Part 3: Looking at Photographs-Structural Analysis

In the last installment of this series, I mentioned that there were two functions that involve Visual Perception that we can use in deciphering a photograph—or any piece of art. The first was just simple observation and description—noticing what is really in the visual, the objects. This is where we start to look for symbols and metaphor, things that enrich what the image actually depicts and means.

The second function is just a slight twist on the first and although maybe just as straightforward, takes a bit of study. It also takes a bit more work to break a visual down in this way. But it can be incredibly effective in our understanding of what we are looking at.

Sometimes, I think that when we read posts such as this series, we view them as more theoretical, unlike a tutorial on lighting or how to create this or that type of photograph. What I would like to suggest is that the information learned here, when practiced, will be more valuable to one’s photography than a simple instruction on how to do this or that. We build our abilities to respond to a scene and make the most of it, regardless of what we shoot or what type of image we like or dislike. When we are shooting, we don’t think about these things but draw upon them. These things are foundational and, as such, can be drawn upon over and over in any situation.

Studying and applying these while looking at great photography/art, we build up a “visual” vocabulary that we can draw upon in the same way we draw upon our verbal vocabulary to express ourselves in all situations—and without having to think about it, we just naturally use the tools we have that work best in any situation. It is when we are looking at work that’s already done that we analyze and think and gain/expand our basic self-knowledge, the only thing available to us when we create.

In fact, the particular skill that I am going to discuss here is fundamental to creating compositions that effectively communicate our ideas as well. Although I will be discussing this with regards to looking at photographs, it is also foundational to making them—in a very direct way.

On the most basic level, our visual perception is not really about things at all. As I said in Part 2, we translate what we see into things we can define and often make assumptions based on our first glance. But what we actually perceive is essentially what is often defined as the Elements of Art. We see line, shape, color, texture, value and form, then, based on our experiences, we identify what they mean or seem to represent. We see a rectangular shape with a pattern/texture and we know it is a plank of wood or a piece of sheet metal or whatever we decipher. Based on the elements we see, we might even be able to identify the particular type of wood or metal.

As well as being the building blocks of the objects we recognize, they also have visual properties that can affect the nature of a photograph and what it means.  They can be active or passive within a scene.

When we look at an image, if we take the time to start to really analyze these Elements and how they relate and interact, as well as how they are organized with the Principles of Design, we can gain even more awareness of what the image might be about—or at least an objective insight into how these things interact within an image and give it meaning.

I am not going to get deeply into describing and analyzing each of these things at this time but here is a list of each (lists will vary slightly if you research this on your own):

Elements of Art: Line, Shape, Color, Texture/Pattern, Value and Form

Principles of Design: Balance, Proportion, Rhythm, Motion, Emphasis and Unity

Of course, what I am referring to here are the same things we covered in the post, A Tale of Two Worlds and there I referred to this particular link where these things are discussed:

As time goes on here, I will be covering these Elements and Principles in more depth and hope to complete a book on this topic in the near future. There are lots of resources on these things but very few that are photography specific. That is what I hope to present here later as well as in book form.

One thing that you will notice from these lists is that there are no rules or shortcuts. It is line that we need to understand, in all of its forms, not just leading lines or S curves alone. If we learn the properties of line, we can understand how they actually function within an image and add to its meaning. We learn how Balance affects the way we view an image, how it was achieved or maybe even how the work has employed a sense of imbalance to affect how we respond. Balance doesn’t rely on a specific formula but is rather something we feel within the frame of our given photograph.

I mentioned on Part 2’s introduction that in an art class I took, we were assigned to write critiques and the first criteria was to physically describe what we saw. The second part was to break down how the elements of art were used and how the principles of design were employed. We did this for both two and three-dimensional artworks.  It was uncanny how doing this purposefully gave so much more insight into the works than just my natural first, gut reaction.  Admittedly, it was very difficult to actually do this type of analysis but it got easier as I applied it to more and more works.

A significant point of all of this for photographers is that, especially when looking at great works and employing the tools of analysis presented here, is that we start to get a better understanding of composition and how what we do influences the meaning of our images. We begin to see how these things play within an image, what has been used, what has been subordinated to effect the artist’s vision. As we become more facile doing this, it further adds to our visual vocabulary and we find that we more easily solve our own visual problems.

