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Regarding Photographs: What Does a Photograph DO Anyways?


So, you make photographs? Or take them, or something like that? I’m going to guess here that you probably hope people will like them, or see something in them that’s interesting. You’re interested in how people see photographs, how people make sense of photos. Me too.

This essay series is my attempt to figure some of that out, to figure it out in ways that make sense to me. Maybe some of it will make sense to you, too. None of this is particularly contemporary academic theory of photography, as far as I know.

My intention here is to talk about photographs, mostly. Mostly things that are photographs, and things that are mostly photographs, but not quite.

Photographs are different from drawings and paintings. This is obvious, of course, but what really is the difference? Is a photograph just a really detailed painting, or what? Why do fashion houses spend enormous sums to make photographs of dresses and shoes when they already have drawings of those same dresses and those same shoes? What is it about photographs that makes them special?

There’s a lot of theories and ideas around what a photograph is, really, which are tied to the way photographs are made. The camera records a scene automatically, mechanistically, and in a very detailed way. That’s interesting to some people some of the time.

Here, for our purposes, I don’t really care about much of it. What I am interested in here is things that look real enough. There’s a few paintings that look real, and there’s quite a few photos that don’t look real. There are, increasingly, things made by “Artificial Intelligence” (AI) which look real, but aren’t technically photographs, and aren’t real.

These things that look real are what I care about, and what I want to talk about.

Since these things are, mostly, photographs, let’s start with a sketch of what a photograph is. Let’s back up after all to how these things are usually made, automatically, by a machine.

A lens projects a picture of the real world, a kind of copy of the world, onto the back of a box. Something on the back of the box mechanistically records that two-dimensional copy of the world, and makes something out of it. Maybe it makes an exposed film, maybe it makes a digital file, it doesn’t really matter what it makes. It makes something we can turn into a flat representation, a rectangle covered with blobs of tone and color. When we look at this rectangle of blobs, it causes a visual response that’s similar to what would have happened if we’d looked at the original scene. Our eyes and brain, pointed at this “photograph,” do something a lot like what they would have done if we’d pointed them at whatever it was that was photographed.

You can simulate this same effect with AI, or with a very very carefully made painting. On the flip side, if you take some kind of abstract photograph, the result doesn’t necessarily look real at all.

But generally, what we’re talking about is actual photographs of actual stuff. It’s a kind of 2 dimensional copy of something we could have seen in the real world. The physical mechanisms of eyes and brain respond to it a little bit it as-if it were real.

What is the point of all this?

Well, we react to these kinds of pictures in a pretty specific way. Two examples seem to illustrate the point pretty well.

A photograph can induce vertigo. Not an abstract sense of unease, but the actual physical body reaction to being in a very high place. A photograph of a man on a tightrope between two buildings, or Margaret Bourke-White out on an art-deco gargoyle-thing on the Chrysler building, can directly induce the spinal cringe of vertigo.

A photograph can arouse. Again, the pornographic image reaches our spinal response directly. Our body reacts. A pornographic drawing might seem to arouse us, but our reaction passes through the imagination. We imagine the scene based on the drawing, and are aroused by our imagination. A photograph reaches the hormones directly.

This may seem like trivial philosophical ruminating, and perhaps it is. Still, there are some consequences here.

This direct, somatic response, this response rooted in the body rather than the mind, gives us direct access (in a sense) to the world of the photograph. We respond, almost instinctively, by imagining the world the photo is pulled from. We fill in the details: details to surround the frame, and details to come before and after the moment of exposure. The photograph brings its subject together with us, the viewer, in a direct way.

In a sort of metaphorical and limited way, we and the subject occupy an imagined world together.

There is one slightly peculiar distinction I am going to ask you to think about and, at least for our purposes here, to accept.

Suppose you see a photograph of a dog running down the street, trailing its leash. You wonder if the dog was OK, and you wonder where the owner was.

You are, in a sense, there. The photograph does not bring the dog to you, it brings you to the dog. If the dog were brought to you, it would be safe with you, but it is not. You worry that it’s about to run into the street and be killed. You are there. Metaphorically.

So, of the many things a photograph does, the one that I am interested in here is this: it transports you, the viewer, in a limited but visceral way, to the scene of the photograph. Your body and mind react, a little, as if you were there.

I’m not proposing a literal Star Trek transporter here, although that’s a useful metaphor. I’m merely proposing that our body and mind react to a photograph, a little bit, as if we were there in the scene. I’m proposing that we react differently to photographs (and things that look like photos) than we do to drawings or paintings. I’m proposing that this is why fashion houses use photographs of dresses and shoes rather than drawings, and why we prefer photos for many other uses as well.

It is this property of placing us in or at the scene that makes photographs work as photographs.

It is because we are dropped into the scene that we react to the picture by attempting to fill in the details. We imagine what occurred before and after the exposure was made, we imagine what was outside the frame, and we imagine what the people in the frame are thinking. Because our reaction is based in a bodily “this is kind of like real” response, these questions are not intellectual, they are visceral. Something did happen, there are things outside the frame, and those people are thinking thoughts and having emotions. Because we are “present” we have a direct relationship with, a direct interest in, all those things.

We notice things in the frame. Not everything. We notice things around the picture, like captions, accompanying text, accompanying pictures. We remember things from our own lives, we consider things which we believe to be true. All these things we put together to build a world in which to place the photograph, a world we imagine the picture to have been drawn from.

If the picture is from a protest march, we have some notions of what such marches are like. We probably have a belief about who is right and who is wrong. We have some ideas about the kinds of things that happen at protest marches.

We interpret this picture, of this protest march, in the light of all those things, and more.

We make meaning from the picture based on all those things: on the picture, on the context in which we see the picture, and on ourselves.

This is the first 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.