you will enjoy them even better. This approach to seeing photographs and reading them is not to take the joy out of photography but to augment the joy we all receive from it.
When looking at the photographs below, I strongly suggest that you click on each photo and look at them first then read my reading of them, and do this one photograph or a pair at a time. This way, you will not be influenced by my writing, what you see will be your own. Then you can compare your reading with mine. My guess is that there will be a more overlap than you may expect. Here we go!
Let us start with the opening photograph, stairs at Fortnum & Mason in London. The object or objects are obvious; the railing, the stairs, cases of bottles, floor. But this photograph is about the beauty of a spiral line which also repeats on the floor. The radiating lines formed by the stair steps attach themselves to the spiraling railing as if chambers of a nautilus shell. The muted colors lower the voice of the photograph. Feel free to add your additional observations. The dominant element here is the curved line, segment of a spiral and the steps like the backbone attached to it.
Symmetry adds to the gorgeous structure, Hagia Sophia. This photograph has a high vantage point like the previous one but even more severe. The carefully structured symmetry creates a static composition. The lack of color emphasizes the strong lines formed by the columns and the repeating graceful arches.
Compare this with another photograph on the right, taken probably moments apart from the same vantage point. Notice how that photograph looks significantly different from the first one although they depict the same thing. The differences are in the proportion of the frame and the slightly angled view which makes it more dynamic and adds strong motion. I bet you will start looking at it on the lower right-hand corner and follow the line as it curves and goes down only to continue to the right to climb up on the next column to complete the spiral.
Both of these were presented deliberately with no color so as to dominate the view with the other elements. When we look at the color version, the photograph will gain greater realism and contrasting colors will make the view even more striking. The strong blue that you see on the floors is the reflection of the blue sky on the white marble floor. I did not see that striking color contrast between the floor and the interior lighting until I looked at the photograph. This is because our visual system is so good, it makes us see the white marble as white, even when it is blue! To paraphrase Sam Abell, “can I take credit for this extraordinary color combination? Of course not. But I will!”
Here is another example of what color does, both in a good way and a bad way. The striking color of the Amaryllis petal is a strong element by itself. Therefore, it somewhat hides the form of the petal, the chiaroscuro or the relationship between dark and light, and the graceful S curve formed by its center. When we remove the color, we are more or less forced to look at the form, the light and dark relationship, the S curve is certainly much more pronounced as well as the delicate surface texture. They are both fine but in different ways.
Sometimes we just get lucky. I took the photograph on the right from the window of a train as we were pulling out of the station. I saw the sitting couple and the two sacks ahead from the window, reached back for my camera, looked out and took this photograph, the only one I have. The way their hands are placed, their canes carefully balanced between the legs, the two sacks on the right mimicking the sitting couple in front of a highly geometric floor tile make this photograph work. The single rail visible at the bottom provides a hint of the context about their location.
The commonality between these two photographs is the symmetry and repetition in an unexpected way. The Storm Over Cappadocia has a subtle diagonal symmetry between the rock formations on the lower right and the clouds on the upper left. The valley’s natural texture augments the structure. The Man and His Horse, taken in Adana, Turkey was a happenstance. I was taking photographs of the building and this man and his horse just went by, all in a few seconds. The captured moment shows the repeating symmetry of the legs and the formal symmetry of the house. By the way, did you notice the railing in the Cappadocia photograph at the bottom? Why do you think it is there? Why did you notice such an insignificant element? It is there to provide a sense of my vantage point, I was on a balcony of a house, a sign of hand of man so to speak. It becomes noticeable because if its proximity to the frame’s edge. The frame is the singularly most powerful photographic element because we impose the frame on a frameless world. Therefore anything that touches or comes close to it gains significance. When not used properly, this may attract undue attention to an element making the viewer wonder what is so important about that. And that makes the competition judges dock points: “edge merger”!
Here is another photograph with one part coming very close to the frame edge at the top. That too is intentional to make the viewer start at the top tip of the flower and follow the graceful spiral downward. I bet you followed it even when “it was behind” the flower all the way down to the stem. This photograph is mainly about that line going from the tip to the body and also the form and monochromatic color of the photograph. The background is our wall in the dining room, it used to be that color. Luck! The strong vertical crop is also to emphasize the vertical form of the flower, and the central position of the flower is no accident. Yes, sometimes it works better!
The photograph on the right is all about the tonality, the delicate white of the snow and deep blacks under the stump. The strong, dark part of the stump on the left is nicely balanced with the undulating curves of a dead branch, all covered with snow.
The next two photographs are about strength and boredom. The powerful column with its massive presence has been there in front of the British Museum for a long time and from its looks, it certainly intends to be there in the future. The leaning body and the feet gesture of the boy along with his gaze toward outside adds to the “boxed in” feeling he conveys. Do you think he wants to be there, or is interested in anything that may be going on inside? The cutoff door frames, the walls are deliberately left there to add to the closure of the space he occupies. The photograph is about the resigned feeling he conveys. The sterile-looking, empty interior with its strong architectural features augments him wanting to be outside.
Let me end with a couple of photographs in which gesture plays a significant role. Taken from the second-floor balcony of The Grapes in London, it shows several people enjoying the outdoors. Is there any doubt in your mind who is telling a story? The hand gesture gives away the secret. Gesture is one of the most significant elements of a photographic structure. The second photograph is of a building, an architectural photograph. But notice the figures jolting out from its corner with a strong gesture of motion. Yes, we can find gesture in humans, animals, plants, and even architecture. (*)
I could go on with more photographs, but this post has gotten long enough and I did not want to split it into two. If there is enough interest I see in the comments I may add a supplemental post with only photographs and how I would read them. Let me know!
(*) Addendum: I have recently read Jay Maisel’s book Light, Gesture, Color in which he uses gesture more in the sense of “significance” of something or “his awareness” of this significance. To me, gesture is either a momentary attitude of something, human, animal, plant, or even architecture, and many other things. I also think using gesture in the sense of “someone doing something nice for you” as if the wall in a photograph is doing you a favor for having that attitude, a favor. You can find, notice, and be aware of gestures the more you look for them, or allow yourself to see them. 10/4/2015