Really didn’t intend to write about this but I think I will. This is not on critiquing a photograph. It is about an specific aspect of critiquing a photograph from my point of view.
A few days ago a very good friend posted a photograph that prompted me to comment on line. My friend is a lay minister and the original photograph she posted came from a Christian organization. I have an innate interest in faith based photographs and have a tendency to possibly look more closely than I do at other genre.
I posted my comments and received somewhat favorable response. However, it is not this photograph that I specifically wish to comment on. It just brought up the subject of critiquing this aspect of photographs.
First, every element within the frame of a photograph either contributes to or distracts from the message of the photograph. Whether you are aware of that message; even whether or not you intend for there to be a message—there is one. Every time. There are numerous ways in which the photographer controls these elements: point of view, timing, focal length of lens, framing, juxtapositioning, hiding, concealing, and others.
Several years ago, I was in a home bound situation so to fill my spare time I critiqued photographs on PhotoNet and PhotSig. I enjoyed doing it and some found it helpful. Some of course, didn’t. There was one very notable situation where I made a female photographer extremely unhappy, actually very angry.
She had made a photograph of a couple who were her friends in their living room. In talking about the photograph she gushed on and on about how this photograph showed such a warm and happy relationship between these two people. It didn’t.
Unfortunately as amateur photographers we are never taught the language of a photograph. We get some of it intuitively but often what we see in a photograph is not the story the photograph tells but the story we know and project onto the photograph. Or the story we wish the photograph to tell.
Anyway, in this particular photograph there was a lady sitting on a couch in the lower right quadrant of the image. Up near the center top of the photograph the other member of this couple, the man, was standing with his back to the room looking out of the window. There was a physical distance of ten to fifteen feet between the two. The left two quadrants of the photograph were relatively dark and out of focus. You could identify the shapes of some furniture, among which there was what appeared to be a large dining table and what appeared to be possibly another adult leaning over the far left side of the dinning table, possibly attending to a baby, or at least a large object, that was on top of the table. In truth, the figure, the baby and even that end of the table was very dark and any indication of figures was mostly assumed from the shapes that appeared to be shadowy masses.
The woman on the couch was looking toward the shadowy shapes which gave them more authority to possibly be human. She was obviously not looking at the man. She was not in any way in the photograph interacting with the man. Nor was he looking toward or interacting with her. Now if this photograph had been taken five minutes earlier or five minutes later, they might have both been sitting on the couch, embracing, hugging, snuggling up together—relating to each other. But in the photograph, they were not.
It was very much a photographer letting their personal knowledge of the couple obscure what she had actually captured in the photograph. In truth, the relationship she depicted could much more easily have been read as adversarial.
The photographer knew this couple had a strong loving relationship. She wanted to capture that relationship with her camera. Photographs so often beguile us into: projecting our memory or prior knowledge onto the photograph so that we actually fail to see the photograph—the story the photograph is telling.
The frame of a photograph is like the covers of a book. What is inside may suggest other things but only what is within the frame or between the covers of the book is all that exists. The photographer’s knowledge of the relationship did not exist within the frame, within the covers of the story, therefore it does not exist. If it is going to be conveyed, that has to be done within the frame of the photograph.
The photographer so wanted to capture with her camera the relationship that she knew existed. An admirable undertaking, She wanted it so badly that she convinced herself that she had even though that was not the story she wrote in the photograph.
I pointed out that what she actually captured was a woman—not relating to the man—staring across the room and possibly relating to the shadowy figure. While the man stood at the window, his back to both the woman and the shadowy figure, in a stance that said more, “Oh Lord, how can I get out of here. Please some relief.”
When I pointed out the discrepancy between her writing about the photograph and what she actually captured, she got very angry.
The question is; did I help her with her photography, which truly was my intent. Many will say I didn’t. That’s okay. I did less harm to her abilities as a photographer than I would have by bolstering her version of the photograph. Maybe she couldn’t care less about content. And that is fine. But I would place money that the loving couple would agree with me—that the photograph does not convey the image of ‘loving couple which brings the subconscious into the equation--but that's another post.