Another approach to photography

Stephen Shore, a well-known American photographer, wrote a very interesting book called “The Nature of Photographs”, something to which I had given scant thought until I read the book – 3 times so far! It is well worth the time to read and study as it is not your typical approach to a discussion of photography and I believe brings a different consciousness to a photographer when composing a photo or looking at one.

Shore talks about a photograph as having a physical level, a depictive level and a mental level. I will focus on what he terms the “depictive level,” which has four aspects: flatness, frame, time and focus. Shore points out that a photographer, unlike a painter who begins with a blank canvas, is presented with the “messiness” of the world and selects a picture. The photographer determines the plane of the photograph. The photograph depicts a sense of space in what is essentially a flat, or two-dimensional rendering of a three dimensional scene. The photograph is bounded by a frame – it has edges, the world does not. “The frame corrals the content of the photograph all at once,” explains Shore. “The edges separate what is in the picture from what is not.”

As photographers we decide where those edges are and how we want to convey the boundaries and sense of space. We use a variety of techniques to do this, like shutter speed, aperture, position, etc. which all contribute to Shore’s next aspect of the depictive level; time. The time depicted in the photo can be fluid or static; the exposure has a duration. 

Figure 1 A moment frozen in time by the click of a shutter.

The picture can be frozen in time, that split-second instant captured as a slice of life as in that famous photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt that portrays a U.S. Navy sailor embracing and kissing a stranger on VJ Day in New York City’s Times Square on August 14, 1945. Or, as in Figure 1 a moment of two boys boxing frozen in time by the click of a shutter.

A picture can also show what Shore calls “extrusive time” which is movement in front of the camera, or even camera movement, that causes a blur. This is shown in Figure 2. There is also still time when the subject is at rest such as in a still life like Edward Weston’s iconic Pepper #30. 

A photograph can also depict a period in time, a sense of history or immediacy. Just think of all of the photographs from the Viet Nam War era, or 9/11. When shot those photos were depicting the immediate and as history marches on they fade into historical records. The sense of immediacy is captured in photographs we see every day of the health care workers fighting COVID-19 and which we will look upon in years to come as historical records of the time.

Figure 2 Blurred motion as a sense of time.
Figure 3 Woman fixing morning coffee. Focus is on man in background.

Finally, the depictive level includes the consideration of focus. Where on the plane of the photo is the focus and what is its relationship to the photo? Attention to focus concentrates our attention as in Figure 3 of the woman fixing coffee with the man in the background looking on. The focus is on the man in the background and the viewer is drawn to his face because that is where the focus is placed.

I have barely scratched the surface of this topic and would encourage you to read the book as it has many examples of what Shore is teaching us about the “Nature of Photographs”. Something quite cerebral to get into while “staying at home.”

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