What is a photograph (Critical Reflection)

What is a photograph?

Photographic theorists give their interpretations about what a photograph is; people like:

Stephen Shore – The Nature of Photographs

Roland Bathes – Camera Lucida

Susan Sontag – On Photography

A photograph flattens the world.

“The camera can function independently, can see in ways
that man is not accustomed to – can suggest new points of
view and demonstrate how to look at things differently”
– Ossip Brik from ‘What the Eye Does Not See’

Some creative composition can create 3d illusion with a shallow Depth of field creating out of focus parts of the image giving a sense of distance and scale. However, photographers like Lee Friedlander experiment with the flatness of a photograph to merge two worlds together and make a real situation surreal because of the flat perspective. The camera or photographer can create illusions and entrance the flatness of the image, making it Claustrophobic, where the eye doesn’t settle in the image, making your spot more each time you view it


It has edges – its a window to a world

“Photography is inherently an analytic 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, S (The Nature of Photographs) 2007

Medium format has more structure, evident in Ward Roberts image of a basketball court, showing structure with different lines drawing the viewer from the edges to the focus.

Images consciously break the window, so the subject isn’t constrained by the photographer and they are looking out of the image like Christopher Dunn’s image. This provokes mystery of what’s put side the edge of the frame, making the photograph more engaging.

Screen Shot 2013-11-09 at 15.11.14

It is still and its fixed in time

“As an object, a photograph has it’s own life in the world, It
can be saved in a shoebox or in a museum… ”
– Shore, S (The Nature of Photographs) 2007

“Do I add to the images in movies? I don’t think so; I don’t have
time: in front of the screen, I am not free to shut my eyes;
otherwise, opening them again, I would not discover the same
image; I am constrained to a continuos voracity….”
– Barthes, R (Camera Lucida) 1980

The photograph can stop time and freeze motion. The whole study of Henri Cartier Bresson around the decisive moment, a moment that one can either take advantage of or it will pass us by on a day to day basis. Our camera’s fast shutter speeds give a sense that something has happened or is about to happen by freezing motion completely


It has denotations and connotations

Denotation – a literal meaning of the image

Connotation – an association which the image evokes

 it’s a truth

David Morris uses tilt shift lenses, which makes life seem miniature creating a truth rather than the truth

Screen Shot 2013-11-09 at 15.13.53

Whether the photograph is a real truth is the choice that a photographer makes, but whatever they choose, it really happened and the camera records it.

It serves a purpose or is considered as a work of art

“…It may be regarded as a utilitarian object or as a work of
art. The context in which a photograph is seen effects the
meanings a viewer draws from it”
– Shore, S (The Nature of Photographs) 2007

utilitarian – trying to record something or sell something. A utilitarian photograph needs to be easy to understand and to serve its purpose. Whereas the photograph as an art form has to provoke a response from the viewer, it doesn’t have to be easy to understand but there needs to be a good relationship between the ambiguity and the reliability of the image

There is a relationship between participants and the photographer

“The operator is the photographer. The spectator is ourselves,
all of us who glance through collections of photographs – in
magazines and newspapers, in books, albums, archives…
And the person or thing is the target, the referent, a kind of little
– Barthes, R (Camera Lucida) 1980

Spectator, Operator, target or Viewer, Subject, Photographer

Different variables influence the photographing situation, do we have knowledge? Are there any prejudices?

Studium and Punctum

that which interests us. it may draw our gaze, we may
find it visually interesting, intellectually interesting etc
that which grabs us, it breaks the studium

This is the expansion on denotation and connotation, showing the really interest to a photograph.

“The studium is that very wide field of unconcerned
desire, of various interest, of inconsequential taste: I like/I
don’t like. The studium is of the order of liking, not of
loving; it mobilises a half desire, a demi-violation; it is the
same sort of vague, slippery, irresponsible interest one
takes in the people, the entertainments, the books, the
clothes one finds ‘all right’ “
– Barthes, R (Camera Lucida) 1980

Harder to find a punctum in landscape, deadpan images really need prior knowledge so the interest is easily located. But in portraiture, if we are familiar with the subject, or the subject is in a relatable position then we can locate the punctum, like in Koos Breukel’s photograph of Lucien Freud, showing a wealthy, well known artist who appears vulnerable in the photograph, which make us question it.


The image relies heavily on context

“…It may be regarded as a utilitarian object or as a work of
art. The context in which a photograph is seen effects the
meanings a viewer draws from it”
– Shore, S (The Nature of Photographs) 2007

The audience is primed in a gallery to consider photographs as works of art but elsewhere it is difficult to find interest without context.

Context – title, viewing experience, artists prior work, poor knowledge, pairings/diptychs/triptychs, forward

If we are constantly aware of different elements of a photograph, if we are aware then we can be critical

Critical Reflection

To understand the context behind photography, and think about what makes a photograph unique is simple but provoking. The lecture made me consider aspects of an image that I wasn’t previously aware of, and it set the foundations for me to be more critical in my practice and while critiquing others work. The examples of photographers presented images that I wouldn’t have otherwise been aware of, so it was good to see these images, and relate them to an aspect of photography. Furthermore the addition to theorists was made me understand a different interpretation about photography, and it has inspired me to pick up books like ‘Susan Sontag – On Photography’ so I can be more critical in the future. For my assignment one project of isolation, this lecture inspired me to create an image that creates a studium and a punctum, and controls the connotations that the viewer would deduce from the image. But overall, its informed me about photography, and what photography is; I’ve had no prior teaching about photography because I didn’t study it for A-level. This lecture opened my mind to the possibilities of my project, to creating an informed image, rather than a stab in the dark with no true message. Even though some aspects were basic, it was great to understand more about photography, especially before I took any major images for my project.


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