Analysis of an Image: #0001

(unless I have the author’s permission, I will not post images by others but rather links to the subject images which will be set to open in another window or tab. I suggest opening two browser windows, side by side, to assist in looking while reading.)

Since we just had a post on Henry Wessel, I thought it might be interesting to start off this feature, Analysis of an Image, with a couple of his images. These will be done in separate posts as they will be fairly detailed. There will be a later post that will investigate in more depth “how to look at photographs” to get the most out of them. Here, I will be following the most commonly recognized format for analyzing images. This first image is rather difficult to find on the internet as a still image–at least in more than one place. As such, I will be giving a reference to it within a video we saw in the last post in case the first reference below, a still image, later disappears from the internet. My apologies that I can’t find a larger example, however, I think it is an image worth our attention.

Title: San Francisco, 1977
view the image here
(alternative: at 1:38 in this video)

Description: (One of the most important, and revealing, things we can do when looking at, or analyzing, an image is to start by physically describing its contents, item by item. This might sound simplistic but it is amazing how many things we can miss by looking at the image as a whole, as is our more natural way of looking. In fact, I discovered several things I hadn’t considered before while preparing this analysis.)

This is a neutral tone black and white photograph.  Four people are standing in a line, widely spaced, on a city sidewalk in front of, and against, an approximately 4-1/2 foot tall chain link fence. The fence has been “slatted” to prevent our seeing through it although we can see over it. The people and the fence are to the right of the camera’s position and the oblique angle of view causes both to recede in size from right to left.

It appears to be a clear day with the sun at about 30 degrees above the horizon (shadows) and is hitting our subjects from the left of the frame and slightly behind–over their right shoulder.  There are no building shadows coming in from the left, indicating that there are no high rise building near this location in that direction.

Visually, these four professionally dressed people are equally spaced at a distance that would make interaction between them difficult. Each faces to the right of the frame and appears to be looking along the fence line—except in the case of a one-way street, this would be in the direction of on-coming traffic.

The largest figure, and furthest to the right of the frame, appears to be a middle-aged African-American man dressed in a dark, 3-piece suit. He leans against the fence with his left leg crossing over his right. He holds a crisp newspaper at his side with his right hand while his left hand is on his chin with that elbow resting on the top of the fence. His tie is up and tight and his vest all buttoned up. He looks, like the others, freshly dressed.

The second figure in the line is also a male in a suit and tie. He is white, as are the others pictured here, with white hair and is probably in his 60’s. He stands erect next to the fence, suit coat buttoned up and is reading his newspaper that is held in both hands.

The third figure is a woman.  She is the youngest of the four, maybe late 20’s or so, and is dressed in a pantsuit. Although she has her forearm resting on the top of the fence, she is not leaning into it but stands very erect with her right hand at her side, over the purse that hangs from her shoulder.

The fourth figure is also a woman, middle-aged, in a dress with what appears to be a dark but lightweight coat tightly belted around her. She seems to be the shortest of the four and leans her shoulder against the fence with her hands in her pockets. Her purse hangs off her shoulder higher than the younger woman’s and is tightly positioned under her right elbow.

Generally, we describe what is in a photograph, however, given our current culture one must recognize the lack of personal electronic devices in this image. Along with the nature of the clothes, this might help us determine the date of this image if we didn’t already know it from the title.

The sidewalk appears to be fairly wide, however, the part these people stand on is a relatively thin strip of asphalt. Bordering this strip of asphalt, to the left and against the bottom edge of the frame, we see two diamond plate doors that are closed, flat and flush with the sidewalk. Receding behind these doors along the sidewalk, and continuing at the same width, we see three 13×13 square grids of small glass blocks set in light concrete. This structure of the doors and grids has a similar visual width as the height of the fence. In the lower left corner of the frame, we see an indication that the sidewalk’s width likely extends further.

There are several shadows of people outside of the frame to the left between the two women at the back of this line of 4. These shadows indicate that some are just outside the frame while others are several feet further away—or really short!

