Regarding Photographs: Reading Photos I

This is the third essay in this series, and it begins a smaller sequence of notes running over the ways we as viewers make sense of pictures. We spend, I think, too much time thinking about what happens before and during the making of a picture, but not enough on what happens when someone actually looks at it. For most of us, for most pictures, surely this is the most interesting time?

How do we read a photo? That is, how do we make meaning from the photograph? How do we make the leap from the literal contents of the photograph to whatever kinds of larger, more connected, meaning we end up with?

If you are a photographer or a picture editor, you probably want the final results of your labor to communicate something. You hope to be able to guess what your viewers will see, what they will find in your work. To do that, it helps to have some sense of the processes they might use, of the paths they might tread, in making meaning of your work. The intention here and in the next few essays in this series is to explore some of those paths.

My position, as noted in earlier essays, is that the power of the photograph (most photographs, and some things that aren’t even quite photographs) is that they transport us, in a sense, to the scene. The extreme reality of a photo, or of a photorealistic painting, causes us to react (directly, viscerally) to the picture in roughly the same way we would react if we were actually there.

The result is what I think of as world-building. We see the scene, and we attempt to fill in the surrounding time and space with things that make sense, and which in turn cause the picture to make sense. Knowing, feeling, that the photograph was drawn from the real world, we invent or imagine a version of the real world from which we imagine the picture was drawn. In contrast, even when we do world-build around a painting, we do not necessarily build a kind of reality around it as we do a photograph. We treat a painting as potentially fiction, we imagine a fictional world to contain it; we treat a photo as real and imagine a real world.

Some of a photograph’s meaning may be relatively fixed. It may be clear, say, what we’re supposed to look at, what we’re supposed to think. An attractive landscape likely makes it clear that you’re supposed to think it’s beautiful, and that may be about all the picture has to say. A photograph of a dead bird covered in spilled crude oil doesn’t really leave a lot of room for praising the oil industry; you might still wonder about the circumstances of the spill, who is to blame, the extent of the damage, and so on. Many photos, perhaps most photos, leave a fair bit of room open for interpretation, for questions, for guesses. All these are things we might construct in our own minds as “meaning.”

A picture of a protester being wrestled to the ground at a street protest causes us to imagine the confrontation that came before this moment, maybe. Maybe we imagine the mass of people out of frame. We imagine the emotions in the mind of the policeman and in the mind of the protester as they struggle. The world we create, that we imagine the picture comes from, tells us what it means. From our imagination of the scene, we deduce or invent motives and emotions for the policeman and the protester, we guess about the outcome, we form opinions about who is right and who is wrong. We expand the photograph in our own minds from merely two humanoid shapes grappling, mere blobs of tone and color on a screen, into a larger and more complete world.

We build the imagined world based on an almost endless collection of material, and the next few essays in this series explore some of that material.

While it’s tempting to start with the contents of the picture itself, I think that’s the wrong end of the stick. The point is how we, as viewers, interact with that stuff in the frame to make meaning. Let’s start with what is inside our own mind, and how that colors what we see in the picture.

I am going now to describe two imaginary photographs. If I presented real photos, you’d read them. You would make meaning from them, and that would make it more difficult to imagine alternate readings, alternate meanings that someone else might make. Therefore, I give you only imagined photos, so they can change shape in your mind. I can tell you details and then change those details. With luck, and by your generosity, you’ll follow along!

The first photograph is of an old woman at a birthday party. She is wearing a funny hat and appears to be leaning forward to blow out candles on a cake. She is surrounded by younger people.

The second is a man seated on a chair in an otherwise more or less empty room.

Think about how our own selves inform how we might read these pictures. Our own memories, life experience, and personality.

Suppose the old woman has a sour expression on her face. You might suppose that she is having a lousy party, that something has gone wrong, something has upset her. If she were your grandmother, though, you might recognize that scrunched up expression as the one she makes before she laughs. You know that this photograph means one thing, that the old woman is about to laugh. I, not knowing your grandmother, might take it to mean quite another thing. I might be very certain about my understanding, it’s obvious to me that she is angry. It’s just true!

If the old woman in the photo is a stranger to you, but making the same expression your grandmother makes before she laughs, you might find yourself unsure. Perhaps you would commit to the “she is about to laugh” interpretation, perhaps not.

Consider the other imaginary photo.

Let us imagine that the man in the chair is leaning forward slightly, hands folded, looking intently out of frame. The picture offers no clear meaning, no clear interpretation. Is the man looking at something out of frame? Listening to something? Or is he simply lost in reverie? Is this a carefully posed casual portrait, or is it a spontaneous snapshot of an occurrence? Let us stipulate that the photograph leaves all these things unknown and that no caption or other explanation is handy to reveal anything. We’ll get to captions and so forth later. For now, it’s just you and the photograph.

He reminds you, maybe, of your father or an uncle or a former boss. Perhaps the man in the chair reminds you of that other person in a particular situation. Your boss, maybe, listening to an absurd excuse from another employee. Your uncle being told off by his wife. Your father sitting quietly and thinking.

Perhaps you remember sitting like that yourself at some crucial or memorable point in your life, or of yelling at, or of flirting with, a man who was sitting like that.

Your memory will inform how you see the picture of the man.

The meaning of the photo floats, until you fix it, until you nail it down. When you do that, then you “know” what it means, you have an opinion about what is going on. You have read the photo and made meaning from it.

This is the third 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.