PHO702 Informing Contexts Week 2: What Is A Photograph?

What is a photograph?

In my last blog entry I discussed the problems that I have with blogging and my less than enthusiastic love of the process. I also spent sometime looking at a photograph made by Chris Killip at Castleford in yorkshire and how it evoked emotions and recalled memories for myself.

I suppose one of the biggest questions about photographs is ‘What exactly is a photograph?’

I could define a photograph as a flat plane of light sensitive material onto which has been imprinted an image of some sort. This material could consist of a glass plate or strip of celluloid material (both coated with a light sensitive material) or the solid state electronic CCD (charge coupled device) that forms the sensor in a digital camera. In all these cases the nature of the image formed is largely a result of mechanical action – the lens focuses the light being reflected from the subject onto the film or sensor which captures it. This is very different from the process of creating a painting – there at first, appears to be little or no input from the photographer (other than pointing the camera at a subject) in the creation of the image, unlike the process of painting during which the artist process his view of the subject before committing that process to his canvas. That processing by the artist may result in the addition or removal of items to/from the completed painting as the artists interprets the subject. The creation of painting is thus a highly subjective process which may change the nature of the ‘real’ – we cannot be sure that a given painting is an authentic depiction of what the artist actually saw.

A camera, on the other hand, can only capture what is placed before it – the final image is directly related to the subject and thus represents that subject in an authentic manner. Or does it? Just as an artist can change his/her point of view and select what he chooses to add to his/her finished work so the photographer can also select his/her point of view and what he/she chooses to include or exclude from the finished work although with the advent of photo-editing processes, whether analogue or digital one can never be really sure that camera actually captured the subject in an accurate authentic manner or not.

Early photographers certainly changed the nature of the images they captured. Their cameras were bulky and difficult to transport, the materials used to capture the image possessed limited sensitivity to light often requiring long exposure times resulting in blurring of the images – they certainly could not capture the fast action of a battle for instance, often with the result that some element of the battle had to be re-staged in order to capture a successful image.

Thus, although we are all used to the notion that ‘the camera never lies’ and provides a truthful accurate representation of what was before the lens it has never deserved that reputation.

With this in mind I’d like to look at the some of the concepts that we can attribute to photographs as described by John Szarkowski (The Photographer’s Eye) and Stephen Shore (The Nature Of Photographs) :-

In ‘The Photographer’s Eye’  John Szarkowski identified five defining features of the image :-

The Thing Itself

Photography deals with the actual. The photographer had to accept that fact and learn to treasure it otherwise photography would defeat him. He or she, had to realise that the world is an incomparable artist and to learn how best to capture what the world produced. Photographers also have to learn that, no matter how good the camera or the resulting picture was that they made it was very difficult from the original object/scene that they saw – the subject and the image are not the same although they may seem to be.

The Detail

The photographer is tied to the facts of the thing that stood before the camera – it was their problem to force these facts to tell the truth – the subject could only be recorded as it was found, and sometimes these facts would have, in some way, to be be bought together in order to produce and image or seek to tell a story.

The Frame

The camera cannot capture everything that the eye can see, it cannot capture a landscape or scene in its entirety and so the photographer is forced to make a selection from that entirety that will fit onto his plate or negative. The edge of the film became important and you had to choose what to put in the frame and what to leave out.


Each image made represents a moment in time although that moment could never be instantaneous – it will always be some small unit of time but never an exact, absolute, instant. At first, with slow films and long exposures the subject had to remain static or blurring of the image would occur. As film speeds and shutter speeds increased the blurring effect could be almost eliminated but, it could also be utilised to express the frozen moment or demonstrate that a subject was in motion.

Vantage Point

Multiple photographers can capture the same subject at the same instant of time yet the image that each produces will be different – the photographers will be in different positions in relation to the subject, or be said to have different vantage points. Each image produced may have a different meaning that will be produced as a result of that vantage point.

Stephen Shore, in ‘The Nature Of Photographs’ expanded upon these ideas although many concepts remained very similar if not the same. The defining points produced by Shore are indicated below :-

Physical  Level

This, like Szarkowski’s Detail is determined by the nature of the medium upon which the captured image is displayed

Depictive Level


The very act of making an image transforms a three-dimensional world into a two dimensional object – it can create relationships between that do not exist in the 3D world. These relationships will depend upon the vantage point of the photographer – a slight movement on the part of the photographer can make or break them


The photograph has edges but the world does not – what the photographer selects from the world is bounded by these edges. The Frame can act in a dynamic manner, either causing the viewer to seek to expand the image outward from the center or draw them closer towards the center of the image emphasising a particular object or group of objects


A photograph is static – once made it does not change. However, it does continue to exist in time and moves forward in time just like any other object. It therefore depicts and event or something that existed at a particular time at a particular moment.

Time in an image can be shown as Frozen Time – the movement of an object or subject is literally frozen at a particular point during the capture (although the objects motion continues outside of that point) or as Extrusive Time – the movement of the object in front of the camera continues while the shutter is open resulting in blur, indicating motion or the passage of time itself and finally Still Time – the content of the image is at rest in front of the camera and time itself appears to stand still.


Where the camera lens is focused determines the plane of focus. This can create a hierarchy within the image giving an importance to a part of the image while diminishing other areas. It can be used to emphasise relationships between objects or subjects.

Mental Level

This may be coincident with the depictive level but it does not mirror it. The mental level occurs solely within the brain of the viewer (that is not to say it did not occur in the brain of the photographer) but acts to elaborate, refine and possibly embellish our perception of the image – it provides the base framework upon which we build the picture and how we react to it.

Like the levels of Szarkowski the levels of Shore do not act individually, each somehow acts together with, or informs the other levels so that all may operate together to determine the nature of the image and how we react to it.

While all these things may act together to determine how we see the image and react to it, there is a further influence upon us that is determined by the context in which we encounter the image.

If I encounter the image in a gallery, for example, I may be inclined to ascribe greater importance to that image than encountering the same image in a magazine – the very fact that it has been chosen by someone to appear in a gallery indicates that it is, in someway, perceived as important and meaningful. Similarly, if I encounter an image in a newspaper my reaction to the image may be determined by the type of newspaper in which the image has appeared – are you more likely to accept an image as true is its printed in The Sun / Daily Mirror or if its printed in The Times / The Guardian?

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