Monday, February 22, 2010

Showing, interpreting and explaining

click photo to enlarge
One of the things that every photograph says to a viewer is, "Look at this" because photography is a way of showing and interpreting the world. Many of the earliest photographs emphasised the medium's ability to bring accurate images from across the world into the eye and mind of people who had never ventured abroad. In November 1839, less than three months after Daguerre's invention became available, the painter Horace Vernet was using it to record scenes in the city of Alexandria in Egypt - a remarkable example of the quick implementation of new technology. The images Vernet made enabled European audiences to see what had previously been depicted only in words, engravings and paintings.

But, when the novelty of the photograph had worn off people began to see that cameras could do more than simply show the world; they could interpret it in something like the way that painters did. It was this important step that made some see photography as a medium capable of producing art. Today the field of photography is still divided up in this way, with amateurs and professionals producing images that either show or interpret.

Today's photograph is one that I took at the Boathouse Business Centre, a new and striking looking building at Wisbech in Cambridgeshire. It is a partner to the image I posted a couple of weeks ago. But, where that photograph was essentially "show", this one has an element of "interpret". How? Well, firstly I deliberately tilted the camera for the shot, and in such a way that the central column of the spiral staircase (and the vertical wind turbine) form a diagonal across the square frame. In doing that I could use the treads of the stairs as a curving diagonal across the square in the opposite direction, making a balanced, dynamic composition. And, in emphasizing the pattern of the segments of the underside of the stair treads I'm inviting the viewer to not only look at a possibly overlooked part of the building, I'm also saying look at it the way I saw it. My image, therefore, is as much about form and composition as it is about the subject.

Describing my photograph in this way makes it sound a rather fine and grand image: it's not. But that's always a danger when you describe the how and why of a photograph or painting. I think my shot's O.K., but no more than that. The act of putting into words the how and why of image making is something that photographers (and painters for that matter) are reluctant to do. Perhaps they think it robs their work of some of its magic and mystery, and makes it too accessible! Whatever the reason, it shouldn't be only critics and academics doing this sort of thing, and I try to offer a little explanation every now and then.

photograph & text (c) T. Boughen

Camera: Olympus E510
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 14mm (28mm/35mm equiv.)
F No: f6.3
Shutter Speed: 1/125
ISO: 100
Exposure Compensation: -0.3 EV
Image Stabilisation: On