I open with the partial cover of Michael Freeman’s book The Photographer’s Eye because its dissection of photography was a kind of Rosetta Stone for the discussion that focused on reading photographs and the structure of photographs. I recommend this to anyone interested in photography, an excellent book on the subject.
If you were present at this meeting, I will appreciate your feedback to complement what I have outlined here, be generous to augment the content. Collectively, they will get richer. And encourage other participants to do the same.
I lead a roundtable discussion, actually two roundish tables, at the Film Photographers Association meeting yesterday evening. This was my third or fourth such gathering. The purpose was to talk about reading photographs and the structure of photographs. I decided to start the conversation by asking a simple question: “How do we read and how do we learn to read?” When you think about it, we learn to look at some scratches on a surface and speak what it says. That is the purpose of writing. But, the “scratches” do not have intrinsic meanings, they are not part of an “object-based communication” like showing a pomegranate and then cutting it to share its nature. We assign meaning to those scratches that we call writing.
Likewise, photographs can be “read” in a similar vein if we learn how to assign meanings to different “scratches” on the surface of a photograph. I began by asking all the participants to pick one of the books I brought in for this purpose and pick a photograph in it. Then one member would talk about the photograph he or she was looking at for the purpose of sharing it with the others around the tables. The first photograph described was a man holding a baby against a dark background and that only a small part of the baby was visible. Then I asked another participant to pick up that book and look at the photograph just explained. The second viewer would explain how close the image was to his or her mental image of the photograph and add more to it for the benefit of the others. This, we did for a couple of rounds.
Then I pointed out to the participants that they were describing the content of the image rather than the elements of the photograph. Every photograph shares some common elements with all other photographs and reading and talking about photographs should focus on the elements of the photograph one of which may be the content. I referred to Michael Freeman’s book The Photographer’s Eye and read some headings with a little expansion. Here are the elements I underlined for future discussion:
Figure and ground
Pattern, texture, many
Perspective and depth
Reactive or planned
Documentary or expressive
Simple or complex
A single point
Chiaroscuro and key
Color in composition
Black and white
Then, I asked the participants to look at the photographs again and think in terms of these elements which can be used in a variety of ways to represent a wide range of subjects. Speaking of subjects, we also touched upon the idea of the object of a photograph and the subject of a photograph which may be different. We discussed a couple of more photographs and after that, I invited members who brought photographs to share, and we got an Ansel Adams, a Jerry Uelsmann, and a member shared his photographs for others to comment.
It was quite enjoyable for me to challenge all to look beyond the “like-dislike” dichotomy and try to see in terms of photographic structure. I hope the time we spent together, about 90+ minutes was as enjoyable for them as it was for me.