Book: The Nature of Photographs by Stephen Shore

My tutor recommended this book as part of his feedback to my last assignment.

It’s a deceptively slight volume, with short chunks of text interspersed with lots of photos that illustrate each concept under discussion. It seeks to answer the question: “What are the characteristics of photography that establish how an image looks?” (Shore 2010: 7). In both these ways it reminded me strongly of Szarkowski’s The Photographer’s Eye (1966), and the inspiration is acknowledged by Shore.

While Szarkowski looks at a photograph under headings that broadly correspond to its physical content (the thing itself, the detail, the frame, time, vantage point), Shore takes a slightly more cerebral approach and adds in the mental processes that surround the taking and viewing of photographs. His list is:

  • The physical level
  • The depictive level (broadly corresponding to Szarkowski’s categories)
  • The mental level

The physical level

The physical level is, to me anyway, unremarkable. While I do prefer seeing a photograph printed to seeing one on a screen, I am not a print fetishist that finds meaning or importance in the paper texture or the type of emulsion used. The content of the image is much important to me than the way in which it is made physical.

The depictive level

Now it starts to get more interesting. Shore’s opening claim is particularly pertinent to documentary photography (my emphasis):

“Photography is inherently an analytical discipline. Where a painter starts with a blank canvas and builds a picture, a photographer starts with the messiness of the world and selects a picture” (Shore 2010: 37)

Shore has four component parts to his depictive theory, which “form the basis of a photograph’s visual grammar” (ibid: 38):

  • Flatness (which he uses interchangeably with ‘vantage point’ – and for clarity I wish he’d chosen one term or the other)
  • Frame
  • Time
  • Focus

These four ‘transformations of the world into a photograph’ (ibid: 38) neatly summarise the authorial possibilities of documentary photography; the photographer gets to decide where to stand, what to include/exclude, when to press the shutter and whether/where to focus the viewer’s eye. The authorial side of documentary photography is something I find increasingly fascinating, and may become the subject of my critical review assignment.

The mental level

This is the section I found most interesting, thought-provoking yet ultimately frustrating.

In Shore’s words, “The mental level elaborates, refines, and embellishes our perceptions of the depictive level.” (ibid: 97). He’s describing what happens in the mind when one sees a photograph – what it makes you think, how it makes you feel. The photographer could have had a particular intent in mind, and made quite conscious decisions on vantage point, framing, timing and focus in order to best get across the message intended. This attempted steering of the viewer’s mental process is part of the authorship model described above.

This is why some people (myself included) find abstract and surrealist imagery so absorbing – it creates the mental space in which to collaborate with the artist to arrive at one’s own interpretation. Some engaging images are like visual puzzles that need to be solved; others are inherently ambiguous and provide wide scope for different readings. This is the area that fascinates me most.

The closing chapter examines this notion under what it calls ‘mental modelling’:

“For most photographers, the model operates unconsciously. But, by making the model conscious, the photographer brings it and the mental level of the photograph under his or her control.” (ibid: 117)

This is where my frustration comes in: having introduced this fascinating concept of mental modelling, Shore just leaves it floating without any deeper examination. I’d have loved the book to have got into more detail such as examples of mental modelling, techniques other photographers have used, advice of how to nurture it and build it into one’s own practice, but it does not. It closes with the line: “It is a complex, ongoing, spontaneous interaction of observation, understanding, imagination and intention.” (ibid: 132). What a cliffhanger!

So for me, the book finishes just when it was getting really interesting.

Having said that, it has fundamentally added a layer of further insight into my understanding of what makes a successful photograph. This mental modelling of how a photograph represents the world can, if properly taken into consideration and harnessed, make a significant difference to the success of one’s work.

Sources

Shore, S. (2010) The Nature of Photographs: A Primer. 2nd ed. New York: Phaidon Press.

Szarkowski, J. (2007) The Photographer’s Eye. 2nd ed. New York: The Museum of Modern Art.

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