Beyond the fence, in the distance, although we don’t see their tops, we can recognize the structure of modern high rise buildings. Closer in, we see familiar mid and low-rise buildings of earlier periods. Those closest, behind the older gentleman, appear to be early light manufacturing or warehouse type buildings. The “$1.29 all day” parking sign, with its arrow, in the upper left corner gives us a hint at what we don’t see in the space immediately behind the fence.

Composition: (The Principles of Design/Composition noted as having been used are in red type for easy identification–the actual terms are capitalized or added in parentheses.)

The oblique angle of the camera creates a strong triangular compositional Shape as the diagonal lines of the fence, sidewalk detail, close edge of the background buildings and even the implied Line created between the people’s heads and feet, all move towards convergence beyond the left edge of the image. This Movement to the left is slowed by the staccato Rhythm of the evenly spaced people against the more homogenous fence.  Their gaze, to the right, moves our eyes back in that direction creating a back and forth scanning of the image.

The people are emphasized (Emphasis) in this composition by their relatively large proportions (Proportion) within the frame as well as their placement through the center and foreground of the image. Their presence is further strengthened by the fact that the lightly textured (Texture) but homogenous fence isolates them and their strong shadows from the background.

Image Balance is achieved by the placement of the larger figure in his dark suit and his dark shadow to the right while the two smallest figures are placed to the left.  The white-haired gentleman acts as the fulcrum. The light sky and buildings at the top of the image are offset by the light Pattern of the glass block structure in the sidewalk, which also echoes the window patterns on the mid ground buildings—especially the one in the opposite corner of the image.

At the same time, the steel doors at the bottom of the image, along with the man on the right, Balance the darker buildings above. Those doors and buildings each echoes the others finely textured surface–at least visually.

I personally feel that having not included the tops of the skyscrapers helped to simplify the image.  At the same time, I like the inclusion of the steel doors/glass blocks in the sidewalk.  This gives us something nice to discover and adds some interest in an area that could have been very bland if it was solid asphalt or concrete.  The fact that these echo the buildings’ Pattern and Texture is a nice bonus.  I also feel that having this more expansive Space at the bottom of the frame further emphasizes the people as the subject. Even if we can determine that these people are not actually evenly spaced (Space), the visual effect of equal spacing causes these people to unify (Unity) as our primary subject.


I personally like this image quite a bit as I was also wearing 3 piece suits and commuting into California’s largest city during this same decade—the scene is familiar. What I feel Wessel presents us with is an image of isolation by choice rather than by any need or external factor.

Although one’s attention is occupied with his newspaper, the others stare off in what is likely the direction of the oncoming public transportation, avoiding contact with those around them. This transportation would be headed towards the city center that appears a distance behind them–and their jobs. Rather than stand and wait along the edge of the street, near the foot traffic and possible interaction with others, they have placed themselves against the fence, spaced generously from their like-minded cohorts.

The fence and the space between each, as well as the moat-like steel door/glass block sidewalk detail, all provide a buffer from possible interactions with others. Wessel give us hints that it is even likely that these four people see each other on a regular basis, if not daily.  And yet, they choose to isolate themselves.

We are not sure of the safety of the area, as both women seem to be holding their purses tightly rather than setting them down even though they seem far from others.

It is true, that I have read a lot of detail into this image, however, I do think there are indicators within the frame, which I described above, that give credibility to these interpretations. I should say, though, that regardless if these assumptions are right or just my own “story”, the image still conveys the main message of chosen isolation. The details inferred beyond the actual structure of the image and the things we absolutely know just add depth to the interpretation of the image.

The professional dress hints strongly that these are 8-5 workers rather than swing or graveyard employees. The low sun indicates either morning or late afternoon—probably near summer as it is already very light—indicative of the longer days of summer—and they don’t wear warm coats or other warming accessories.

I suggest that they are going to work for several reasons. First, they wait by a commuter parking lot—given away by the cheap “all day” parking sign, which Wessel graciously included. Also these types of parking lots are generally on the edge of the primary business areas, as indicated by the surroundings here, and one either walks or takes local transportation the rest of the way in to work.

If it were the afternoon, they would probably not be waiting here, even if they took public transportation all the way from home to work, as the “connections” are not generally off in these secondary areas.

