The Nature of Photographs

Stephen Shore’s book The Nature of Photographs is also called ‘a Primer’, and that it exactly what it is. The initial edition was published in 1998, the edition I have (2nd) was updated in 2007. Shore describes it as ‘drawing from’ Szarkowski’s Photographer’s Eye. Both books use images to explain the concepts rather than relying on words as many theory books do. Shore’s book looks at the way photographs function, how they work as images and what the photographer is doing when he takes a picture. He aims to describe the ‘physical and formal attributes of the print. While the book is mainly discussing print on paper images many of the concepts also apply to digital photography, especially as so many images are now looked at on a hand held device, a phone or a tablet, and passed around in the same way a print image would have been in the past.

The Physical Level:

The picture is flat and has edges, which form the boundaries of the image. It is static, was taken at a particular moment, and may be colour – which is the way the eyes naturally see, or monochrome – which we may interpret differently.  It can be saved, bought, copied, shown in a book or a museum. These factors (the context) alter the viewers interpretation.

The Depictive Level:

Unlike a painting, where the artist starts from a blank canvas, the photographer starts with the world and imposes their order on it. S/he selects what theory want to show. S/he has a style and the way the image is taken gives it structure. Shore describes four ways that define the way an image is formed:

  1. A picture is 2D, not 3D (unless it is a stereograph, as was very popular in early Victorian photography). The image is taken from a specific vantage point which needs to be chosen, and although it may give an illusion of depth, it is an illusion. He compares two images by Struth – one of his forest images (Paradise 9) which appears flat and dense, with one of the Pantheon in Rome which gives an illusion of distance, drawing you in to the picture. A minimal shift in the position the image is taken from can alter the meaning of the picture.
  2. The edge matters. What is included and what is left out. What is implied by just showing part of something? Lines leading out of the images (streets, paths) imply something else might be happening elsewhere.
  3. The exact moment the image is taken. What is shown in one particular instant will be different from an image taken a second later. Time freezes things – but this can be a very short time with a clear, crisp image (a decisive moment), or a longer time frame with blur implying movement or a very long time frame when the movement is lost completely (a example is the pictures taken in the Museum of Modern Art by Michael Wesley ).
  4. The camera lens depicts a plane of focus (the depth of field). This may be shallow or deep and, except for a few cameras, is parallel to the plane of the camera. Focus can be used to draw the eye to the main point of the image.

The Mental Level.

What you see in a picture is not only exactly what the image shows, but what your brain interprets it as. When you look at a picture that has an illusion of depth you feel as though you are refocusing at different points of it, but your eyes are not changing focus – your brain is doing that work. By choosing carefully exactly how to take an image the photographer can encourage the viewer’s mind to see what s/he wants them to. To follow their line of vision. What a photographer pays attention to will affect what is seen. Shore says ‘The quality and intensity of a photographer’s attention leave their imprint on the mental level of the photograph. This does not happen by magic’ (p. 110). The mental model is dependent on conscious thought. Each level, physical, depictive and mental builds on the earlier ones. What you see leads you to change how you look, to change in turn what you are thinking to further change what you see.

Shore’s book is simple to read, but I return to it to remind me of the basics of what I am doing and to remind me to think about what I am seeing and how I can make that visible to my viewer’s.

Reference list

Shore, S. (2007). The Nature of Photographs. London; New York: Phaidon.

Szarkowski, J. (2009). The Photographer’s Eye. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.




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