How photographs are read

If you are really going to progress as any kind of photographer, in addition to technical expertise you need a strong visual sense (something you develop as an individual). This should go beyond composition and picture structuring to include some understanding of why people see and react to photographs in different ways. The latter can be a lifetime's study, because so many changing influences are at work. Some aspects of reading meaning from photographs are blindingly obvious, others much more subtle. However, realizing how people tend to react to pictures helps you to predict the influences of your own work - and then to plan and shoot with this in mind.

The actual physical act of seeing first involves the lens of your eye forming a crude image on the retina. Second, it concerns your brain's perception and interpretation of this image. You might view exactly the same scene as the next person but differ greatly in what you make of what you see. In the same way, two people may look at the same photographic print but read its contents quite differently.

Look at Figure 1.2, for example. Some people might see this picture primarily as a political document, evidence of life under a particular regime. For others, it is a statement documenting the subjugation of women. Some would find it insulting on Figure 1.2 This picture was taken by Bert Hardy in 1949, for the . ...

weekly magazine Picture Post (see text). ethnic grounds, or a!ternatively see it as a

warm picture of relationships. Still others may simply consider the shot for its composition - the visual structures it contains. Again, the same picture could be read as containing historical information on dress or decor of a particular period, or it might even be seen as demonstrating the effect of a particular camera, film or lighting technique.

None of us is wholly objective in interpreting photographs - everyone is influenced by their own background. Experience so far of life (and pictures) may make you approach every photograph as a work of art ... or some form of political statement ... or a factual record for measurement and research, etc. This kind of tunnel vision, or just general lack of experience, confuses visual communication between photographer and viewer. In a similar way, it is difficult to imagine a colour you have not actually seen or to speak words you have never heard.

A shot like Figure 1.3, for example, which happens to be a leaf section greatly magnified, would probably be viewed as an abstract pattern by someone unused to seeing electron photomicrographs. A scientist might recognize and look 'through' the picture as if seeing into the microscope eyepiece itself, picking on the subject's factual detail. A sculptor, architect or industrial designer might file it as a reference for particular three-dimensional forms it shows. The point is that none of us works entirely in a vacuum. Unless you are uncompromisingly working to please yourself you must think to whom your photography is directed and how is it likely to be received. This will help to clarify your aims in approaching subject and presentation.

Sometimes your visual communication must be simple, direct and clear - as in most product advertising. This may be aimed at known groups of receivers identified because they are readers of a particular journal, drivers past billboards or people buying at art store counters. Other photographs may be more successful and mind-provoking when they suggest rather than state things - see Figure 5.8, for example. The more obscure your image, the more likely it is to be interpreted in different ways - but may be this is your intention?

Much also depends on the way your pictures are physically presented - how they relate to any adjacent pictures, whether they appear on pages you turn or are isolated in frames hung on the wall. Some photographers add slogans, quotations or factual or literary captions when presenting their work to clarify it, to give an extra 'edge' by posing questions, or even purposely to confuse the pictures. They often rate word and image as equally important. It is an approach which has worked well in the past (see examples by Duane Michals, Jim Goldberg and Barbra Kruger). In less able hands literary additions can become a gimmick or a sign of weakness, patching up an inability to express yourself through pictures. They can easily seem pretentious (flowery titles) or patronizing (rhetoric emphasizing something viewers are well able to appreciate for themselves). It is significant that in the advertising world copywriting is a very

Figure 1.3 Electron micrograph of a fractured turnip leaf, showing the cell structure. Magnification (in this reproduction) X170. (Dr Jeremy Burgess/ Science Photo Library).

skilled profession, heavily market-researched. Pictures and words are planned together, adding a great deal to total message impact.

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