Other clues to their going to work include the inferred direction of their travel, towards the city center and their “buttoned-up” and fresh appearance. Certainly, I have seen people maintain this look after work, but here none have loosened their ties, vests or coats, which would be more common once one was out of the primary business area and on their way home.

Again, because I have commuted to work like this, I infer that these people likely see each other regularly. If one just parked and walked, it might be less likely but when one has to wait for the same public transportation on a daily basis, it is more likely that one would see the same people on a regular basis.

Although I did identify the African-American male here, I don’t personally believe that there are any racial overtones in this image whereas Garry Winogrand’s World’s Fair, New York City, 1964 has long been considered as such. Of course, Winogrand’s image was created during a turbulent time in the civil rights movement here in the states. Given the current affairs within the US, it is hard to not consider this however, I don’t believe there were any prominent issues in 1977, although the ratio of people of color in the professional ranks of major California cities was low—and may still be.

Even though we have done a fairly complete analysis of this image, the image still holds many unanswered mysteries, questions and possibilities.  These are the things that give an image life and allow it to continue to challenge and inform us.

Please feel free to share any of your own observations or questions about the approach here–or conclusions.  We learn from each other.


A Photographer to Know: Henry Wessel

Henry Wessel was introduced to photography during college(early 1960’s) and was immediately hooked on how the camera rendered the world. Within a decade he had already received a Guggenheim Fellowship, had a one person show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and started and finished a Masters in Fine Art.

His photography seems to me to straddle a few different genres: landscape, street and social documentary. But what really stands out for me is the way he renders light as almost searing his subjects, as well as his sense of the ironic and humorous.

Henry’s work was included in the 1975 seminal exhibition, the “New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape”, which had-and continues to have– a significant impact on the field of photography– especially landscape photography. This work signaled a shift away from the traditional, romanticized view of the world that we recognize in work by people like Ansel Adams to one of a more detached view of man’s interaction with the land.

Personally, it took me years to warm up to this new work but, then, I had my nose buried in my own photographic interests and there weren’t many resources (no internet) available as there are today, which is a wonderful thing for those interested in learning and developing.

Although I knew the work of most of the photographers included in the New Topographics group, Wessel somehow escaped my radar. When I first saw his work, just a few years ago, I was really surprised that he had been part of that group based on the limited images I had seen. His work seemed to have more of a point of view and personality than often attributed to that group. It was much more like some of the street photographers I was aware of, such as Garry Winogrand and maybe even a little Lee Friedlander.

As I researched his work more deeply, I did find images that were more in line with the New Topographics group, however, even if those seemed more “banal”, the way he used light and shadow was amazing—and different than what we see more commonly.

When we encounter things that are done in a different way than we might do them, giving it our attention isn’t a matter liking or disliking or of our wanting to copy or emulate a style. The value is that in looking and noticing we can gain knowledge of alternative ways of doing things. We see how doing something different can affect a subject and the look of a photograph. This allows us to store this information in our “bag of tricks” as it were and gives us more information to draw on to realize our intent for one of our photographs. Drawing on these resources doesn’t just mean a linear, or direct use of something we’ve learned but maybe we make a more random connection between things that seem unrelated and we end up solving a problem in a unique way.

So, in addition to looking into his work for those wonderful moments of irony and humor, it is worth notice how he uses light in a different way than we might. Notice how he often uses a frontal, or nearly frontal (light from behind his position), light and how he allows his exposure to push the limits of the brightness of the image. His use of flash is on-camera and unapologetic, he wants to “draw” his subject with that searing light.

My initial exposure to Wessel was through the first video below and I really appreciated his passion for photography and his comments on his way of working—as well as the photographs. What he presents here with regards to the “animalistic” response might seem contradictory to some of what we have covered in The Idea: Part I, but we will be addressing how this all comes together in Part II.

These next two videos cover more of his work and his philosophy and way of working. They are both wonderful to watch—I continually return to these and have probably watched each 10 times while preparing this post. There is always some new thought that catches my attention with each viewing—probably because when I hear one, my mind races off and I don’t hear what comes after that until the next time I watch it!

So, “Let me take you on a walk and we’ll start here…”  excerpt from the last video.

I’d love to hear your comments on Henry or any part of this presentation.

