Reading Photos – the Message

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.

The more photos I see the more I believe that a single uncaptioned photograph cannot tell a story. I can’t prove this but it is a theory I haven’t found an exception to yet.  An image can convey a message or a mood – let’s face it, advertising is founded on this principle.  And a viewer can construct a story – or many stories – based on an image, but that’s not the same thing as an image telling a particular story.  Show any single uncaptioned photograph to 10 different people and you will get 10 different stories.  Even if the viewers are visually sophisticated and know how to decode an image, the process is still culturally dependent and so will generate variations.  It’s the viewer that constructs the narrative from a photograph, not the other way round.

Great Dixter

A garden photographed for what it is…

Great Dixter

…and for what it isn’t

On the other hand, a good photographer should be able to convey a message or meaning in an single image that 10 different viewers will interpret in much the same way.  A message is equivalent to a sentence whereas a story will be at least a paragraph, a chapter or an entire book.  To use another metaphor, an image can contain signposts but it cannot contain the entire journey in detail.

I like this about photography: a strong factor in being drawn back to an image is its ability to be read in many ways.  It doesn’t seem to matter how well-composed or beautifully-lit an image is, if it is just a record of an object it probably won’t get a second glance except as a record of something beautiful.  That may be enough for some people but not for me.  Add some complexity, spice with symbolism or make it abstruse or ambiguous and you have an image that stands a good chance of engaging my curiosity and imagination, and that appeals to me.

If a photograph has moved beyond “recording what is” to engaging the viewer’s imagination by “recording what isn’t”, then the photographer has moved from craft to art.  Minor White wrote of “photographing the same things for what else they are”(1), and I think I’m talking about something very similar.


A cascade photographed for what else it is

(1) White, Minor. 1967. Brief Account of Career as Exhibition Photographer. n.p.


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