Even if we don’t “like” a work, we can begin to understand how it works and how these things were employed. We get insights into what the work might be about and gain an understanding of just what was done.

The purpose of doing the type of analysis described in the three parts of this series is about personal growth and increasing our ability to understand and create visual art. It is important to realize that we still may not relate to certain types of photographs or other artworks. That isn’t the point but, with practice, we can develop the tools to start to make some sense of things we may have passed over before. Having this ability will facilitate the learning of new things and a recognition of ways of seeing that are different from what we already know-even if only incrementally. It can look impossible to get from where we are to some distant point—and that is often the case when learning these types of things rather than those “clear” shortcuts—but it is surprising how far we can get, and how fast, if we just start and push forward one step at a time.

My own experience with this is that for the past 30+ years, I constantly return to study these things and I always gain new insights. Sometimes I still look at a photograph or other piece of art and I think I don’t know where to begin to analyze it.  Then, I just start to describe it and things become more clear.  But I do think it has been constantly looking at great work and continually developing the tools to actually see what was done and how it all came together within the image that has helped me progress the most in my own work. When I am in the field or studio, I rarely think about any of this but instinctively respond to the image I am creating and the intent/idea behind its creation.  There is a trust that I will naturally draw upon what I know at the time and what will work best.

There are certainly those times when I get stumped and can’t figure out how to solve the image at hand. Most of the time just taking a moment to focus on something else allows the answer to emerge.  Just shifting my attention to getting lunch or a snack, the answer almost always comes right to me.  But, at times when I am shooting for myself, I might decide to walk away knowing that I learned something in the process. Often, I come back to that same place a day or even months later and the “solved” image is there waiting for me.

Part 2: Looking at Photographs–Perception : Reality

One thing that hopefully is clear from Part 1 is that this whole study of the idea of context is really about expanding our own knowledge base—personal growth– and not really something that is external to us. When we look at images or are out creating them, this is what we draw on and what influences the way we see. When we then run into someone’s work we don’t seem to be able to engage meaningfully, and have the opportunity to learn more than we “saw” through our own filters, we just add to our personal knowledge base.

I think it should also be clear that we grow our knowledge base through pretty much everything we do. Reading books, listening to music, conversations with people, etc– discovering things we didn’t know through whatever means. All of this expands our worldview and we end up drawing on all of this as we navigate our daily lives—including making and looking at images.

So, in the first installment of this series, we discussed processes that we can undertake when looking at an image to learn things outside of our awareness, or our worldview. But I would contend that we often don’t really use all of the knowledge that we have within us. We have built up mechanisms over time that short-circuit our digging deeper because these short hand mechanisms serve us extremely well in our daily lives. We often have to make quick, intuitive responses as we navigate our world. Most situations don’t require long or deep thought or understanding and many could end up fatal if we didn’t react instinctively.

What I am referring to here is just how the mechanism of human visual perception works. There are two techniques within this process that I want to talk about, one is totally within our control now while the other will take a bit of study to use more effectively. The first is a ridiculously simple concept—almost banal itself and can be easily disregarded for its simplicity—but both are not as easy to always apply as they may seem to be. They take practice.

Due to the differences between them, I will cover the “simple” one first and the other in another installment (to keep this shorter and the techniques segregated). Also, this first one might be more applicable to looking at visual things while it may be counter productive when creating a visual, if we undertake it consciously.

The process of visual perception is pretty much, at its base level, a survival skill. We take in information and through the processes of memory and association; we identify objects and situations that we encounter. We pay attention to the things that are relevant and often dismiss or ignore those things that don’t seem to be relevant at the time—the relevance of something can change based on the situation and is not fixed in most cases. It is also a pretty well documented fact that even when we do find something relevant, we aren’t always really recognizing what it, in fact, is. We make certain assumptions that fit our needs and in most cases, that serves us well in those situations.

We interpret based on context and sometimes things become ambiguous

We interpret based on context and sometimes things can become ambiguous.