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“A Photographer to Know” will be one of the regular features of this blog. The purpose is to present the work of recognized artists in the field that may not be as widely known to most. Liking or not isn’t the purpose, but rather it is about exposure to what others are doing and/or how others are thinking about or using our medium. By looking at the work of artists in any medium, we can build our own “visual vocabulary” on how visual problems are, or can be, solved.

Quotes to Ponder: #0002

“It’s not what you look at that matters,

it’s what you see”

~Henry David Thoreau

Honestly, I don’t expect to make a posting each day, but when I ran across this quote I just thought it fit so well with the last post and where we will be going when we get to The Idea: Part 2.

In the last post, I talked about responding to what we see and I think it is important to remember that we don’t all see things the same way.  This isn’t just with more abstract ideas, but we often don’t interpret what we see visually in the same way as another.  In fact, we often don’t even see something that the person standing right next to us might get very excited about.  This whole mechanism is very human and is something we are going to probably talk about a lot as we go along–it is certainly something worth thinking about as photographers–or even just as mere human beings!

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(“Quotes to Ponder” will be a regular feature here. My philosophy about quotes isn’t that they prove any point as they are often taken out of context or they may have been said in response to something we have no way of knowing about. But they generally do embody some sort of opinion or thought that can often be worthwhile pondering. I expect that in many cases, they will be the teaser to a longer discussion of their idea in a later post!)

The Idea: Part 1

Maybe the best place to start a blog “all about photography” would be to look at the reason any photograph is created while, at the same time, that reason may be one of the least considered in our every day use of the medium. And that is the underlying Idea behind the creation of a photograph.

In yesterday’s post I did make the suggestion that “idea” is the beginning of every photograph as well as where the photographic process ends. In fact, it is the idea for our photograph that should be the basis for every decision we make in the process of creating as well as completing an image. To some this might seem to be a bold proclamation, so let’s take a look into this thought.

We have all heard the cliché that “a picture is worth 1000 words”. What this drives home is the fact that our photographs are a form of communication, visual communication. As a form of communication, they should, by definition, convey some idea to the viewer.  The question raised by the Ansel Adams’ quote: “There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept” is just how well, or clearly, did we express the concept or idea embodied in our photograph.

Fig. 1 Snapshot with "fuzzy concept" but at least it isn't sharp!

Fig 1 Snapshot with “fuzzy concept” …but at least it isn’t sharp!

Before we get into the meat of this though, I will admit that when I have suggested to others that every photograph starts with an idea that it isn’t unusual to get some confused looks. Let’s face it, we are often just responding to something we see and not thinking about any particular idea, right?

Fig 2 our new National pastime....

Fig 2 The new National pastime….

But there is a reason we responded to what we saw, took the time to pick up our camera—or phone—and then made the exposure. Even when we just “thought” it was cool or would be cool to photograph it or it was something strange or odd and we “thought” it would be interesting to just document it, there was a thought that provoked our response and that thought is, in fact, the “idea” behind the photograph.  There is some idea why it is, or would be, cool!

Then, when we evaluate even these quick images, don’t we judge their success by how effectively they communicated that “coolness” or how well we “documented” what caught our eye—how well did they convey the “idea” behind our creating them? (Of course, there is always the question as to the value or importance of the idea expressed, but that is maybe a different issue for another time.)

Fig 3 Snapshot with clear idea

Fig 3 Snapshot with clear idea but other issues

These same considerations do carry over into times when we are out photographing in a more serious way as well—you know, those times we have gone out to purposely create photographs, whether to some local destination or into the studio or off to some remote location. Most likely, just what was behind our decision to go here or there is based on some overall idea of the type of images we want to make. Maybe even the specific images we want or hope to make.

In “The Idea Part 2”, I will be exploring where the “idea” behind our response to a subject comes from and how idea works on different levels when creating images. This will include all aspects of creating an image, including what we do after the exposure is made.

Until then, please feel free to comment on, or ask questions about, what I have presented above–or below. There is so much to be learned and clarified from healthy discussion.

For now though, let’s take a bit of a longer look at the images I have posted here.

