The Language of Photography

Discussion in 'Photographic Discussions' started by markc, May 24, 2006.

  1. markc

    markc TPF Noob!

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    When talking with Hertz Van Rental, he mentioned some ideas he had about the various levels of photography. I had some ideas click together and thought I would try to express them.

    I'm going to separate out the technical skill aspect of photography, like the ability to focus, get a good exposure, and make a print, because it tends to be more obvious. The two aspects I'm going to focus on are "aesthetics" and "the language of art", and I'm going to use poetry to try to illustrate a few ideas.

    You can write an effective poem that's nonsense, but has a very effective and pleasing rhyming pattern and beat. Someone can hear it and say, "I like the sound of that." Mike Doughty's lyrics on BT's "Never Gonna Come Back Down" is a good example of this (for me).

    "Green is like a boom to the what's dis non.
    Diddy on dawn to the don don diggy dawn."

    "And the seven udders uttered,
    The seven unders thundered,
    The seven thunders uttered,
    The seven utters thuddered, thuddered,
    thuddered, under, thuddered under
    The seven thunders uttered.

    Charisse-ah."

    There are probably better examples, but that's what popped in my head.

    You could write a poem in French that sounded nice to people who didn't know the language. You could make it rhyme, play with the beat, and all that without knowing the meaning of the words. Now someone who knows French might be able to appreciate the sound of it, but could easily be distracted by the screwed up meaning. Nonsense words are one thing, but something like "Cat brown Tuesday sidewalk until" can make it more difficult.

    There are also effective poems that are chock full of meaning, but ignore rhyme, beat, and any other device that makes them pleasant to the ear. The whole intent is the meaning, which is only discernable if you know the language.

    For me, the best poems combine the two, but that's neither here nor there. The point is that these are two different and distinct elements of poetry that easily combine. The same happens in photography.

    There is a language to photography. The placement of the subject in relation to the camera and other elements in the image; the colors in the image, or lack of; what's in focus and what isn't... it all adds up to say something. It doesn't matter if the maker of the image knows the language or not; meaning is there, even if the message turns out to be nonsense. A poet can pull words out of a French dictionary and make patterns based on the way everything sounds, and a photographer can pick focus, color, and placement based on how it all looks.

    A photographer can also pick elements based on a message, regardless of how the image looks. Those that know the language of photography will get the image, but the general public will probably be left cold by it. This happens a lot with other art forms as well. These pieces are about the meaning, and have as much appeal to those that don't know the language as an undecipherable poem that lacks rhyme or beat.

    I think it's important to make the distinction, and to know what you are after. How important is aesthetics to you, and how important is meaning? You can emphasize both, but there are times when you have to choose one over the other. It's not always about getting an image looking as "nice" as possible. There are times when you may want to sacrifice visual impact if you can boost the meaning in the image, or better define it. Maybe a word doesn't sound as good as one with similar meaning, but it fits your intended message perfectly.

    Some people may disagree with the concept of a language of art, but it's there. For a long time people thought humans were the only ones to have language, but now we find out that not only do dolphins seem to have one, but they actually use names. Just because it's a language we don't understand or use intentionally doesn't mean that it can't exist.

    I'm going to try to demonstrate this idea. I don't have any good images to use as examples, but I'll try to use descriptions.

    Imagine a photo of children jumping rope on a street. The photographer just raised the camera, got the kids in the viewfinder, and took the shot without paying much attention to details. It's a typical snapshot. The kids might look nice, so someone thinking only of aesthetics might consider it a "nice" shot and pleasing to look at. Someone who knows the language of photography might find it a bit bland. There's no intended message, so the poem might look something like this:


    kids jumping rope
    house
    fence
    dog wanting to go in house
    driveway
    car parked in driveway
    street
    car parked in street
    tree
    another tree
    toys in yard


    With the lines in random order depending on who looks at it and where their eye goes first.