I think I can say that we all have encountered the situation where someone will say, “hey, did you see this or that, wasn’t it cool” and we have no recollection of what they are talking about even though we were in the same place at the same time. I know that my wife and I have these sorts of exchanges all the time. I “didn’t” see that and then I go back and yes I did see it, but it didn’t register because it wasn’t relevant to what I was doing at the time. With new information as to what that thing was, or just a new perspective, it gains meaning to me.

The point is that we often jump to certain conclusions about things because of associations we are used to making between things we see and what we know—and those may not always be true. When we look at an image of any sort, those mechanisms don’t just disappear. For instance, I remember walking into the St Louis Art Museum and seeing a painting by one of my favorite painters, Thomas Hart Benton. Benton is a very lyrical painter (also was Jackson Pollack’s early mentor—although I doubt many would surmise that without seeing Pollack’s very early work) and everything in his images seems to exude a sense of being alive. In this particular painting, there were some men cradling wheat and several women bending over stacking it—well, that is what I saw anyway. After a minute of admiration, I walked up to it and really looked, there were no women at all, just the men and stacks of wheat. The style of painting and my own filters had made me see something very different in the form of those stacks of wheat than what was really before me. Looking at it now, it is hard for me to understand why I saw women, but I did. Link to the Painting.

Sometimes we will infer the existence of things that don't, in fact, exist.

Sometimes we will infer the existence of things that don’t, in fact, exist.

So what is the point here? Essentially that one of the foremost tools at our disposal when we look at a piece of art doesn’t take any training at all—but some attention and practice. We just have to simply, objectively pay attention to and physically describe what we are looking at. This sounds incredibly easy and most think that they already do this, but my experience is that we often don’t see what is actually there but rather translate, through our individual filters, what is there. To be effective at doing this takes a lot of effort and discipline as it isn’t how we do things normally. But doing it can actually increase our awareness of what a piece of artwork may actually be about and define context that may otherwise be out of our awareness. In fact, we should do this with our own work as well.

A good friend who is a designer is always looking at my photographs and coming up with interesting things he sees that I didn’t. Often they add to the richness of the image but were outside of my awareness—they worked and so I didn’t give them much attention as I might something that wasn’t cohesive within the work and also not the main subject or interest point. With years of his doing this with my work, I have gotten a bit more aware of these things myself when I actually look at the work I decide to present.

When I read some of the more advanced writers/critics of our time, on art and photography, they more often than not do just what I suggest here before they launch into any other sort of analysis of an image. They just start calling out objects that they see in an image, relationships between objects, what the relationships, objects etc might represent etc.

For instance, take a look at this image, before you read on any further to get your own take on the image and notice your interpretation of what you see there.

Below is Michael Fried’s description of it at the opening of the chapter on Thomas Struth’s Portraits (in his book “Why Photography matters as Art as Never Before”) before he even gets too much else.

“The Hirose family sits jammed together on a sofa; a tabletop piled with books and pieces of paper fills the right foreground of the image (slightly out of focus because near the picture plane); to the left one sees part of a desk, also piled with books and papers, and some glass-fronted bookcases; to the rear a lamp and telephone rest on on a table but attention is captured by several African sculptures, one a mask hanging on the wall, and to the left of the mask a framed painting of a mask like head in a somewhat cubist style. To the right rear one looks past an open door into another room.”

He then goes on to describe a few more images, all before getting into any of the analysis about the work. What he is doing is actually insuring that the image is being seen and not just interpreting, through his own filters, what is actually in the image. (He does then use these objective observations of the various family portraits to discern clues as to level of sophistication, relationships and other potentially relevant conditions portrayed.)

The importance of doing this objective description is that it makes us stop and consider things as they really are rather than missing or misinterpreting pertinent information by just seeing a family portrait and really not seeing all of those other things that can inform the image.

Methodically describe the elements in this image.

Methodically describe the elements in this image.

(Click here for Larger image.)

So, here is a little case study. I have selected this work because I am familiar with it and I also think it is a relatively easy one to decipher by employing this simple technique. Again, before reading further or looking at the link to the series below, describe what you see in the image above and see if you can draw some conclusions about what the work might be about. This piece is from a series of work that was created and exhibited by my wife.

