Tuesday, 13 December 2011

The Nature of Photographs - Stephen Shore.

This book has been on my shelf for a while and has only ever had the occasional glance through and then put back. I am aware that I struggle a little with the appreciation of certain works within photography and when I look at an image and I feel uncomfortable with it, I move on quickly. My discomfort is based on (I guess) ignorance and embarrassment. In the same way that one would gloss over any subject where lingering causes discomfort. The wider problem here is that within photography I shouldn't feel like this. I want to be able to call myself a Photographer, in the widest sense. Within photography (art generally I assume) there is a hierarchy of opinion from people who by one means or another have won the right to curate exhibitions, edit books and write on the subject. These people are well educated and well read within the subject (quite rightly) and therefore become an authority. I don't have a problem with that, I consider myself a minion within photography and am willing to embrace all genre. So, I don't think that by simply looking at these difficult images I will suddenly have a divine moment and all will be well in my head. Rather than looking at photographs for anything other than the pleasure it gives me I need to consider why the author has included them in a collection.

So, we all look at art differently and Shore explores ways of understanding and looking at photography, from iconic images to the mundane, from the masters such as Stieglitz to those of today including Struth and Gursky.

Part 1 - The Nature of Photographs.

Shore looks at the very essence of the photograph. It is a physical object, a print and an illusion of a window onto the world. A rock, a landscape, a face, all have an embedded signal that works our mind. "It gives 'spin' to what the image depicts and how it is organised"  He asks us to look at the "physical and formal" attributes to define and interpret the content.

Part 2 - The Physical Level.

A back to basics approach, that on the surface seems unnecessary. However to consider the photographic print as a physical commodity is a good place to be. It is flat and it has edges, it doesn't move. "The print has physical dimensions". These attributes are important. We work in a two dimensional art and photograph a three dimensional world. The physical properties of the print determine some of the visual qualities of the photograph, such as where the edge is, what we see, what we don't see.  The tonal range and tint of monochrome  and, the palette of colour can tell us about its age. Shore also encourages us to think about it as an object. " As an object, a photograph has its own life in the world. It can be saved in a shoebox or in a museum. It can be bought and sold. It may be regarded as a utilitarian object or as a work of art. The context in which a photograph is seen effects the meaning a viewer draws from it."
Those few words are in the corner of page 26 and they have stopped me in my tracks. Looking at the last sentence again  "The context in which a photograph is seen effects the meaning a viewer draws from it.". Because photography is ubiquitous are we taking it for granted, are we fatigued by there being so much of it, or am I looking at it in the wrong context. Being in photography overload is a possibility and I need to be careful what I look at and where. Shore has made me think about the need to be selective and in some areas I am dealing with this.

Part 3 - The Depictive Level.

It is here that Shore looks at what we depict and how we need to work. "Photography is inherently an analytical discipline" , are words that seem rather frightening at first, but when he compares our work to that of a painter it does make sense. As photographers we have to impose order, a painter builds a picture, we need to frame, choose camera settings. focus and choose the moment. Much of which is of course a natural instinct of the photographer. So these formal attributes, flatness, frame, time and focus define the photograph, its depictive content and its structure.

Flatness is the transformation from three dimensions to two and the depiction of depth when projected on to a single plane is created by the juxtaposition of objects. Shore looks at images where the viewer is stopped by the picture plane and others where viewer is drawn through and into the image, describing them as opaque and transparent. This juxtaposition of objects change as we move around with the camera and a decision has to be made. Shore says " In bringing order to this situation, a photographer solves a picture, more than composes one." Certainly within landscape photography the chaos of nature, its inherent inability to conform, its seemingly endless power to entice and then disappoint is frustrating and gets "solved" by a few.

The frame is interesting. A photograph has edges and these separate not so much what is in, but what is left out. After all there is far more to leave out than put in. Shore is interested the edges and says "For some pictures the frame acts passively. It is where the picture ends.The structure of the picture begins within the image and works its way out to the frame" and "For some pictures the frame is active. The structure of the picture begins with the frame and works inwards". In my quest to read more photographs this simple but none the less (and obvious) test is a genuine tool in my newly acquired toolbox for photography.

Time, is an attribute that relies heavily on the photographer understanding the likely outcome when shooting by employing changes in technique.. Frozen time: short exposures, cutting across time to capture the infamous "decisive moment" or as Shore puts it ".. generating a new moment". Extrusive time: long exposures, capturing movement as blur. This is technique requires the camera to be still for some time and is less spontaneous. Still time: Very long exposure, maybe many minutes where a small aperture is being used to maximise depth of field. As Shore says "the content is at rest and the time is still" .  

Focus is the final component of the Depictive and primarily deals with how we can treat the plane of focus (mostly parallel to the film plane) and depth of field. Depth of field (adjusted by aperture and measured in f stops) varies with lens focal length and camera to subject distance. It being greater at wide angle and less at telephoto and less the closer the subject is to the camera. The technical and mathematical issues here are the least intuitive for the photographer and Shore offers a few examples without going into the physics preferring instead to describe narrow depth of field as "the plane of focus acts as the edge of our attention cutting through the scene". The illustration for wide depth of field is a photograph of a fence, some mid distance buildings and a mountain range in the distance. Here we are asked to look at how quickly we can see around the image as we are not tied to the narrow plane of focus as the image has depictive space.

Part 4 - The Mental Level.

So, while making an image we need to look and let our eyes work from reality to the flat sheet of paper that will be the photograph and transfer that message to our brain and allow a reaction to take place. Shore says " The mental level elaborates, refines and embellishes our perceptions of the depictive level" The techniques available at the depictive stage and how we deploy them bridge the gap to the mental level and allows us to "focus the mind". The amount that your eye changes mental focus while viewing a photograph determines the mental level, either shallow or deep and this may not coincide with level of depictive space. The images Shore uses to illustrate this are carefully chosen and his argument is clear. However , the issue of determining the mental level of images outside the comfort of the book is a challenge. It is clear that Shore recognises the difficult decisions that the photographer has to make and says "What a photographer pays attention to governs these decisions (be they conscious, intuitive or automatic)." The key here is that Shore recognices that intuition is an active element in the visual gestalt of a picture.

Part 5 - Mental Modelling

In this final section Shore is looking at the Model that a photographer has and how he uses this when making photographs and whether by taking what he does unconsciously and making that process consciously there is more control. Shore writes of his own method "When I make a photograph, my perceptions feed into my mental model. My model adjusts to accommodate my perceptions (leading me to change my photographic decisions). This modelling adjustment alters, in turn, my perceptions. And so on. It is a dynamic, self modifying process. It is what an engineer would call a feedback loop. It is a complex, ongoing, spontaneous interaction of observation, understanding, imagination and intention." 

This methodology is recognisable to me although I had never before considered it enough to write it down. I suspect that due to it being iterative it is a nuisance and when faced with needing a solution I tend to abandon the problem and move on. 


Shore has written sparingly and not used a verbose style. His words are succinct, pointed and used carefully to work through the 5 sections. The photographs are well produced and inserted carefully to illustrate the text. Like all good works I will look at the book often and reevaluate later in the course. 

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