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Regarding Photographs: Photo Criticism

The previous essays in this series have tried to develop some ideas about what happens when people look at photos. The realism, that mass of realistic detail, causes (I claim) a visceral reaction: we feel, we react, we think, a little as if we were transported by the photograph into the scene itself.

We find ourselves, a little, in an imagined but somehow complete world. This world is a version of reality we build from the picture itself, from what we know of the picture, from captions and other surrounding material, but also from who we are, what we know, what we remember. We build, each of us, a different world into which to fit the picture, because each of us is a different person. Sometimes we build radically different worlds, but often we arrive at more or less similar worlds.

We make meaning from photographs each of us in our own individual way. If we’re finding radically different worlds around the picture, we are might read the picture radically differently. If, though, we arrive at roughly similar ideas of what the world around the picture looks like, if we imagine similar events before and after, similar emotions from the people in the picture, we might well arrive at similar meanings. We might then read the picture in roughly similar ways.

Even if there are substantive differences in this imagined world, between you and me, we can still arrive at the same meaning. Whether it’s a duck or a cow we’re imagined just out-of-frame, we might still see the same delight on the child’s face.

Normally we find that the meaning we make is a lot like the meaning made by people who are like us. People with similar political leanings will likely understand political portraits along party lines. While each read is different, Democrats or Tories will likely see the photo roughly one way, while Republican or Labour faithful will see it quite the other way around.

Similarly, what you make of a news photograph probably falls into a small number of groups of roughly similar readings, depending on what opinions you have already formed about this particular item of news. Occasionally, a photo or a news piece will change your mind, but rarely to some radically new position. Rather, you tend to move from one camp to another camp. You will leave the “guilty” fan club and join the “innocent” fan club, rather than founding a new “it was aliens that done it!” club.

People have, it turns out, much in common with one another, and tend to have similar ideas about the world, and therefore tend to arrive at the same kinds of conclusions about photographs.

If you are a photographer, or a picture editor, or a critic, or are simply interested in how photos “work” you’re probably interested in what happens when people look at photos, at how they make meaning from them. Understanding how people read photos is a kind of criticism. In fact, in literary circles, this has been identified and named (starting around 60 years ago) as “Reader-Response Criticism.” As far as I know, it’s not particularly prominent in photography circles.

It seems to me, though, that it should be. While we might not be able to unlock deep academic, um, secrets with these simple ideas, sure the reader’s response is something a photographer or editor might reasonably care about?

As photographers and editors, we’re often just interested in this simple question: what will my audience, what will people, make of this?

We can, of course, just look at it and see what we make of it.

Every photographer rapidly learns that what we make of our own pictures does not necessarily line up with what everyone else makes of them. Your mom doesn’t notice that you nailed the focus but does see that your model looks underdressed and chilly.

This same idea is more general, though. Your photos from the Quinceañera might be read as “kind of like a Bat Mitzvah” to a Jew, “kind of like a cotillion” to an American southerner, and “some sort of party” to many others. Different groups of people will see your picture, your pictures, your photo essay, differently.

It’s tempting to think that what we need to do, really, is to establish the truth behind the photograph. Is that, really for-real, an alien spaceship or a hub cap in the photo? Is the girl really happy, or just acting? This is often impossible to do, and in the end often isn’t very interesting anyways. Who cares if it’s a macro photograph of a pollen if everyone thinks it’s a baseball?

I call this kind of critique, the attempt to establish the truly-true-truth of a photo, a forensic reading.

The understandings each of us arrive at, one by one, of a photo I call personal readings.

A critical reading, which is what we’re going for here, is an attempt to understand the breadth of possible, reasonable, personal readings. Is it a UFO, or a hub cap? Both are possible personal readings, depending (probably) on whether you believe in UFOs or not. A critical reading makes some attempt to understand which it truly is, as far as is possible, but also and more importantly gathers up both of the personal readings.

I think of this as constructing a sheaf of readings. That is, a collection of ways this picture could be understood, mainly by people we’re trying to communicate with.

To discover in ourselves the ways that other people will tend to see a picture is essentially an act of empathy and of imagination.

To discover, to guess, what even one other person will see in a photo we need some limited ability to stand and walk in their shoes. We need to imagine ourselves as them, rather than as ourselves. To understand a photograph of a political figure critically we must imagine ourselves as a devoted member of the other party, not merely the one we follow. Only then can we see that the hated politician can be seen as venal and weak, but also as powerful and decisive.

Neither reading is forensic, they’re both personal readings. The truth of whether the politician is weak or decisive is not even relevant here, what matters is what people think when they see the picture. It is the two readings together, that little sheaf of two, that makes up the critical understanding of the picture. Having both, we understand more broadly what the picture means to people generally.

In the same way, to critically read a UFO photo, or a photograph of the Loch Ness Monster, of Sasquatch, has nothing to do with whether these things are real. We need to imagine ourselves as believers, and also as non-believers, and look at the photograph through both sets of eyes.

Empathy and imagination are the keys, here.

You are already perfectly capable of discovering what you make of a photograph. To discover what others might make of the same photo, though, demands empathy. You must understand, at least a little, something of other lives, other ideologies, other beliefs, other faiths, other cultures. You must, also, have the emotional skills necessary to step into the shoes of these other human beings and see the world, a little, through their eyes.

Then you can begin to see how they might, having been transported into a photograph, build and interpret the world around the photograph, in ways that are different from the ways you do. Then you can begin to see how they might make meaning from a photo that is different, but perhaps no less valid, than the way you so.

In the end, after mastering a few technical details about focus and exposure, the exercise that might help you improve your photography the most might just be to read a few good novels, and maybe some world history.


This is the sixth in a series of essays on photographs, on the ways we as viewers construct meaning from them, and on what it all means.


About the author: Andrew Molitor writes software by day and takes pictures by night. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Molitor is based in Norfolk, Virginia, and does his best to obsess over gear, specs, or sharpness. You can find more of his writing on his blog.

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