The Language of Photography


In 1977, thirteen years before the dawn of the digital age of photography (i), Sue Davies, the founder of the Photographers’ Gallery (2), presented Reading Photographs, an exhibition of urban photographs with the intent of “helping people to a better understanding of contemporary photography” (3) The little book (4) that accompanied that exhibition remains a comprehensive introduction to the language of photography or at least the language of discussing photography. Many other books have been written on this subject but this book with its essays by Jonathan Bayer, Ainslie Ellis, Peter Turner and Ian Jeffrey lays out a succinct framework for analysing and understanding a photograph, a set of categories that we can work with and a language that we can use. In doing so provides an ideal starting point for the subject of the language of photography.

It is interesting to look at this book and the exhibition it catalogued in the context of its publication date. All the exhibits were from the 20th century and all were black and white yet the exhibition was held only one year after William Eggleston’s Guide (5) was published in conjunction with the Photographs by William Eggleston Exhibition (6) at the MoMA. There is a sense that the Photographer’s Gallery Exhibition is looking back at an era of photography that was just ending whilst, across the Atlantic the new colourists were pioneering new forms of photographic art.

Mystery and Ambiguity

In the body of the work the representation of Time is considered as one of the analytical categories but in his introduction Jonathan Bayer looks at the Time we spend looking at a photograph as an overall clue towards establishing its value. He makes the point that some photographs communicate the information they hold almost too immediately. Of course Bayer would have recognised that this is the absolute intent of photographs used in the media, fashion or more general advertising but in the context of photography as art we are rarely looking for work that is, as he puts it, “universally understood, high in human interest and (that) requires little or no further explanation” (4)

This point was valid in 1977 and is arguably even more valid today when social media and online self-publication sites emphasise immediacy and instant gratification, the elevation of the “wow factor” photograph that imparts its impact in an instant but that strangely becomes less enticing the longer it is studied.

Bayer challenges the viewer to seek out photography that is more difficult to understand and enter the “realm of art” because they invite participation to decipher their meaning. Although he does not carry forward this point into the categories he later proposes I believe that mystery and ambiguity is one of the characteristics we should look for in contemporary photography, at least as a way of helping us differentiating substance from trivia.

Bayer’s Framework


Bayer offers a simple framework for understanding a photograph. He starts with the premise that that art always always operates within a known framework of artistic form that can be discussed using a recognisable vocabulary as shown. The audience is draw into a dialogue with the image in which they discover, argue and formulate their own ideas.


The first category that Beyer uses to explore this process is Time. We know that time and light are the fundamental materials of the photographer artist. The slide, negative, photographic paper, digital file or computer display are all just ways of recording how the photographer has applied these basic materials. Peter Turner (4) describes photography as “an equation of light, space and time” so as one of the three basic elements Time is a part of every photograph but it can be used in different ways.

The Decisive Moment

Cartier-Bresson tells us “photographers deal in things that are continually vanishing, and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth that can make them come back again” (6) so “timing” also becomes a factor, Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment or Jean Clair’s Kairos (7) (ii).

Revealing The Complete Picture

The mind has evolved to analyse a continuum of images and to be highly selective regarding the amount of information extracted from each image, each moment; as a result we do not interrogate the complete scene in front of our eyes, just the small parts that are currently relevant. When we look at a photograph our brain continues to operate as normal, darting here, there and everywhere to gather the relevant data but because the scene never changes we eventually process the complete picture, a thing that rarely happens in normal life. This process means that photography alone has the ability to force us to consider all the information contained in a single, tiny, frozen moment in Time; to dissect and interrogate that moment to see that which is normally invisible. Whilst this now appears quite normal it is only 128 years since Eadwerad Muybridge (8) published Animal Locomotion (9) making motion visible by showing for the first time how a horse’s legs moved when galloping.

The Narrative

This ability to make the world stand still to be investigated in infinite but isolated detail holds true to a point but the mind is a subtle organism that is not so easily deflected from its purpose; when confronted with a frozen fragment of time we expect it to be part of a continuum so we instinctively place it into a wider context, we look for a before and after that makes sense of the snapshot. If we cannot create such a narrative we become disappointed with the photograph, it does not fit into the way out mind works.

