Part Four of my series The Art of Street Photography, which forms Track B of mine and Bill’s continuing joint series The Art and History of Street Photography, will begin to focus on the interpretation of a photographic image. In this article I aim to introduce the concept of a visual narrative and the way in which we may begin to read images as stories. I have covered certain aspects of this in previous posts, Part 2: The Real Versus the Almost Real, and Mono Versus Colour. This is an expansive subject in itself and will more than likely form the core of my series as I believe it to be fundamental to the understanding of photographic composition. I ask those who are already familiar with the series, and newcomers alike who are interested in following to exercise an open mind and a little patience as I eek all of this information out of my head and onto the virtual page. Suffice to say that much of my information is backed up by years of my own research, experience, and formal study of the subjects of Fine Art and Social Semiotics.
I’ve attempted to make these articles as informative as possible without reducing them to too much dry academia, however, I will be using established academic terms as and when they become relevant and endeavour to explain them as best as possible. My intent and desire is that as you read this series you feel as though you are learning something new in a way that can be directly applied to your photography, or your appreciation of photography. Bill and I both always value feedback on these posts and our series, so please feel free to comment or ask questions. We can only improve what we do with your input.
Every photo has a story to tell. We often think of stories as being works of fiction, or at least a representation of events, that through personal embellishment encapsulates a concept, or concepts that convey meaning for the purposes of exchanging information. If a story is told well, then it can be very persuasive, successfully impacting its target audience in a way that not only justifies the intent of the story, but also creates new stories through personal interpretation, inspiration and further translation. Another important aspect of story-telling, or the sharing of stories, is how they help to create and strengthen our relationships with others. This exchange of ideas is not only about conveying information, but is a creative, and highly innovative endeavour that forms the fundament of social interaction, and is the basis upon which cultural practices are created and further observed.
The validity of a story, however, rests with the subjective opinions of those conveying it and those who are experiencing or receiving it. Stories, seen as either fact or fiction are nevertheless social constructs often with a specific intent, that being to inform and persuade through the solicitation of meaning. Whether the story is received positively or negatively is again down to subjective evaluation, though it is not intrinsic to the process of its delivery.
Every story serves a purpose, but how it is interpreted is the point at which it becomes something new, and it is this process that forms the subject of this article as it relates to photography, and more specifically street photography.
Before I proceed I would like to pose an important question: What do you think is the most important part of an image?
This is certainly not a test, but it’s something worth contemplating as you read.
We might say that a photographic image is an abstract representation of objects and events in the real world, although this certainly isn’t a definitive analysis. What is certain is that, no matter how realistic and documentary the photograph might seem, we cannot interact with or influence the objects or the people within it, nor the environment it depicts because it is two dimensional in nature, therefore not solid, tangible evidence of reality, or truth. A photograph then, is an illusion that we often take for granted as being representative of reality, a record of events in time as they once happened, and were perceived according to the photographer. At best we can hope to have a notional connection to the events or objects being depicted, further enhanced by whether we were there at the moment the picture was taken, or whether the scene is directly familiar to us, or not.
However, just as words and images are manipulated in the telling of a story, a photographic image is a composition of visual elements that is either staged for the camera, or captured spontaneously, but that will nevertheless depict a scene that is meaningful, or full of meaning insofar as we may be able to relate to those elements in some way. These visual elements are then manipulated through the settings of the camera, based on the personal preferences of the photographer, and then through subsequent editing manipulated further in order to produce something new in the form of a satisfactory piece of art. It is no different in essence than a painting, a piece of writing, or a sculpture, and in every respect it is a fiction, a fabrication that despite its often convincing ‘photo-realism’, is no less fictional than a fairytale. It is this element of ambiguity, or truth versus fiction in visual story-telling in particular, that allows us to explore and create new meanings, and is, should be, a thing of excitement rather than controversy. Whatever the ‘truth’ of the scene may have been at the moment that it was captured on camera, it is unlikely that it will have little if anything to do with the way that the subsequent image will be interpreted.
