There are many ways to understand an image, today I will attempt to describe certain methods that will help you think more critically when looking at a photograph. We will evaluate the choices made or not made by the photographer and figure out why certain images evoke more emotion than others. In short, the three ways you can begin to understand an image is to look at what the subject is, evaluate the choices made in the exposure, and make sense of the overall composition.
In his book Understanding a Photograph, John Berger captures the essence of what sets apart the photographic image. “Unlike any other visual image, a photograph is not a rendering, an imitation or an interpretation of its subject, but actually a trace of it. No painting or drawing, however naturalist, belongs to its subject in the way that a photograph does.” At it’s core, a photograph is a representation of what we see in the world. Artists may divert from this point but everyone must start there. For a long time people have held the belief that a photograph was innately objective because of its closeness to reality. However, that is ignoring the fact that every photographer is making a choice when they point the camera. The inclusion/exclusion of subject matter becomes the source of subjectivity in every photograph.
By pointing the camera the photographer is elevating it’s subject and giving it meaning. In the context of art, one must consider everything within the frame. Every subject in a photograph tells a story and gives us clues into what was happening at that moment in time. Lets take a look at the photo “Easter Dress, 1986” by Sally Mann.
Easter Dress, 1986 © Sally Mann
The title of the image gives us some context on how to read it. We now know that this photo might have been taken on Easter, and that the girl in the photo is proud of the dress she is wearing. What feelings does this image invoke? Is it nostalgic, does the time feel simpler because of the calming countryside in the background? Does the motion blur on the left side feel jarring or unsettling at all?
Let's try and look at what the photographer included in this image. There is one central character, three background characters, and a setting. Our attention is directed to the center with a young girl in a white dress, she grabs our attention because of the high contrast surrounding her, her placement in the image and the fact that she is staring straight at the camera. Her body language looks posed while the rest of the people look candid. We can also learn more about her by the surrounding she is in. The clothes line tells us she is at a residential site, and because they look torn which could mean they are a low-income family. The hills in the background reveal the remoteness of their property and that it is in a rural part of the country.
There are two other young kids in the image possibly her siblings who look like they are playing and not interested in the camera. Finally, in the far left we have a fast approaching older gentleman that could pass as a grandparent. His facial expression looks agitated and he is moving away from the blurry figure on the other side of the trees. From these clues we start to come up with a narrative for that particular moment in time, and on top of all that we lay our own life experiences. Because the artist of this particular image is well known, we can gather a bit more information about this photo, that this is her family and the property they are on is their family home in Virginia.
Sally Mann is a master at capturing haunting yet beautiful photos that evoke a wide range of emotions. As photographers we should always be conscious of what emotions we are portraying with our images. Whether they are peaceful or unsettling, they all have a place.
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Written by Esther J Kontny