Sometimes the photograph contains its own narrative, a comic strip of sub images that combine to tell a story and other times it offers hooks upon which we can hang story lines. It either case Time is being used to initiate a dialogue between the viewer and the photograph.


Muybridge deals with movement by freezing it, the horse in mid-air being obviously unnatural so the viewer knows they are seeing frozen movement. This is not uncommon and many sport photographs will simply freeze the action, the batsman in mid-stroke, the winger scoring the try, but in photographic art we generally look for more subtle hints that movement exists within the frozen frame. By manipulating the length of Time the shutter is open the photographer decides how movement will be recorded; if we consider a street scene the choices are extreme, so on one hand we have Daguerre’s Paris Street Scene from 1838 where the very long exposure has made the population invisible apart from a  man who has stopped to have his shoes cleaned to, at the other extreme, Cartier-Bresson’s Behind St. Lazare where the man leaping the puddle is caught suspended in mid-jump. But, in between these two extremes we have blurred movement that can range from the faintest trace, the ghost of a presence as in Otto Steinert’s Pedestrian or the more complete but eerily disturbing picture of Two Blurred Boys and Balloon by William Klein.


If photography is painting with light then Time must be the brush and Light the pigment. Without light we have no photograph at all, every element of the photograph, every message it contains is put there with light so whole books are dedicated to this subject alone. If, as Beyer argues, photographers are obsessed with time then they are defined by their use of light, of found light or introduced light. The mind is highly responsive to subtle variations in light, we evolved to see our world in three dimensions by interpreting the variations of light on an object to determine its depth and form. (10) (iii).

As a consequence the intensity and colour of light in a photograph fundamentally affects its creation and interpretation. In Capturing Light (11) Michael Freeman discusses over fifty varieties of light ranging from grey light to tropical harsh to spotlights and for each type, in his normal analytical way, he explains how to use this light to the photographer’s best advantage. Freeman spends little or no time on how we emotionally react to these forms of light but the type of light combines with the subject matter to convey different meanings. According to Bruce Barnbaum (12) subdued light can convey a mood of loneliness and isolation; bright light creates a feeling of openness and accessibility, we might feel threatened by storm light or refreshed by dawn light. Above all light defines form in photography, directional light creates form and texture by casting shadows, flat non-directional light reduces form and textures and desaturates colour.

These factors determine whether the viewer primarily recognises the graphic design of the photograph, the abstract patterns of shadow and light or whether we see a mystical, poetic and more atmospheric scene. In recent years there has been a movement to reduce the impact of light on art photography, Cotton (13) argues that instead of developing individual subjective styles many contemporary artists have adopted the “neutral and objectifying” style of Deadpan. This style often uses flat desaturated light that “standardises” the look across a body of work and removes the emotional messages that bright sunlight or golden-hour light would bring to an image.


Bayer’s category of symbolism looks at the use of symbols that are already likely to have associations with the viewer’s knowledge and experience and at the creation of symbols through repetition.

When the photographer is using symbolism that leverages the viewer’s experience he is primarily seeking symbols with universal meaning but when interpreting such symbols the audience has to decide if the meaning often associated with a symbol is being appropriated to suggest something different. The symbol is therefore read within the context of the whole image and not interpreted in isolation.

The photographer can create symbolism by placing an ordinary object into a particular setting or by photographing it in a particular way that elevates the meaning of the object to make a more complex statement. This technique is a feature of artists such as the Bechers who created typographic photographs of industrial buildings as isolated factual studies, taking the structure completely out of its landscape and context. By presenting these structures in this way they offer them as material for scientific study and comparison or as aesthetic objects but they were also methodically recording or cataloguing an industrial landscape that was fast disappearing. The structures become a symbol of both early 20th century industrialism and the loss of that industry.

Another example of  creating a symbol from a commonly seen object is Robert Frank’s fascination with the juke box which he used as a symbol of 1950’s American culture; Jonathan Day (14), in his book on Frank, identifies that Frank saw the jukebox as a significant icon of 50’s America and repeatedly  explored the relationship between this machine and Americans. By returning to the jukebox as a central subject Frank establishes it as an icon so its meaning and relevance builds and is carried forward from photograph to photograph. Lee Friedlander accomplishes much the same effect with cars although his photographs have added meaning in that they are often taken from inside the car looking out.

