The Essence of Photos


I recently finished reading "The Nature of Photographs," a classic book in the field of photography. The book has a total of 131 pages, and I was able to finish it in about an hour and a half while taking notes and reading thoughtfully. The book is mostly composed of photographs, with only a small amount of text used to explain the theories. It can be said that every word is carefully chosen. I would rate it 10 out of 10.

The author is Stephen Shore, a well-known figure in the photography world. He is the first living photographer to have a solo exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. He is also the highly esteemed director of the photography department at Bard College and one of the most influential photographers of our time.

Although this book is considered a classic for enlightenment, it is not beginner-friendly for those who are new to photography. It lacks practical tutorials and dazzling images, making it appear dull and leading to criticism. This book is more like a "photographic philosophy" book, where Shore discusses the essence of photographs from three aspects: material, description, and psychology. He also analyzes how photographers transform the world in front of the lens into photographs.

Material Aspect#


In the infinite world, the four edges of a photograph determine the boundaries of the image.

Whether viewing a photograph on photographic paper or a display screen, the visual representation of a photograph is flat, static, and bounded. Therefore, a photograph captures the infinite world within a limited area. Additionally, different materials determine the visual effects of a photograph. For example, the tonal range of a black and white photograph is influenced by the different photosensitive emulsions used.

Photography has undergone a tremendous leap from black and white to color. Color photographs directly reflect the real world as seen by the human eye. In addition, colors can imbue photographs with additional meanings, such as representing a certain era or culture. On the other hand, black and white photographs have their own charm. With their grayscale tones and absence of vibrant colors, viewers are more focused on the meaning conveyed by the photograph and are encouraged to contemplate the stories behind the images. This is a form of artistic restraint. A photograph can convey countless meanings depending on the viewer's experiences.

Description Aspect#


Apart from the photography studio, photographers face various complex visual juxtapositions on location. Every step the photographer takes readjusts these visual relationships.

Photography is an analytical discipline. The difference between a photographer and a painter is that a painter starts with a blank canvas, while a photographer seeks order within chaos. As a result, a photograph can only describe a certain aspect of the world. Before pressing the shutter, a photographer often has a concept in mind for what the photograph should convey. At this level, the elements of flatness, framing, time, and focus define the content and structure of a photograph.

How can we understand these four elements?

  • Flatness: The world is three-dimensional, but a photographic image is two-dimensional.
  • Framing: A photograph has edges, while the world does not. The framing can either be inward or outward, depending on the photographer's choice.
  • Time: The world is constantly changing. When the shutter is pressed, a photograph freezes the world, capturing the meaning of the present moment.
  • Focus: By using focus in a two-dimensional photograph, the photographer creates a sense of depth and describes the spatial order.

Psychological Aspect#


Garry Winogrand understood how a photograph can freeze action and time, which is why this image of people interacting on a bench is so captivating. A photographer's keen observational skills deeply influence the psychological aspect of a photograph. It's not magic.

When looking at a photograph, each person interprets it differently based on their own experiences. This is the viewer's psychological composition. Similarly, a photographer has their own psychological composition, and the photographs they capture reflect their current state of mind. The descriptive aspect of a photograph provides a framework for the psychological composition, while the psychological aspect elaborates, refines, and modifies the feelings conveyed by the descriptive aspect.

Although the psychological aspect is distinct from the descriptive aspect, it is influenced by the compositional decisions made in the descriptive aspect: where to take the photograph (choice of perspective), what to include in the frame (framing), when to press the shutter (timing), and what to emphasize through focus (focus).

Therefore, the basic means by which a photographer determines the content and composition of an image are: perspective, framing, focus, and timing. A photograph reflects how a photographer applies these means to convey their internal or visual composition.

Constructing a Psychological Model#

After analyzing the three aspects mentioned above, Shore introduces the concept of a psychological model. What is a psychological model? It is a model constructed by a photographer based on their insights, adaptation, and understanding of the world. When taking a photograph, the photographer's feelings enter the model, and likewise, the model adjusts to accommodate the photographer's feelings, ultimately influencing the creation of a photograph.

This is a dynamic and self-modifying process, which engineers refer to as a "feedback loop." It is a complex, continuous, and spontaneous interaction between observation, understanding, imagination, and intention.

Regarding this book, I find it refreshing every time I read it. By understanding Shore's theories, I always gain something when attempting to interpret the carefully selected photographs used to assist in the explanations. Most of the photographs in the book are from renowned photographers, with the majority being black and white images taken by masters of the last century. The beauty of grayscale is truly timeless and worth appreciating repeatedly.

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