Fig 1:  This image demonstrates one of the common fails in photographs, let alone snapshots.   A first impression might suggest that this image isn’t really about anything other than maybe to document that corral-like view point.  Of course, the presence of a person will always draw our attention.  The fact that this person is near the center, posing and facing the camera, suggests that this image was either supposed to be about this person or this person in this landscape.  But neither the person nor the landscape are prominently featured.

Fig 2:  (Maybe we should tag these the Great American Food Shot or “GAFS” !)  There is certainly some clarity to this image’s intent, to show my breakfast.  So, while the idea is clear, we might wonder how important this is as an image.  As part of the series it is attached to–click on the image to get to it–it might be of more interest or value in its supportive role in telling the story.  Also, if one realized that the coffee cup is advertising the local brothel, maybe the image becomes all the more interesting!

Fig 3:  I included this snapshot, because I think it very clearly expresses its idea: to show the little boy in his cowboy outfit.  I also know that the photographer, my mother, would not have been thinking in terms of an idea, but rather was responding to me (yes, that’s me) out playing in the yard in my new cowboy duds (even though I was only 5, I still remember bidding for these at the church rummage sale auction).  One of the primary Principles of Design/Composition is “Emphasis”  By isolating me in the foreground, rendering me as relatively large within the frame and then placing me in the middle (a very strong point for emphasis), we have no question as to the intent/idea for the image.   But there are issues here and you might notice how flat this image feels, with the background pulling forward.  This is caused by, most prominently, the top of the hat being tangent with the top of the wall, which pulls those background elements forward.  Tangencies will generally bring a background object forward to meet the plane of the foreground object it is tangent with.  With the trees appearing tangent with the roof on the right (they don’t extend above it), the distant background is also pulled forward.  Had my mother changed her perspective by kneeling down, not only would these tangencies have been resolved, thus creating more depth, but it would have also increased the presence and strength of her subject.  I am willing to forgive her failings here….

Fig 4 Layers of idea

Fig 4 Layers of idea

Fig 4:  This image actually is the result of two levels of “idea”, as we will explore in part 2.  When I pulled out my camera(iPhone), I was actually just going to take some quick snaps to test out my new app and some of its “lenses and films”in a new environment.  We might consider this the “Umbrella” idea for making images in this case.  When my step-daughter looked up at me, I immediately recognized that something special was happening and responded to that moment.  The umbrella idea might not be obvious here, but anyone who knows me knows that I don’t particularly like decorating my images with artificial borders, so that might give it away.  (Often “umbrella” ideas are not totally clear in an individual image but may become more clear when we see a group of images made with that idea in mind.) But it was my response to the moment that became the primary idea behind making this specific image.  I did work this image in Photoshop and can assure you that my modifications were all based on further clarifying my intent for the image!

You can find The Idea: Part 2 here

Quotes to Ponder: #0001

There is nothing worse than

a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.

~Ansel Adams


Where does the photograph start, any photograph, if not with an idea.  In fact, as this quote seems to suggest, this is also where the photographic process ends.  In the next day or so,  I will be presenting some thoughts on this subject.  Until then, maybe we can ponder these questions:  Do all of our photographs actually have an idea/concept behind them?  Do our photographs clearly express our intent/idea/concept?  Does John keep using different words to mean the same thing!? :))

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(“Quotes to Ponder” will be a regular feature here.  My philosophy about quotes isn’t that they prove any point as they are often taken out of context or they may have been said in response to something we have no way of knowing about.  But they generally do embody some sort of opinion or thought that can often be worthwhile pondering.  I expect that in most cases, they will be the teaser to a longer discussion of their idea in a later post!)


About this Blog


Personal series: Un Momento

Well, yes, this is probably an overly aggressive title for a blog, especially when there are certain things I have no intention of covering here–things like equipment or gadget reviews or magic potions to instantly make your photography better.  There are plenty of other resources for those sorts of things.

Antlers; McCoy, CO ACW_06432

Personal series: Across the West

When I first started to photograph, 37 years ago, I came to the medium like most today, a little later in life and without any formal training in the arts. I was fortunate, after a short period investigating amateur instructional literature, to have been encouraged to seek more formal and foundational resources to help me develop my new art.

Most of my spare time, outside of work–and often during when I would “sneak” out to photograph—was spent in activities to further my understanding and skills in photography.

