Five Things to Consider When Looking at Photographs

  By John Veldhoen

Exposure, Alberta’s Photography Festival celebrates its 15th year this February, with twenty events and over thirty exhibitions of photography. With so many opportunities to look at great photographs, John Veldhoen, book curator at The Camera Store,  outlines five things to keep in mind.

Different people at different times have told me that the struggle they have looking at photographs is that often they feel like there is a joke being played, that some piece of information is being withheld that makes looking at photographs less pleasurable. Everyone seems to get the joke, but no one wants to ever explain how it works. It is also like a magician who doesn’t reveal the secret to the trick. In fact, I think the way that a photographer and a non-photographer look at a picture is completely the same. Perhaps one has a little more familiarity with the apparatus of the camera, but that doesn’t really equate to being more empowered to evaluate a photograph, or, I truly believe, enjoy, looking at photographs. There are a number of really good critical curatorial books on the subject (with a great selection to be found at The Camera Store); I am stealing a lot from one of them, by John Szarkowski, called The Photographer’s Eye, to write this primer of five things to help understand how to look at photographs.

1). Frame

Not, like, the frame the picture is in… but the frame of representation that the photographer has chosen to put around their selection of reality. An invaluable way to think of the content in the frame is “the thing itself.” By being photographed, selected, and enframed, the photographer is making a choice to write with light and communicate something about that thing (which is like the tip of the iceberg).

2). Detail

An awesomely useful concept to interpret photographs that seems to cover so many interpretive scenarios comes out of a book by French linguist Roland Barthes, “Studium” (literally, Latin for “study”) is the word that he used to describe the character of a photograph that makes it worth studying… There is great subtlety in Barthes writing and it is a good idea to read him. This is what looking closely at a photograph does: we study it for detail. Barthes used another word, “punctum,” which is a term used in anatomy to describe something coming to a point, Barthes said “the punctum of a photograph is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).” It is the subjective detail that comes out of the study of the picture, that seems to make a picture speak to a particular viewer… This is the key part to understand, that what sticks out from a studied picture is not necessarily what will stick out for the photographer, and may not be the reason why the photograph was taken, or the meaning of the picture. Sometimes it is, but not always; sometimes a picture works because that thing that pokes my eye is there every fifteen minutes, so to speak. The point of the picture comes right on time. It seems to be a part of the picture in the same way as a punchline is part of a joke.

3). Perspective

What I mean by perspective is not the technical term that relates to focal length, field of view, vanishing point or so on… I also don’t mean the form that arises from the choices that a photographer makes regarding the use of a lens. I mean something more like vantage point, but I want to make it clear how that point is a choice made by the photographer, of what to keep in their view, or obscure, or remove. This is not the same thing as framing: the frame is the limit of the photograph for the viewer, where one thing begins and another ends. For the photographer, the frame is the result of choices of perspective. For the viewer looking at a photograph, it is an area to discern the character, or  imagine the morality of the photographer who has made a photograph; better yet, it is an area to examine the viewer’s own ethical or aesthetic response to what the picture calls up.

4). Figure and Ground

These are terms that come from a brand of psychology that deals with interpreting human perception. In essence, these are the parts of what is called “composition.” They are terms also used to describe the way details are layered into space, even the actual placement of layers of paint on a surface. Inkjet, or giclee prints, are sprayed with pigment or ink, usually on a ground made of paper. The figuration of the ink has more importance today. The tonal ranges and choices of reflectance, of combining ink and paper are much broader than any other time in the past, as is a photographer’s choice of ground. The human hand has become even more of a part of photographs than when they were made by light transfer onto chemically treated paper. Some may point to this moment in photographic printing as a moment when the medium grew to add more varied textures, just as the use of impasto in Baroque painting.  Older chemically processed images are flatter, in a certain sense, because they don’t have this same layered quality. What makes me excited to see state-of-the-art photographs is also to see state-of-the-art prints, which leads me into material culture: collecting pictures for formal figurating, the material qualities, as well as for their content.

5). Concept

There is a tradition of interpretation since the 1970s that conceptual expression may be the intended purpose of a photographic creation, and likewise for the appreciation of a photograph. Pictures may also be things-in-themselves, not at all tied up with generation of an idea, but it may be a much more visceral feeling, as opposed to a formulated idea. Concepts may not be the accompanying text of an image, or the idea behind a picture, or what the photographer meant to communicate.

If, looking at the Albrecht Dürer etching “Knight, Death, and the Devil,” you see an illustration of a well-known historical text, with good provenance to suggest that it is likely to be the meaning of the picture intended by the artist, you would agree that Dürer wanted to communicate an idea. Others might see it, though, and consider the elements in the frame as they are, potentially representative of conflicts specific to the depicted figure of the knight. The knight may be shining white, on a bleak patch of fetid black ground, surrounded by forces that cause his need for armour. Or, he could be a black mercenary, on a square of driven snow, and death and the devil are his only companions. The success of the image may not be in the historical reason for it existing, but rather Dürer’s ability to transfer the emotions of nobility, or villainy from the chessboard of life to his “imaginary, eternal” composition. The latter interpretation may not be as historically likely, but it is not impossible, and it certainly makes it more interesting to have as an alternative reading (or to consider that interpretation is never closed). Concept in photography is alike this tendency: how one chooses to interpret an image at the level of concept will change the purity of the meaning being described by the image itself.


My intent here is to help with looking at photographs, but there are a lot of books that do make a difference helping to understand the directions that photographers take, and their reasoning. There is a terrific book from the Getty Museum called “Looking at Photographs” that will guide you through the technical terminology of the formal analysis of photographs.

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In addition to being on our sales team, John curates The Camera Store's book selection and is a contributing author of our blog. He likes to think about photography, talk about photography, and sometimes write about photography.