Without any other reference, I think many of us—myself included—might just see some pictures of rocks on first blush. But by describing what is actually in the image, we might begin to see some things that will give us a clue on the intent of the work. Looking at several images, or just the one additional one below, and going through this same process of describing what is actually depicted will quickly reveal that these images have some rather specific and commonly shared traits and are not just random rocks—all exhibit some form of fracturing. The physical inventory we developed by describing what we actually see will reveal that most exhibit some evidence of recent fire—the charred ground/objects and smoke damage. We might also note the bare ground and the Pine needles. By just taking the time to see what is “actually” depicted, one could easily end up with an understanding that they are most likely looking at a phenomenon that was created by fire, which it was. This phenomenon of these rocks fracturing, or exploding, takes place during high temperature fire and can be found only after a recent fire—before they are hidden by new plant growth and/or scattered or buried by other natural events. There may still be some questions but viewing the images is now at a different level than what the cursory look could yield. The process can often lead to a contextual awareness that a casual look and innate response may not have been able to reveal. The link to the series is

_MG_2700new11x14-printEven looking at a single image, this process of describing what is actually there will often suggest that there is something more than what we might first assume.

Again, paying attention to what is really there, and describing, requires a lot of discipline—it isn’t how we go about most of our routine tasks and looking at images can become a very routine activity—especially when we aren’t used to seeing more serious or thoughtful work.

By looking at work in this more precise way–dissecting the physical elements within an image–we can often increase our awareness of the context of an image. It is just one step in the process leading to a more complete understanding of what we are looking at. It also allows us to gain some more objective evidence regarding what we are looking at, something maybe different than that first take gave us.

I admit that I don’t always take this kind of time myself. We will choose when and when not to do this type of activity. But if we are going to really comment on an image, then it should be the first thing we do. I know that in my own art classes, we were assigned to review art work—alone or on field trips—and the first thing we had to do in our written critiques was to fully describe, in detail, what it was that was before us before we started the further process of analyzing the image. The process can make a huge difference between our first gut reaction to something and the intelligent analysis of a work.

Part 1: Looking at Photographs—Context

What I want to start with here is the idea about how “context” is so important to our understanding of any photograph, or piece of visual art. Being aware of the circumstances surrounding the creation of the work and the concerns and ideas the creator of the work is dealing with can help us a great deal in our understanding of the work as well as in our ability to fully appreciate what has been presented.

The reality is that in every case, when we look at any image—well, everything in our life really—we do so, or at least start, from our own very specific contextual reference, or worldview, which we have developed throughout our lives. This worldview is the result of how we process our experiences and the knowledge we have gained and those things that are important to us.

But let’s back up a bit and consider a point that I made in the series of blog posts on how an “idea” is the genesis of every photograph we make.  We might also refer to this as the intent of an image but the point here is that when we make our images, we are drawing on our “worldview”. We choose subjects and situations to photograph that are interesting to us and we interpret what we photograph based on our current knowledge and understanding of our world and how we feel about things—our biases. Of course, we also incorporate what we know about creating a successful photograph as well. What we are doing when we create that image is giving it a CONTEXT, which then imparts a certain meaning to the image. The fact is that while each of us will have a unique worldview, we will often find that we share much of that with others with whom we normally associate and interact. In most cases, the meaning/intent of our image will be easily recognized, but not always. There may be some fact about what you have photographed that is not easily discerned or understood just by viewing it but which can easily affect how others might view it.

Let’s take the image here: AMTRAK 45032Location: about 1.5 miles west of Tioga, North Dakota on 6/19/05


If you have never seen this before and don’t know the context in which it was made, I think most would at least consider this a nicely done landscape image. On the other hand, if you saw this in the context of the series it belongs to, while you may or may not have noticed the train tracks in the background, you would then be sure that this image had to do with the railroad and if you then read the artist statement, that it is relevant to one of the historic routes between Chicago and the west coast of the US. How the knowledge of these things affect your reading of the image will vary depending on how you feel about such things, but it certainly will add to the meaning of the image on some level. These give the image context which may not have been easily known from just looking. The link to the series, and image, Click here or on the image.

