Stephen Shore is not the only highly acclaimed photographer to also be a respected educator but it this combination that makes his written work especially interesting. The Nature of Photographs (1) is based on his lectures at Bard College, New York State and it retains the overall feel of a slide show accompanied by economical explanations of his ideas. This makes it a challenging book to review as there is a temptation to simply paraphrase his, already, terse comments.
Shore sets out to describe the “physical and formal attributes” of a photograph to provide the reader with the tools to define and interpret the content. Although the book includes fifty or sixty prints he does not attempt to read or interpret individual images, but, in the way of the teacher his pared down commentary provides the student with the tools to analyse the pictures he has selected.
We find what we seek but it is in line with my current thought processes that Shore looks at photographs having already accepted them as being an unique visual art in their own right. So unlike Berger he makes no attempt to constantly refer back to other visual art forms, unlike Barthes he does not reduce them to a language and unlike Rosler or Burgin he is not looking for political messages that often the photographers themselves are unaware of. It that sense this book is similar to Szarkowski’ s The Photographer’s Eye (2), indeed Shore is known to have developed his early work as an educator with that text to hand.
The Physical level
Shore starts with what might seem an obvious point but one that is often overlooked. The photograph is an object with physical qualities that are represented by the paper (i) and emulsion that determine the hue and tonal range, he adds that colour offers another level of descriptive information. It is interesting that he highlights that the choice of colour palette can alter the perceived age of a photograph, a point well made as we certainly associate certain palettes with different eras. It perhaps goes without saying that this is equally true of monochrome with various tints being the most obvious way to “age” a photograph.
These materials are applied to a flat surface and in doing so the photographic process creates an object that has a physical dimension. The photograph can have texture, depth, and tonal variety.
Collectively the original piece of paper and the processes applied to it create a tangible object that can be stored, displayed and used in many ways.
The Depictive Level
Shore echoes Szarkowski’s thought that the photographer’s vantage point is a fundamental attribute of a photograph but he takes the idea a little further. Like Szorkowski he starts by defining photography as an analytic discipline, the photographer selects a picture from an untidy world and in doing so brings order through simplification. This is done by mixing the elements that the photographer can control: flatness, frame, time and focus.
Flatness is the hardest of these elements to understand, Shore is describing the transformation of the three dimensional world into the two dimensional picture and how even though the image is placed on a flat surface the photographer is manipulating it to create the illusion of depth. This manipulation works in both directions, a flat surface can appear to have depth but it can also be used to foreshorten the three dimensional world and create new relationships between objects by placing them in the same focal plane or giving them a spacial association. Shore also explains that by placing the whole photograph in the same plane it stops the viewer at the photograph’s surface, it makes the photograph opaque, but by creating the illusion of depth the photograph can make the surface of the print transparent, something we look through into the photograph .
Frame is a more discussed and straight forward transformational element. The fundamental point is that the world has no edges but the photograph does so the meaning of a photograph is altered by inclusion and exclusion of elements of the world, this process makes the reality of the photograph different from the world it represents; the frame can be active and contain a fragment of the world that becomes complete by being framed or passive where the photograph leads us out of the frame and shows the scene to be part of something larger.
The photographer uses time to either freeze a moment or by allowing several moments to superimpose themselves to create a blur. Shore says that in the same way that the three dimensional world is transformed when it is projected onto a flat plane a fluid and moving world is transformed by this use of time when it is projected onto a static image .
Focus, the final transformation, allows the photographer to isolate a subject from a complex scene and thereby bring order and simplification to the image or by offering increased depth of field the photographer can replicate the actual world so our brain is fooled into treating the image as the real world and changing focus as our eyes move around the photograph finding new information.
The Mental Level
The third major attribute of a photograph is related to the mental image that it creates. Shore points out that a picture can have deep depictive space such as a view of distant mountains but shallow space on the mental level because we have no sensation of changing focus as we view it. On the other hand a photograph with shallow depictive space can have deep space on the mental level because if its complexity and our brains desire to re-focus as we look at the different components. (ii) I interpret this to mean that a photograph of a mountain in the distance but with limited textural detail is in the real world a scene where our brain has to build Barnbaum’s mosaic (ii) but when it is reduced to a two dimensional photograph we have no need to do this; on the other hand a close up of a piece of fruit may require little computing in the real world but will fool our brain into seeing it as a complex landscape that requires a mosaic to be built.
Although Shore doesn’t mention it specifically one of the ways that an image can have deep space on a mental level is to hold the ambiguity and mystery that Jonathan Bayer (4) discussed (here) and the examples he uses all have this element, our brain is forced to keep looking to understand the information it is collecting.
Shore unreservedly loves photographs and photography and this along sets him apart from some other writers on the subject. He approaches photography without cynicism and wants to be impressed, to be drawn in to the subject. This is the mark of a great teacher of photography, he seeks what Harry S Broudy (5) calls Enlightened Cherishing which Terry Barrett explains is a “compound concept” where enlightened refers to thought and knowledge and cherishing refers to feeling. Broudy is arguing that we need to have thought and feeling to be able to achieve understanding and appreciation. Shore has both these attributes.
Shore’s closing thought rather neatly sums up his relationship to photography:
“The photographic image turns a piece of paper into a seductive illusion or a moment of truth and beauty.”
Notes on Text
(i) Shore does mention computer monitors on occasion but this book primary focussed on the print. However, it takes no effort to translate his ideas to the computer displayed image.
(ii) In the Art of Photography Bruce Barnbaum (3) explains how our eyes see and why understanding this is important to photography. When we look at a scene our eyes do not attempt to look at the whole vista, we scan the world collecting data from tiny segments which our brain connects together to form the full picture, Barnbaum describes this full picture as a kind of mosaic. In real life we instinctively look at movement in an otherwise static scene or at the place with the greatest contrast and then tiny piece by tiny piece we work out from there to assemble the full picture. Our eyes are constantly refocusing as we scan the scene. As we rarely look at any particular scene for a long period of time we only collect a small amount of data which is stored as our memory of the scene before we move to look somewhere else. The photograph changes our relationship with a scene, if it is a complex image and the photographer has composed it in a way that leads us through the picture in a controlled manner and we allow ourselves more than a few seconds to look at it we now see all the detail, the complete picture and the photograph is therefore often more real to us that the scene itself because we have now seen more of it.
(1) Shore, Stephen (2007) The Nature of Photographs: A Primer. London: Phaidon Press
(2) Szarkowski, John ( 2007) The Photographer’s Eye (originally published in 1966 and based on a 1964 exhibition at the MoMA) New York: The Museum of Modern Art
(3) Barnbaum, Bruce (2015) The Art of Photography: An Approach to Personal Expression. Santa Barbara: Rocky Nook.
(4) Bayer, Jonathan (1977) Reading Photographs: Understanding the Aesthetics of Photography. The Photographers’ Gallery. New York: Pantheon
(5) Broudy, Harry S. (1972) Enlightened Cherishing: An Essay on Aesthetic Education. Champaign-Urbana: University of Illinois Press
(6) Barrett, Terry (2000) Criticising Photographs: An Introduction to Understanding Images. Mountain View California: Mayfield Publishing.