There are of course certain key elements of the original scene that cannot be captured in a still image, elements that would qualify its veracity, such as sound, temperature, other physical sensations, in other words the experience of physically being there, your reactions to it, and deciding for yourself what that meant at the time. A photographic image is a visually condensed form of an event in time, a split second that would otherwise have disappeared into the continuing story of daily life, and that will have certainly slipped most people’s awareness without the intervention of the photographer. In certain ways, as photographers we are attempting to capture the impossible.
Devoid of the other key elements that might qualify an image as being a representation of an actual event, in the same way that a textual story can only allude to things through verbal description, we will attempt to fill in the missing pieces in order to create a fuller, more real and thus more sensory, and satisfying experience in our interpretation and appreciation of an image. Our ability to do this is automatic. We are neurologically wired to perceive and interpret the world through all of our senses, so that when one or more of our physical senses is not receiving direct information, we will create, or imagine that data to one degree or another in order to complete the over all sensory picture. It is precisely this automatic neurological response that creates meaning, or in other words, an understanding of what we are experiencing. In creating meanings there will always be an emotive element to our evaluations, and we will either be compelled or repelled, and act or react accordingly. Even if it is merely to state whether we like something or not. In fact we are so adept at doing this, that our evaluations will often seem instantaneous. Therefore, our evaluation of an image will be expressed far more quickly than we could hope to do so with words alone.
We read images with the same kind of fluency as the writing on this screen, however due to the apparent ambiguity of the language of an image we may feel at a loss for words to explain what we are looking at. Unfortunately, because of the cultural importance placed on understanding and communicating through the explicit nature of words, the language of non-verbal symbols or semiotics, within which photography finds itself might seem difficult to translate without them, yet we do so quite effortlessly. Our inability to verbally express how we might feel about an image is therefore not a sign of ineptitude, but rather indicative of a form of communication that doesn’t require words in order to understand it. However, if we wish to talk about how and why an image might affect us, then as with any language we must be able to identify with its code before we can then translate it into a more mutually intelligible means.
Analysing a photographic image in terms of a narrative may seem like a futile task, in that generally we will look at an image and decide very quickly, as stated previously, whether we like it or not, and may not give it any further thought thereafter. However, our split second judgement of whether we like an image or not is based on a set of very complex, almost intuitive analyses, that when broken down reveal a very different story. Like a verbal language, the language of an image often has a very specific lexis and grammar that is culturally centric, and forms part of the framework of social structure that will be familiar and commonplace to those for whom it is relevant. Take a look at the following image:
We are taught from a young age that images mean something. They are symbolic of a panoply of accumulated meanings that we interpret according to our cultural backgrounds and personal experiences, and from which we are supposed to take something, as we do from a conventional story. Whether they impart information in the way printed language does through a series of graphemic symbols, or through deliberate imagery that evokes meaning through commonly accepted visual references, we look at images then, expecting to connect with them in some way, and if we don’t find meaning straight away, then we look to create it. However, if we fail to connect, and we are unable to interpret what we see, or create a meaning from it, then the image is deemed to be meaningless and thus of little value. Take a look at the above image of the red square again, this time paying attention to your initial impressions.
The way in which we ascribe meanings to images very much depends on the assumptions we make about them, reinforced by our own innate knowledge. An image is full of visual cues, or symbolism that we may or may not relate to, and that inform us of the latent story or stories within the composition. A good demonstration of this is the way in which textless images are used within books for very young children not yet able to read. The lack of words does not detract from the narrative theme of the book. The fact that the images are compiled into a book format informs us that it is a story of some kind, or at the very least an exchange of recognisable and possibly familiar concepts. We know that it is a story because we have been taught that a series of pages bound together is called a book, and that books often contain information, or narratives that are designed to impart knowledge, conveyed through either words or pictures, or both, and for academic or entertainment purposes. Therefore, we assume that a series of images presented within a book format is necessarily going to inform us of something, both singularly and collectively.
