Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The 3 elements affecting appreciation of a photograph

Shell fish on Cornish rocks wait for the incoming tide to return.

The premise for this article is that there are three basic elements which affect our perception and therefore appreciation of a photograph. I arrived at this conclusion during a typically philosophical breakfast conversation with my dear wife, Magda.

Never mind breakfast, I hear you say, what are these three elements. Well the first is obviously the image itself. Secondly we have the viewer’s personal life experience which filters the image and influences the way they perceive it. The third ingredient is for me the eureka one, and a rather slippery customer to pin down. I’ll call it visual fashion or probably more accurately ‘learnt perception.’

Number one, the image itself is self explanatory really. Here I mean the subject matter but also the visual presentation (colour, black and white) as well as objective technical aspects, including saturation, sharpness, composition etc but excluding any interpretation or judgement of these elements.

When we view an image we respond to the content subjectively. Nobody can look at an image objectively. What you see is affected by your life experience. Reactions can be profoundly different. For example a simple image like the one above of the mussels on the rocks can have one person dreaming of a wonderful meal while another will see danger and someone else will remember playing on rocks like these as a child. The number of emotions, memories and interpretations are as many and varied as the number of viewers.

The third element is the difficult one to nail down. We learn from a young age how to view photographs and throughout our lives this process continues. It is influenced by our culture, exposure to images, knowledge and interest in photography.

Many years ago a friend, the photojournalist TJ Lemon, sent me a picture of himself at Victoria Falls. He was lying behind a rock and all you could see was his head and the tips of his fingers. The visual joke was that it looked like he was hanging over the edge of the cliff. Our minds fill in the fact that his body is on the other side of the rock. He had a desperate expression on his face, acting the part of a climber clinging onto the ledge for dear life.

I happened to show this picture to some African tribesman shortly after receiving it from TJ. There was much consternation and horror. When I asked them what was causing the upset they said that the photo was horrific. They thought that his head had been chopped off and placed on the rock because all they saw was his head. Not being used to interpreting photographs they read the image very literally.

In our image literate cultures we are so used to seeing things in two dimensions that it is very easy to take it fore granted that everyone looks at a picture in the same way. Nothing could be further from the truth. Like word literacy there is a whole range of visual literacy and levels of being able to interpret and read images.

Taking this a step further, people educated in photography, naturally bring certain technical biases to bear when reading an image. They have an extra filter between themselves and the image.

Technical knowledge gives the viewer another level on which to appreciate an image but it may also get in the way of unlocking the direct emotional connection that can exist with the picture. The element we get through connecting an image directly to our experience of the world.

Everyone, whether aware of technique or a layperson, is influenced by fashions and the visual culture of the day. Just in the same way that language constantly changes, for example the slang terms we use, images and their appreciation are subject to the trends of the day. Technology, like using digital cameras and being able to instantly publish an image world-wide, has influenced the look of photography.

As I’ve mentioned in this blog before, different photo sharing sites have different cultures and an image that does well on one site will not necessarily do well on another.

Clearly cultural and sub-culture interpretation of images hugely affects the audience’s appreciation of an image. Each sub-culture has its own memes.

I hope this article reveals how subjective our judgement is of photography. Despite this subjectivity there are theories that within certain cultural parameters we are able to recognise and appreciate pure creativity. This applies particularly to the pure fine arts like painting. Photography is not quite the same thing or on the same level as sculpture, painting and music. It is a category apart although it can be an art. So despite all the cultural filters and influences of fashion and taste, on one level we may be able to recognise great creativity, albeit in a general sense. Or perhaps not.

If you have any views then I would love to hear them.

Till soon,


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