On the other hand, and these ARE NOT the case, how would your opinion change if you found out that instead this was a photograph of a site where some gruesome mass murder of school children took place or maybe, less sensational, that the sky had been changed to create a more dramatic image?   My guess is that such things would change how you regarded or think about the image. Again, neither is the case! But knowing additional context will certainly change how we view an image and its meaning.

In a similar way, I recently was viewing a painting by William Turner. It was a very attractive work, however, as I read about the concerns Turner was dealing with, the events of the time and the specific scene and why he presented it as he did, my appreciation of the work became so much more rich. I was okay with just enjoying it visually but I would have missed so much not knowing the context of its making.

When we are on photo sharing sites, join a camera club or associate with other photographers in person, we will again generally find that, on the whole, we share a lot of common values and views. Our worldviews will be somewhat aligned, at least in the area that has brought us together. While we might not always agree on a photograph presented and what works or doesn’t, we will generally find that we all have a similar understanding of what a photograph is about.

Because we generally operate within such “familiar” circles— we get a confidence that we understand what we are seeing and if we like it or we don’t, we are pretty much correct in our assessment as “the photograph must stand on its own and it either works or it doesn’t”.

But to get some perspective on our confidence in these matters, maybe consider how we viewed such things before we learned about making photographs and acquired the skills we have developed to date in looking at photographs. I know that not only do I look at some of my early photographs and wonder: “what was I thinking” but that many of those “artworks” I bought to “decorate” my house early on have found their way into the trash bin. My surety as to a quality visual in the past is not the same as it is today!

Like most things in life—music, food, politics or whatever–the more we learn and discover about a subject the more sophisticated our understanding and more discerning we become with regards to it. While we may still enjoy some of those same things from earlier times, many are left behind and many new things we may have been uninterested in before are now among our favorite things. And, generally, there is always more to learn, experience and absorb!

In fact, I think it is just harder for us when it comes to visual art because we have been seeing and making “valid” judgments all our life–or we wouldn’t have survived–to realize that there may be limitations to that process. That things can, in fact, exist outside of our awareness when we confront something visual—it just often doesn’t make sense with the experiences we have had over our lives.

So once we get out of our more familiar circles, we can end up with some conflict regarding this process. We go to a museum or gallery and see work that might seem ridiculous to us. Because visual understanding seems so innate to us, we can easily move to a position that there must be something wrong with those who see value in those things we can’t. We often see this expressed that it is a case of the Emperor’s clothes. We just aren’t used to being wrong or unable to draw on our own visual references and “worldview” to make sense of things in a way that those others seem to be able to do. We don’t even have a reference point to admit that maybe we just don’t get it because it isn’t something we have experience with. That artworks can be created by someone with a worldview that is so different than our own.

I might suggest this would be like, for me, to find myself in a Chinese restaurant where no one spoke English and all the writing was in Chinese Characters. I would not have any idea what I was eating or ordering nor would I be able to easily find the restrooms. I would be in a “different world” or, as I prefer to call it, “not on the same playing field”. In fact, this actually happened to me in Hong Kong and I never did get the water I so desperately needed due to the heat and humidity. And I have no idea what I actually ate!

Whether we choose to spend the time and effort to gain the information we need to help us get a better sense of the context in which any work was created is certainly a decision we can make on a case-by-case basis. But when it comes to something we don’t understand or relate to, I know I generally consider that I just don’t have the contextual references to understand it right now.

In fact, although I have an extensive library on artists/photographers I do like and understand, I have spent most of the last 20 years acquiring books (as cheaply as possible!) about those I haven’t been able to understand or relate to. That doesn’t mean I will ever end up being able to completely relate to the work—let alone “like it”, which isn’t my goal—but I know that I will learn a great deal in my quest to do so. Those things learned have certainly influenced me in a variety of ways and have helped me solve visual problems in ways I may have never understood without having taken the time to learn. My own philosophy about this, and I think one shared by many, is that I can learn more by researching things I don’t understand than I can if I only pay attention to those things I like and understand. There is just so much to learn outside of our awareness.

In the next 2 parts I will explore some techniques that can help us expand our abilities when looking at art/photography. These techniques, when practiced while looking, will also allow us to grow in the ability to create our own images as well.