2016-0216 The Nature of Photographs – Stephen Shore

In a second-hand camera shop in Manchester I found this book and for half the cover price it would be rude to say no  and anyway it was something to read on the train home!


The Nature of Photographs by Stephen Shore.

It had plenty of pictures so that was good and few words, but those words were hard to understand and it took a read and a re-read for my scientific engineering  mind to grasp the messages.

The book talks about the photograph from a Physical level, Depictive level and Mental level. Still with me?!

Physical level; this is about the photograph as a physical object, the image on a printed medium be it paper or whatever. It has physical dimensions and the choice of paper – gloss or matt, black and white or colour, framed print, book or whatever is an artistic choice that influences the viewers interaction with the picture.

It also talked about the use, purpose and value of the image.

Depictive level; this section discussed how the photographer differs from a painter in that a painter starts with a blank canvas and chooses what to include where a photographer chooses what to leave out from the scene. I’ve never thought of it like that before! A photographer can simplify a complex scene by focussing on a detail and conversely represent the broader chaos.

The viewpoint is just one creative choice, the camera, format, media, lens, aperture, shutter speed are all just as important. It also talks about the in-focus point relative to parts of the image out of focus like a portrait may be or all in focus like a landscape. Top stuff! This section presented many examples of the creative use of all those choices.

Mental level; this where it got hard! The mind interacts with the image and constructs the image in the brain and the photographer can help or hinder that process. The mind also adds its own embellishments to the image. When someone looks at an aircraft they see the physical shape, colour, logos etc. When I look at an aircraft I understand how it flies and how the shapes of the wings generate lift, I know how the jet engine works and can visualise all its constituent parts etc. etc. We’re looking at the same thing but our minds see different things. Bridges are much the same – the beauty of a bridge to the public and to a civil engineer is very different!

The book ends with a section titled mental modelling. About how a “photographer holds mental models in their minds; models that are a result of the prodding’s of insight, conditioning and comprehension of the world.” Read that again! As a photographer looks for images they look for subjects that fit with the mental model of what good looks like. For some photographers this is rigid and maybe constraining. For others the mental “model is supple and fluid…adjusting to new perceptions”.

“For most photographers, the model operates unconsciously. But, by making the model conscious, the photographer brings it under mental level of the photograph under his or her control.”

For me the penny dropped reading that! On my home page I’ve said that “Over the winter of 2014/15 I felt my photography had plateaued and I needed to explore new challenges to my photography.” and “I enrolled on the Level 3 City and Guilds Digital Image Capture / Photography course at Preston college.”

I was becoming bored with my photography. I was taking the same images over and over and feeding on the same images from photography magazines. Images that are very good but just not ‘wow’!

I had sold my lovely big city centre studio because of time pressures but attended a weekly group shoot at a friends studio. I often didn’t bother to take pictures – rather got pleasure from helping others grow in ability, confidence and creativity. There was minimal stimuli to try new things, be really creative and challenge myself. My work was turning into snapshots!

The course has provided that ‘new things’ challenge and that’s why I love it. Looking at different genres, seeing the work of masters in that field and reflecting on their work; e.g. street, documentary etc. has forced me out of my box, my constraining mental model and I’m enjoying photography again! I’m reading and browsing more inspirational work, looking at the masters and attempting more challenging work.

I’ve booked to attend The Photography Show in March already so I’ve bought a ticket to hear Laura Jade – 10 year evolution “From the countryside county of Staffordshire to the ‘Big Smoke’ of New York and becoming one of the most highly demanded fashion photographers in the world, join Lara Jade as she talks about her photographic evolution over the past 10 years and her love for creating visual stories with a cinematic approach. Find out first-hand how she went from creating portrait and fine art imagery in the UK to growing into an international business through online recognition.”

and a ticket to hear Scott Kelby – The stuff they don’t tell you “When Scott gave this presentation for the first time, so many participants came up afterwards to ask, “Why didn’t anybody tell us this stuff?! These are the things that, once you realize them, can propel your image-making to the next level because it opens your eyes to things that are usually passed one-on-one (maybe from a mentor to an apprentice), or not at all. Scott lays it all out there, and really opens your eyes to a new way of thinking about photography that will transfer directly to the type of images you make from here on out. This will be one you’ll be talking about.”

and a ticket to Bruce Gilden Take it or leave it “Best known for his candid close-up photographs of people on the streets of New York, Magnum photographer Bruce Gilden will reveal elements of his uncompromising 50 year career as a street portrait photographer. His career has been controversial but he has maintained one clear style throughout; he shoots with Passion and Soul. Discover his curiosity about strong characters, his energetic style and very close approach to his subjects.”

So, Fashion, perspective broadening and Street. It might be hyperbole but we’ll see! I’ll blog about those presentations at the time.

I must also thank my chums on the course who create some awesome imagery that blows me away every week: Fiona Blake, Lynn Faal, Matt Gribbon, Gavin Hales, Claire Hughes, Zoe Marshall, Frances Ramsay and Alan Turnbull. A top team!

Here’s the book if you’re interested!


And last but not least thanks to the tutors,  Alyssa Gilbert and Laura Parkinson that have taken us on this creative journey.

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