Although this may seem obvious to most of us, this has only become obvious to us through repeated, long-term exposure to the concept of a book and its cultural significance. We don’t need verbal language in order to understand the significance of a book, or a narrative, no matter how it is presented, as it has already become ‘innate’ knowledge.
Thinking about our red square once again, we might notice that culturally the colour red can mean a number of things, and as such it is open to interpretation based on our own internal references formed of both personal and wider experiences. Whatever your initial impressions are of the solid red square, I can guarantee that you will have formulated at least a basic impression, and that you may have attempted to create some meaning from it, if only to ask yourself what it could possibly signify in the context of our article. Without any direct frame of reference from the aid of visual cues such as textual or verbal language, or other symbols, we will automatically draw on our own internal knowledge and make an assessment. However, because I had already hinted at the image as being a type of language, or code that would need interpreting or deciphering, you were probably expecting to find meaning within it. Suggestion plays a very large role in the way we find meaning, whether directly or indirectly, and influences our judgements in fundamental ways. Now consider the following examples:
In our second and third examples there is now a word at the centre of the red square. Both words represent possible associations we may have had pertaining to the meaning of the colour red, based on widely accepted cultural references. Notice how our simple red square takes on a very definite meaning with the addition of text. The meaning is now fairly explicit, less ambiguous than the blank red square, but still open to interpretation though to a lesser degree. Furthermore, we now assess the red square and the alternating word at its centre as a unified concept, or composition. This is an important point to note in the assessment of an image, and more so in the assessment of a piece of street photography. I will explain why I make this distinction at a later point.
An image, or visual narrative created within a specific cultural context then, may not translate effectively into other cultural formats. However, owing to the proliferation of cross-cultural symbols and social practices, the meanings within visual language remain more fluid and open than a piece of text, unless a piece of text has attained a cross-cultural status. The following examples of the red square help to illustrate this point, but also present another way in which text can be replaced with recognisable symbols that can be read as having much the same meanings:
Again we may interpret the meanings of the symbols in quite explicit terms, despite being more abstract than their textual counterparts. We may also be aware of alternative symbols that we might utilise, that are in common circulation and illustrate the meaning of the original words just as effectively. For example, a rose may replace the heart, and skull and crossbones may replace the exclamation mark, though in subtle ways the symbols, albeit fairly definitive are less explicit than the words themselves, although less open to interpretation than just the red square alone. If we were to change the colour of the square utilising the same text and symbols as used in our examples, you can begin to see how our interpretations of their inherent meanings will change accordingly.
When we look at a photographic image then, which to all intents and purposes is devoid of a textual context save for incidental occurrences, in the case of street photography for example, we rely on being able to identify with the elements of the composition as they are depicted. Now, we could argue that the image of the chairs on the left is in more complex and detailed than our simple red squares. However, when we look at a photograph of a chair, we immediately understand its symbology, in fact it is likely that we will take its familiarity for granted. That is to say that our initial assessment will most likely be: this is an image of a chair, or seat, much in the same way as our initial assessment of the red square was: this is an image of a red square. We might then continue to expand on our assessment of the image with: a chair is an object that many people will use to sit on, and that it may perform a specific function. Sitting on a chair might be a relaxing experience, or an uncomfortable one depending on the nature of the chair. It might elevate our social status, in the case of a royal throne, or demean us in the case of a toilet. It may symbolise a social experience, or a private one, and may give us cause to recall associative memories that will further enhance our assessment of the chair and its relation to the rest of the elements within the image.
Most of us have chairs or types of seats at our disposal, even if it is just a patch of ground, and in some capacity we have all had experiences with chairs or types of seating. Furthermore, a chair or type of seat in terms of a globally communicable currency is one such symbol that has cross-cultural status, as we spoke about earlier, whether in the form of a static object, or one that is part of a vehicle. It makes a strong statement. As a photographer when I take a picture of a chair or type of seat I am automatically assuming that you, as the viewer of the image will comprehend and be able to relate to it in some definitive way. Due to it being such a familiar object its symbolism is therefore very easily translated and read within an image with at least some degree of acuity.