Abstraction and Ambiguity

Abstract photography is treated by Bayer as a category in its own right. He explores why we respond to abstraction and concludes that it arouses our curiosity and offers us a puzzle to be solved. The mind generally likes order so the success of the abstract photograph often relies on the tension and ambiguity created by the way the lines and forms  of multiple objects run into each other and form new spacial relationships.


Bayer makes the point that many great photographs have an element of surrealism even if this is not their primary feature. In its purest sense the surreal photograph is to be comprehended rather than understood but many images will have the humour, nonsense, dream-like qualities and irrationality that combines to create an image that is more real that real or suspended somewhere between reality and illusion.

Overall Construction

Having considered the sub-headings of meaning within a photograph Bayer directs us to look a the overall construction which he explains as a series of scaled points. Is the photograph:

  • Romantic or cynical / realistic?
  • Ordered to chaotic?
  • Rich and full to Empty and sparse?
  • Organised or random, dispersed and fragmented?

He also touches on sequences both inside the frame where a division in the picture implies a relationship that had not previously occurred to the viewer or the the way a photograph builds a commentary by the careful positioning of images within a series.

Notes on Text

(i) According to What Digital Camera the first commercially available digital camera in the UK was the Fotoman in 1990 which captured 320x240pixel black and white images, had just 1MB of internal memory and a fixed focus lens. All for£499. (1) The first DLSR, the Kodak Professional Camera System, a modified Nikon F3 came a year later in 1991 selling for $30,000. The Nikon D1, which coincidentally was my first DLSR, was launched in 1999 and might be considered the real beginning of the digital age offering the first digital solution that was affordable for professional photographers and keen amateurs and set the benchmark for a generation of DLSRs.

(ii) Jean Clair, at one time the Director of the Musée Picasso, writes (6) that the decisive moment is what Homer called Kairos, a word often associated with archery in the Iliad. It has a complex meaning that is both spacial and temporal describing the ability of the archer to intuitively select the right moment to release the arrow to hit exactly the right spot.

(iii) I looked at the is subject in more depth whilst researching shadows for assignment 3. See here.



(3) Davies, Sue (1977) Foreword to Reading Photographs: Understanding the Aesthetics of Photography. The Photographers’ Gallery. New York: Pantheon

(4) Bayer, Jonathan (1977) Reading Photographs: Understanding the Aesthetics of Photography. The Photographers’ Gallery. New York: Pantheon

(5) Eggleston, Wiliam. (2002) William Eggleston’s Guide, 2nd Edition, 2013 reprint, The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

(6) Cartier-Bresson, Henri (1999) The Mind’s Eye: Writings on Photography and Photographers. New York: Aperture.

(7) Cartier-Bresson, Henri ( 2003) Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Man, The Image and the World. (First paperback edition 2006) London: Thames and Hudson

(8) Badger, Gerry (2007) The Genius of Photography: How Photography has Changed our Lives. London: Quadrille.

(10) Casati, Roberto (1961) Shadows: Unlocking The Secrets from Plato to Our Time (First Vintage Books Edition, 2004, translated from the Italian by Abigail Asher) New York: Vintage Books

(11) Freeman, Michael (2013) Capturing Light: The Heart of Photography. Lewes: Ilex.

(12) Barnbaum, Bruce (2015) The Art of Photography: An Approach to Personal Expression. Santa Barbara: Rocky Nook.

(13) Cotton, Charlotte. (2004) The Photograph as Contemporary Art. New edition 2009. London: Thames and Hudson.


(1) Atherton, Neil (2013) 16 Digital Cameras That Changed the World (accessed at What Digital Camera 26.6.15) –

(2) The History of the Photographers Gallery (accessed at the Photographers Gallery 26.6.15) –

(6) Eggleston, William (1976) Photographs by William Eggleston Exhibition (accessed at the Museum of Modern Art 4.7.15) –

(9) Muybridge, Eadweard (1887) Animal in Motion (accessed at Eadweard Muybridge 4.7.15) –

(14) Day, Jonathan (2013) Robert frank’s The Americans: The Art of Documentary Photography (accessed at Google Books 4.7.15) –


This entry was posted in 1 - The Language of Photography, 2 - Reading Pictures, Books & Exhibitions, Research and Reflection and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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