On Contemplating Photographs

Photographs are meant to be contemplated. One cannot fully understand or appreciate a photograph at a mere moment's glance; it must be examined, it must build in the mind, it must have time to touch the soul.


When first approaching a photograph, the viewer will notice the main subject matter first (be it a person or an object). The eye will slowly move around the photograph and begin to pick out all of the supporting details. The details of a photograph will vary in importance depending on the mode that the print will be used for. In photojournalism, the subject and details are of paramount importance, in an abstract photograph, the object photographed is secondary to the composition and mood (to be discussed later). In essence, this first stage establishes what the photograph is. Can this be determined? Is it a portrait? Is it a mountain? Is it a street scene?


After the initial elements of the photograph are taken in by the viewer, a deeper understanding begins to form; the forms and composition begin to shine through and the viewer begins to notice how the photographer organized the photograph. At this stage, the viewer begins to contemplate not just the incidentals of the photograph but the soul of the photographer.


As Edward Weston stated, “Composition is the strongest form of seeing.” Through the arrangement of forms, the organization of patterns, the direction of lines and the contrast between light and dark, the photographer adds emotion and interpretation to the scene or subject that is photographed. In a cursory glance at a photograph, all of this is lost. There must be time to build the impressions of formal and compositional relationships within a photograph. By organizing the seeming chaos of life into an ordered scene, the photographer expresses not just what he saw but what he felt about the scene.


What the photographer felt about a scene is refined further in the tonal relationships between the forms of the photograph. Why did the photographer choose this moment and this composition to show, not just what they saw, but what they felt about the subject photographed? Was the scene calming or serene? Was it inspiring and majestic? Was it intense and chaotic? These different moods are drawn out in the tonality of the print (this is especially true in black and white).


This point about tonality is truly where the craft of photography becomes most evident. The artistic inspiration is what inspired the photographer by what was seen and to compose the photograph in the most effective frame. The craft of the photographer is knowing how to express the scene to effectively convey the emotional response to it. This decision is best made at the moment of making the photograph and must be carried out in the darkroom. If the photographer does not know how to translate the scene in front of the lens into a proper tonal relationship to demonstrate what was seen and felt the photograph will be nothing but a snapshot.


To fully reach this level of appreciation of and connection with a photograph, the viewer must be willing to invest the time. To understand a photograph, it must be contemplated; it must be seen with both the intellect and the soul and not just looked at. By fully examining a photograph as an intentional work of art, the viewer will be able to reach a higher level of understanding about both what was photographed as well as the person who made the photograph. A quick, cursory glance will not yield the same results.


Unfortunately, the prominence of posting photography online has deteriorated these higher levels of understanding. In an online gallery, there may be hundreds of pictures; each picture may be examined for a few seconds and then the viewer moves on to the next. Through this approach, the viewer notices what is in the picture (a tree, a person, a mountain etc) as well as any immediate emotional response. It should be noted that this response is not of the deeper emotions that are cultivated through time (such as love) but it is more akin to shock. Love is an emotion that grows over the course of time. The initial flutterings of the heart grow through acts of the intellect and the will, through further appreciation of that which is loved. On the other hand, the shock of a short term viewing seems to have a large initial impact but then fades and is forgotten as the viewer moves on.


What then is to be done? There are two main solutions for solving this problem and being able to return to a full appreciation of the photograph: books and galleries. Both of these avenues of photographic viewing have their strengths and weaknesses. Viewing photographs in a gellery is the more important while building a photographic library is the more common.


The gallery is the highest form of photographic collection and viewing. The first main reason for this is that upon entering a gallery, the viewer has removed themselves from all distraction or outside influence. There is no chance of being distracted by an e-mail popping up on the computer, there will be no calls from another room, there is no phone to answer; from the moment the viewer entered the door, the only task at hand is the appreciation of photographs. This change in setting adds to the change in mindset to make one open to truly experiencing and contemplating photographs.


Possibly the more important reason to visit a gallery besides just the change of space is that the print is the true medium of photography. Whether it is one a plate, created in a darkroom or printed from a digital file, photography, as an art form, is meant to be a physical print. Even beyond this idea that the nature of photography is most fully expressed through a print, there is also the added beauty of a print that cannot be reproduced in any other form. No matter how excellent a reproduction is made, an actual darkroom print that Ansel Adams made by hand is infinitely more beautiful and inspiring than one on a computer screen (and even in a book).


The print shows the true hand of the photographer. The object hanging on the wall was made by the photographer. It is not a reproduction. It is not a facsimile of the photographer's work. This is how they themselves created the photograph.


It is interesting how obvious this is within the realm of the visual arts in general while it has fallen away in photography. As an example, is it better to see the Mona Lisa in the Louvre or to see a photograph of it online? The online gallery shows the same picture, the colors are perfectly corrected, it is very high resolution so the viewer can actually look closer than they could in the museum. Still there is something lacking. It may look like the Mona Lisa but it is not the Mona Lisa. There is a value in seeing the actual piece of art. Even beyond that, one could find a beautiful rendering of the Sistine Chapel online. In this example, it is definitely easier to get a close look at all of the detail online. That being said, the painting is not about the brush strokes. By entering into the church and putting oneself right underneath the painting, a person can reach a much greater understanding and appreciation of the painting. It needs to be seen in its proper setting to form the true emotional bond. The same is true of a photograph. You have not seen the work of Ansel Adams (to return to the previous example) until you have stood in front of the prints he made with his own hands.


While the gallery may be the best opportunity to view photography in its true form, there are a few drawbacks. These can mainly be summed up as time and opportunity. In short, there may not be frequent chances for every individual interested in photography to frequent galleries. The answer to this is the building up of a personal photography library.


Through ownership of a physical photograph (whether in the form of a print or a book) a deeper appreciation will build. This is true for a few different reasons. First of all, the atmosphere in which printed work is viewed is more conducive to contemplation than a computer screen. The change of space from where work is done (in front of the computer) to where relaxation is done (the living room, a couch, a favored chair etc) helps put the mind at ease. When looking through a collection of photographs, there is not a task that needs to be accomplished. The goal is not to get all the way through the collection so much as it is to appreciate the photographs. Through this approach, the viewer can look at a photograph, allow the mind to wander and connect to other things, turn the page, turn back and all around enjoy the experience.


There is a secondary reason for the benefit of a personal collection of photography books. The more a photograph is viewed, the more appreciation and layers of meaning can be added. Depending on the happenings of life and the spiritual or emotional state of the viewer, different photographs will have more or less impact at different points in time. By having constant access to the collection of photographs, the viewer will continue to add depth and meaning to the work as their perspective changes. The different emotional responses will help draw out the meaning that the photographer was trying to convey as well as connect the viewer to specific photographs.


The final point worth noting is that through ownership of a collection of books (as well as prints or plates etc) is that the photo enthusiast will have constant access to photographic inspiration. If one has a shelf full of photography books, it is not necessary to wait for the next exhibition to be near; there are always works on hand.