Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Grammar of Photography: Learning to See

In order to make interesting photographs, two things are necessary. The first is that you need to have a point of view: observations that are out of the ordinary, an identification of a noteworthy subject or an insightful engagement with your subject. The second is that you need to be able to express what you observe in a visual form. Often I hear photographers who are just starting out explain with words what they should be showing in their pictures. This indicates that they have yet to master how photographs communicate.

All images speak through light, color and the arrangement of forms, and photographs are no exception. A painter's problem is to create meaning and order starting with a blank canvas. Photographers generally face a different kind of problem. We need to find meaning and order within a world which already exists.

If you want to better understand how to communicate through your photographs, I suggest that you begin by reading and internalizing the ideas in a book by John Szarkowski, The Photographer’s Eye.  Szarkowski’s thesis is that every form of expression has its own set of problems to be solved in order to communicate effectively through that medium.

Garry Winogrand

For the photographer – where do I stand? when do I press the shutter? how do I arrange the subject within the viewfinder? – are questions answered every time a photograph is taken. These answers form a grammar of photography. As we answer with greater specificity, our images say more. A photograph tells a story because the photographer stood here rather than there, pressed the shutter at this particular moment, or focused on the telling detail which symbolizes what cannot be shown within the frame. 

Garry Winogrand, from The Nature of Photographs

Roger Fenton, from The Photographer's Eye

Second, learn about the principles of composition.  Any primer on visual literacy will be useful, but avoid adhering to rules. Learn general principles, but don't apply them rigidly. Your sense of composition is an extension of the way you see and will develop over time. It need not be the same as anyone else's.

Third, read Stephen Shore’s The Nature of Photographs. The Nature of Photographs identifies some of the same problems-to-be-solved as The Photographer’s Eye. Shore’s approach emphasizes the viewer’s interaction with the photograph after it is made while Szarkowski stresses the photographer’s decisions in making the image. Of course, one approach feeds off the other. One of Shore's key points is that the time we spend looking at photographs – becoming aware of what we notice and experience while looking  – eventually effects what we see and how we shoot.  

Thomas Annan, from The Nature of Photographs

Photographs reproduce a three dimensional world in a two dimensional form. The transformation of space is an often overlooked aspect of the grammar of photography. In The Nature of Photographs, Shore gives a very nuanced description about how space in a photograph is perceived. Through the examples in The Nature of Photographs, you will begin to see how he sees, and that very likely will change what you see when you look at your own photographs. 

Shore's style of writing is elegant but sparse, often pointing the reader in a direction and then offering a series of images to expand upon the idea rather than offering a verbal explanation. Like The Photographer's Eye, The Nature of Photographs is the type of book that bears reading more than once to fully absorb its contents. 

William Eggleston, from The Nature of Photographs

In terms of continuing one's education as a photographer beyond learning technique, one needs to learn to see within a photographic framework. In developing our personal point of view, it helps to first be aware of the problems and possibilities as outlined by others. Eventually, we all come to see in our own way. Engagement with the ideas in Photographer's Eye and The Nature of Photographs is a good first step towards that goal.