The type of chair or seat, its appearance and environmental context, including the colours, mood and over all setting of the image will give us further information, or visual clues upon which we can attach meaning based on our learned assumptions. Very quickly then, we create an internal assessment or story of what we are looking at. It may be a very literal story, or one that resonates on a more personal level depending on the private associations that we may have with reference to the elements within the composition. This is just one aspect of the way in which we might interpret an image. There are of course many others, not so obvious factors involved that we will look at as the series progresses.
A piece of street photography where there is a lot of visual stimulus will resonate with us in many different ways, depending on the recognisable elements within the composition, how they are arranged or occur within the frame, and more importantly how we interpret those elements based on what we already know about the world and our place in it. Evaluating a piece of street photography poses a more complex picture of meanings than just our red square with a word or symbol at its centre. Though what I have attempted to illustrate so far, is how quickly we make our evaluations of an image, and how significant our evaluation are, even if we then decide to later dismiss them.
As photographers it may well be our intention to tell a story, or to posthumously capture a moment that conveys some kind of meaning for no other reason than because we want to, without any in depth analysis of why we choose to do so. However, it may also be our intention to share our images with others for the purpose of informing or entertaining our potential audiences, whether our motivations are personal or monetary. An understanding of the language of imagery is certainly not necessary in order to produce good photographic work, but it provides an advantage in deciding the kind of work we produce, and will further influence the way that it is received by others. As photographers the language of images is our craft, and learning our craft well will in turn allow us to have a lot more control over what we create.
The study of images and symbols, or of Semiotics more specifically, has been in practise for almost 70 years, drawing from the disciplines of psychology, sociocultural and anthropological study, linguistics, and the fields of fine art and product design. Much of the research carried out has created a very comprehensive basis for the way in which the world is represented through visual media, with printed language forming an important part. Even though we don’t necessarily read a photographic image in the same way that we read a piece of printed text for example, an image, as we have seen is nevertheless a type of coded message that we are able to draw meaning from. How we decipher and thus interpret an image is not dissimilar to the way in which we decipher and interpret printed text, in that both require a cultural understanding, or knowledge of the meanings behind the symbols. However, textual language tends to be very specific in the way that it imparts meaning, whereas non-verbal visual language, or the code within an image is open to wider interpretation.
Returning briefly to our illustration of the red square and its potential meanings, I’d like to point out that the original image is in fact a small section taken from a much larger photograph of a red, double-decker London bus. This isn’t necessarily relevant to the comprehension of the image that I have used as illustration for this article, however, now that you know this piece of information your perception and understanding of the image has likely been altered, even though there are no direct references to the bus at all, other than the colour. However, with the addition of information whether inferred or imagined, the meaning of the image has outgrown its immediate assessment. It is no longer just an image of a red square, it has suddenly developed further dimensions that broaden our understanding of it and has therefore changed the quality of our assessment and our engagement with it, some of the gaps in our sensory image have been filled in, as we explained in the first part of this article. Its story has evolved.
As with any image, there is a wider field of interpretation at play that underpins our understanding and the meanings we create when we look at it, even if just for a split second. There has been brief mention of the neurology behind our ability to read images, and this is a subject I hope to expand upon later on in the series.
You may remember I posed a question at the beginning of the article. I asked you what you thought the most important part of an image was. Given what we have discussed so far it may have become apparent by now that a fundamental part of an image is the point of contact, that is to say the point at which it is received and assessed by either ourselves, or others. The finished product, or composition is paramount to the way an image is communicated, and composition is everything when it comes to photography.
In our next post we will continue with our discussion of visual narratives and begin to explore the grammar of visual language.
For your interest I am included two short videos here of famous photographers talking about what they consider to be important in the art of photography. They are well worth a watch, and are very insightful little pieces, encapsulating very nicely, I think, what we have discussed in this post so far. Thanks for taking the time to read if you have!