Wednesday, January 9, 2019

The Judging of a Photo

Not very often, but occasionally, once runs across someone analyzing a photo in great detail. They talk about how this bit represents one thing, and that bit another, and so on. In a public context, this is often greeting by eye-rolling or loud groans. Partly, of course, because photographers hate analysis and desperately want to return all conversations to the relative sharpnesses of various lenses, and how does depth of field work, anyways? There is a little more to it, I think.

When a fellow paints a picture, and they stick a cherub up in the corner, the cherub is not an accident. Nor is its position in the frame. The painter went to a fair bit of trouble to stick the cherub up there, after all.

Now, it could certainly be that the painting merely needed a light bit up there, and there was room for another cherub (what painting, after all, would not be improved with a few more cherubs, eh?)

It's also possible that the artist intended some complex religious allegory, and for some eras of painting I suspect that it's practically certain the artist so intended.

Photographs don't quite work this way. Well, they certainly can work this way, especially with constructed tableaux, and indeed in the early days we have many composites made in precisely this fashion. Most famously, we have "The Two Ways of Life" by Rejlander, in 1857, but this was very much a thing for a while. A thing which was, eventually, consigned to the darkest pits of history mainly because it's just painting, using scissors, photographs, and paste rather than actually being what was coming to be understood to be photography.

We live in degenerate, retrograde, times so there is a certain amount of this sort of thing going on now. Perhaps, more than ever, but at least as a percentage of all photography being done it's respectably small.

No, most photography embraces a certain degree of serendipity. While the small background detail may be powerfully meaningful to you, the viewer (oh god, did I just say punctum and name-drop Barthes on the sly?) it is as often as not an accident. Perhaps a lucky accident. Perhaps an accident which caused this frame rather than the one previous one or the next one to be selected at the contact sheet, and so in that sense deliberate.

Setting aside composites and still lifes, which is a bit of a cheat to be sure, every photograph contains a myriad of elements, some of which are accidental. Looking at the picture, we don't know offhand which ones are accidental, although we might guess. Ascribing some detailed allegorical message to some specific, potentially accidental, element of the frame is therefore fraught.

In the terms that I have been developing lately, we might well ascribe meaning in our "5th story" the one we, as viewers, construct for ourselves. Sure, the flower in the background represents her virginity or whatever. That ascription, in our own story, is quite different from presuming that the artist intended the flower to stand in for her virginity ("2nd story"). As such, our interpretation is more or less personal. We might successfully sell others on the idea, to be sure. There might be other features, accidental or deliberate, which support that interpretation.

My approach to looking at art, and to looking at photography specifically, is very artist-forward. I want to base my grasp of the work on what the artist intends, not on what I put in there myself. It's a hopeless endeavor, of course, but I do my best.

I tend, therefore (and obviously therefore you should too, no?) to dismiss the "the flower is a metaphor for her virginity" readings as excessively specific. Unless there is, to my eye, some reasonable argument that the artist intended that reading, I am loathe to adopt it.

Thus, in the end, I read photographs in a more abstract and emotional way than I might read a painting (to be honest, I don't know the relevant tropes and idioms of painting well enough to do it myself, but when the catalog tells me what the cherub in the corner means I am inclined to believe it.)

This is, I find, an amusing paradox -- I read the picture grounded in actual reality far more vaguely and emotionally than I do the picture which is a product of the painter's imagination.


  1. Can photographs viewed as a body of work give some insight of what the photographer is revealing about him or his work? I still do not know how to look at a photograph except in the very basic terms of whether I personally like the work.

    1. I'm not sure how much there really is past "liking it." That's certainly the important thing.

  2. I figure looking at photographs is like listening to music. Everyone has a "like" "dislike" or "meh" range of responses. Some people have deeper appreciation for various features of the art work, which is a little different than "liking." That's probably it for most people. Beyond that you get into criticism, theory, and the abyss.

  3. Occasionally, while I'm looking through the viewfinder at what I am planing to make a photograph from, I'll notice that something within or adjacent to the frame will add some relationship or change some relationship within the image if I adjust its position so that it is in a more purposeful place within the frame.

    No one has ever commented to me in a way that indicated they noticed when I've done this.

    So maybe I'm a bad photographer. Or maybe what I think is an interesting juxtaposition reads as insipid, or obvious, or uninteresting, to other people. Or maybe it's too subtle and people don't notice.

    Or maybe most people don't actually read photographs for meaning but instead just look at them and wait for some automatic, instinctual, response to occur and then treat that reaction as if it were the entire value of the photograph.

    It's certainly easier to tell if a picture is sharp than it is to tell if it's a photograph, to borrow your terms.

    Thanks for writing your blog. I've been lurking it for months.