Stephen Shore is a photographer and a teacher of photography. He is Director of the photography programme at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.
In The Nature of Photographs (full reference below), Shore explores ways of understanding and looking at photographs in order to see how they function. He proposes that a photograph can be viewed on several levels: the physical, depictive and mental. The book is structured around an explanation of these levels.
The Physical Level
The physical level consists of what we’d normally think of as the physical aspect of a photograph such as the paper texture and colour, the chemistry, the border, whether it is monochrome or colour etc. Of course, there is also a physical aspect to an electronically displayed photograph as well. An important point is that the physical level also includes the context of the photograph which can be thought of as the presentation i.e. whether it is “saved in a shoebox or in a museum”. Shore states that “the context in which a photograph is seen effects the meanings a viewer draws from it”.
The Depictive Level
The depictive level is about the choices that the photographer makes in terms of vantage point, framing, choosing a moment of exposure and a plane of focus (along with depth of field). Shore states that these four choices or attributes “are the means by which photographers express their sense of the world, give structure to their perceptions and articulation to their meanings”.
Changing vantage point changes the relationships within the image. Even a slight change of position can suggest visual relationships which would not be otherwise obvious. The following photo by Lee Friedlander is used as an example of choosing a vantage point to suggest a relationship between the clouds and the sign. Every photographer uses the choice of vantage point to emphasise part of the image or to hide something not considered useful or attractive.
The next attribute is the frame. Shore suggests that “the objects, people, events or forms that are in the forefront of a photographer’s attention when making the fine framing decisions are the recipients of the frame’s emphasis. The frame resonates off them and, in turn, draws the viewer’s attention to them”. The frame is used not only to select a part of the world in front of the photographer, but also sets up relationships between objects, people and forms within the image and the lines of the frame. In this way, the frame becomes more than just a selection device – due to this interaction with the content, it becomes part of the image.
The time attribute is affected by a number factors: exposure time, how static the subject is plus movement of the camera itself. These factors can be used to create images ranging from a frozen “discreet parcel of time” (Szarkowski, 2007) to blur used in a creative fashion. Time can also be communicated in other ways such as time-lapse photography or simply re-visiting the same scene so that changes become obvious suggesting the passing of time.
The fourth major attribute is focus. A camera has a single plane of focus, usually parallel to the film or sensor plane although view cameras provide some flexibility in changing this. Either side of the picture plan is the zone of focus – the depth of field – governed by the selected aperture. This plane of focus can be used to isolate parts of the scene and draw the viewer’s attention.
The Mental Level
The mental level is fundamentally the level on which we “see” things. We say that we see with our eyes, but that’s only part of the story. Our eyes send impulses along our optic nerves to our cerebral cortex. In fact, it is in our brains that we form a mental image. “The mental level elaborates, refines and embellishes our perceptions of the depictive level”. Shore points out that as we scan an image which has depth, we have a sensation of changing focus, but of course it’s not our eyes which refocus (the image is a flat plane, after all), it is our mental focus which is shifting. He goes on to say that “focus is the bridge between the mental and depictive levels: focus of the lens, focus of the eye, focus of attention, focus of the mind”.
The mental level begins with the photographer’s own mental organisation of the photograph. This, in turn, is affected by his/her perceptions which may adjust the model and change the photographer’s decisions.
An interesting book with clear things to say especially on the first two levels. The mental level is by far the hardest to come to grips with and in this area more concrete examples would have been useful. Some of the examples given seem to contradict earlier examples, so I was left with a feeling of frustration from this part of the book.
In terms of impact on my own practice, I found the point about presentation to be interesting – it is perhaps why assignment 3 in EYV requires the submission of physical prints. It is clear from student feedback that they must be printed on quality paper and well-presented. Apart from this point, keeping in mind the four attributes of the depictive level (vantage point, frame, time and focus) is useful “out in the field” because it will help me to think about trying alternative ways to represent a subject.
Shore, S. (2007), The Nature of Photographs. London: Phaidon
Szarkowski, John (2007) The Photographer’s Eye. New York: MoMA