NIKE 2-fin

created for Nike

What I have discovered along the way was what separates us from one another is what we bring to our photography as individuals, how do we look at the world and thus, what do we have to say about it.  That our photography will get better with our more complete understanding of core principles, the development of our visual sensibilities and our exploration of ideas, often challenging our current understanding and ways of thinking.

While there are several possibilities for entries here that are still being contemplated, I hope to stimulate thought with relevant information and ideas about photography, exposure to artists/photographers, discussions about why (and what makes) photographs work and some good, positive exchange of points of view around these topics and ideas presented.

NEW JOCKEY2(jobs#20)

created for Agilent Technologies

The great thing about ideas and opinions is that they belong to us, therefore agreeing or disagreeing isn’t really important.  What is important is that we are open to think about these things, even when they seem at odds with our own position, and critically examine “why” we agree or disagree.  This is how we feed our inner selves, expanding our knowledge and understanding as well as stimulating our unconscious mind, where much is discovered outside of our awareness. As such, I always value the comments and feedback I get as those help me continue to grow as well.

4587210 001  This is from a Flextight Scan 03/10/2012

Personal work

And, yes, I might talk about more technical aspects of photography and possibly even practical applications of various processes available that might help more fully realize our images. But these discussions will be more about discovering options and tools we have at our disposal rather than dictums or quick fixes.

I will also consider suggestions for presentations that might interest you or presenting further information on the topics that have been presented. Please feel free to enter the discussion with your comments and questions—or email me if you prefer a more direct connection. We often learn more by formally verbalizing our thoughts than just “listening” or thinking them.

AMTRAK 45032 Location: about 1.5 miles west of Tioga, North Dakota on 6/19/05

Commissioned by Amtrak; Personal series: Across the West


About Me

created for Adidas

created for Adidas

As I indicated above, my journey with photography started in more or less what is the usual way, although maybe later than most.  But what I thought would be a hobby quickly became an obsession.  Soon, I was shooting large format black and white photography, had my own darkroom and had my work represented in a top photographic gallery.  Along the way, I had the opportunity to study with, among others, Richard Misrach, Linda Connor, Frank Gohlke, John Sexton and Ansel Adams, whose workshop I was to assist at the year he died. I also became involved with several arts and photography organizations, including a decade on the board of a prominent art college, where I also taught for a short time.  I have been honored with the inclusion of my work in a museum’s collection and several museum shows, including a one person exhibition.  But I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do, I wanted to photograph full time.

Personal work: Lensless

Personal work: Lensless

So, in 1990, I left the corporate world behind and opened my commercial studio in Portland, Oregon.  It was a bit of a crazy new world (I actually started shooting color again!), but I adapted quickly and loved my new freedom to just photograph–and market like crazy.  Within a short time I did my first “national” jobs shooting early ads for the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas and creating ads for Nike and ESPN.  Since then I have had the fortune to work with some of the top creatives and agencies in the business and for their clients like: Amtrak, Amazon, Adidas, Agilent Technologies, Pacific Bell, Eaton Corporation, Weston Hotels, Seagate, Zürich Financial, Intel, Miller Brewing, the Atlantic Monthly, Forbes, MacWorld and Teen People among others. My work has won several awards and been recognized in the One Show, Graphis Design, Communication Arts, Print, PDN and many others.

Personal series: Across the West

Personal series: Across the West

Whether a project’s budget was a few hundred or a half million dollars, or just a personal one, my philosophy has always been to present the best work I am capable of producing.   Those projects have encompassed almost every genre of photography including landscape, aerial, architecture, street, studio sets –and in and out of studio–still life, lifestyle, portraiture, product, and sports action. I have also been known to do the occasional wedding or portrait session for a friend.

I have now returned to working solely on personal projects but also have enjoyed teaching and working with new photographers over the years through formal and informal relationships.

My purpose here is to continue to share the knowledge I have gained over the years with others.

Personal Work

Personal Work

More specific information about my educational and professional details can be found on my CV here:

You might also find my other blog, which is more experiential in nature, of interest:

And please feel free to follow my blog by clicking on the “Follow” button at the top, right!

Lotus #786

Personal series: Lotus