For the month of June I have decided to pick a classic photography book, ‘The Nature of Photographs’ by Stephen Shore. This book doesn’t so much as talk about the history behind photography, but it does describe how photographers take photographs. What really goes through our mines when looking through the viewfinder and what a photographer truly is? This book is ideal for someone who is interested in photography more than others, but for someone who doesn’t like the high amount of information and long words (no offence Sontag and Ritchin). Shore breaks down each section, with only a few words on each page, no long complicated words; simplicity. But just because it’s an easier read then others it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t make your mind question things and look at photography in a different way to how you thought it was.
Here’s a break down for you of what I learned from Shore. The first section really underpins what a photograph is. It’s a piece of paper. That’s it. We sometimes look past the fact that it is just this object and view it in a much more complicated way. This piece of paper can have many different purposes; advertisement, recollection, memories, art, historical information and so on. Shore teaches us that the purpose of this object depends on the viewer. For example, the U.s. Geology Survey ‘Longitude, parabolic and transverse dunes…’ was made for a very specific purpose, to record data. However, I actually see the beauty within the lines of the rocks, I view it as a piece of art.
The second section is ‘The Physical Level’. What actually is this piece of paper? Well it has edges (this creates borders within the image), it is static (even if the photograph has a blurry, full frame it has still captured one specific time) and it is flat (even though the camera is focusing on a three dimensional scene, the actual print is two dimensional). We also have to take other things into consideration such as tones, colour and textures of the image. The photographer can be both unaware and conscious of the fact they are choosing these details. For example Walker Evans who consciously made others aware that he has a ‘documentary style’.
The next level is the ‘Depictive Level’. Here shore explains how photographers create simplicity within their frame, ‘a photographer starts with the messiness of the world and selects a picture’. Shore gives us four different terms, which shore calls ‘photography’s grammar’, any studier of photography would not be phased by, but he talks about them in very different ways. We expect and image to be two dimensional due to the print being flat, but the image will have a three dimensional effect in it as it contains an illusion (depth of field) which helps gives the image aspect, almost as if photography has created a new type of vision. The next term is frame, which gives the photographer the ability to conceal and reveal certain things in and out of the frame. ‘The relationship that edges create are both visual and ‘contentual’’, without these edges the photographer wouldn’t be able to either contain or let the image “flow” out of the scene for the viewer to imagine. Time is an important factor within photography as when we view an image we tend to forget that this moment wasn’t constructed, photographs are mostly taken in the heat of the moment. We have frozen time, extrusive time and still time. What is happening before and after in the scene will never know, which is the beauty yet frustration of photography.
Finally we have focus. I would tend to link this very closely to depth of field as Shore talks about focus being what the photographer wants us to look at instantly and what they want to hide for us to discover in the image later, ‘Attention to focus concentrates our attention’. It’s all about how our eyes look round the image, whether the photographer has done this knowingly or not. The photographer can also use angles to create focus, for instance pivoting or perpendicular. Shore also makes us aware that the only way we cannot have focus is by photographing a flat object by being parallel to the subject itself.
The fourth section shore has created is, ‘The Mental Level’, ‘It is your mind that changes the focus within your mental image of the picture’. This section is slightly scientific and it shows how our eyes physically understand the image and how this relates to our mind, ‘the mental level elaborates, refines and embellishes our perceptions of the depictive level’. To put in simple terms its how you mental find the image, how your eyes take you through the image and make you feel. The photograph may be broken up, in which case our eyes are drawn to different parts of the images and we pay different attention to them, ‘for this to happen, the photographer needs to pay intense, clear, heightened attention to one part of the picture, but not to another’.
The fifth and final section is, ‘Mental Modelling’. Here Shore talks about the photographers direct influence that turns a print and object into a visual photographic piece, ‘When photographs take pictures, they hold mental models in their minds… the result of… insight, conditioning and comprehension of the world’. As photographers, we consciously and unconsciously have a previsioned way of see our photographs. But as viewers we also give meaning to the images that is not physically there. For example reading this, these are just some words on your laptop, but those little words have greater meaning and this is the ‘mental level’, ‘The photographic image turns a piece of paper into a seductive illusion or moment of truth and beauty’.
So if you struggle with longwinded photobook or just want some knowledge on what photographs are but in a basic form, then this book is perfect for you. I would really recommend this book for any photographic enthusiast.