Some photographs make me want to keep looking at them or return to them again and again. Why is this? It’s not just subject or composition, but a generic set of cues and clues that seem to apply to many of my favourite images. I thought I’d share my ideas about some of these: Abstract Reality; Message; Symbol; Metaphor.
All photographs are abstractions to some extent: we frame a slice of time and present it as a 2-dimensional image, often in black & white, so we’ve removed time, depth, information from outside the frame and often colour from our representation of reality. Doing this means that the photograph is bound to be an abstraction of reality. Even apparently “straight” photographs have a degree of abstraction about them but our brains are trained through life in an image-based society to interpret them as literal. If you doubt this, bear in mind that previously-isolated hill tribes without a culture of image making do not recognise a photograph taken of a person or object then shown to them immediately as an image of that person or object.
As a visual code we allow moving objects to blur and we concentrate the viewer’s attention by manipulating what is in and out of focus. We also imply the third dimension of depth by changing the focal length of the lens and the depth of field.
Beyond this, we can also manipulate the lighting. Done subtly we may not notice that a mood has been enhanced or a detail highlighted. We might also detect that something is different – not quite real-world without realising why. Artificial light or computer manipulation might be used to give a controlled look to the image.