    Paying a bit more attention to what you want to say, you might frame out some if the distracting elements, maybe using a more shallow DOF to blur others out, and try a few other things. You could end up with:


    cute kids playing
    on a sunny day
    the street shimmers
    in the simmer heat


    This works a lot better, both aesthetically and with a clearer message, or at least a clearer idea of what the subjects of the message are. The rest is mostly just a verb and some adjectives.

    Now perhaps get in really close. You frame the one girl with her rope so that the other child is out of focus behind her. He's there, but it's obvious she's paying no attention to him or really anything else in the world. In her mind, it's just her, the rope, and the ground. And she's jumping, jumping, jumping... If there is something in the background that hasn't been cropped out, it's waaaaaay out of focus. There may be a blurred tree trunk. You wait until she's mid jump and there's a look of concentration on her face. The poem might look something like this:


    one... two...
    round and round
    three... four...
    hop the ground
    five... six...
    move the rope
    seven... eight...
    keep the hope
    nice... ten...
    how many more?
    eleven... twelve...
    up the score!


    I'm no poet, but I think you get the idea. Perhaps it would have looked nice to have the other kid more in focus, or to show more of her surroundings, but that would dilute the message. Here, the intent is to show the girl in her own little world. Nothing else matters to her, so nothing else matters in the photo. A person could easily prefer the aesthetics of the second image, if they don't like shallow DOF, or they really like seeing more of the kids; but for someone who reads photography, the third image has more substance. Does it make it a better photograph?

    Another approach might be to stay pulled back, but to better define the children in their surroundings, making the choices that express the idea that despite the fact that these kinds are clueless of the life around them, the world is a big place and has a lot going on in it. I don't know this vocabulary very well, so I can't really say what it would look like. I could probably read the image, but I'd have to study more before I could express it in one of my own. The poem might look like this:


    children playing
    not a care in the world
    while the clock ticks
    and giants stir

    children playing
    showing their joy unfurled
    history's bricks
    become a blur

    round and round
    and life goes on


    Image four could look very much like image two aesthetically, but have a lot more meaning. I'd also bet that it looks better in the process. Is it a better photograph? I think so. I also think image 3 is better than image 2. Is image 4 better than image 3? That's where I think taste comes into play.

    I'm curious as to what others think.

    --

    And here's a link that explains some of this a bit more simply: http://artsedge.kennedy-center.org/content/3531/
     
  2. 2framesbelowzero

    2framesbelowzero TPF Noob!

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    It's a matter of mood and taste. The difference between 1,2,3,4
    is the like the difference between hard Be-Bop and Swing.

    The hand-painted Pop of the New York School had a defining rule..A painting must have ''BALLS''... i.e guts. For everyone who relates to that
    there are X amount of others who don't and prefer a pastoral scene painted in the old-world style..or a amazingly lifelike bowl of fruit etc.

    The thing with language is interpretation fused with preconceptions.

    Neuro-linguistically, a greater percentage of communication is tone
    and posture rather than words.

    (like your analogy of the beauty of a language you dont literally understand)

    How does that relate with photography (?)
    POV maybe, lighting, contrast, blur.

    The visual-gag in Police Squad with the big phone ringing on a desktop... It's a close-up shot of the phone ..but when the character walks across the room and the reciever is picked-up
    to answer the call...it REALLY IS a big phone! ;)
     
  3. markc

    markc TPF Noob!

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    Thanks for the response. I don't think I got across what I meant.

    I guess that's my point. I don't believe it is. #1 is like finding a cool sounding sample on a keyboard and showing your friends. "Hey, doesn't this sound cool?" It takes intent and writing for a song to have a definable stlyle. #2 is learning the basic chords that you use in a style, playing a very basic version of a song with simple lyrics, if any. It's not until you hit numbers 3 and 4 that you have a well defined piece of work. People can like the simple work, and I guess you can consider that a style in and of itself, but that's a bit different than the difference between genres.

    I guess I don't agree with that either. Tone and posture communicate information; I don't think beauty alone does. What does it say? I would equate body language with verbal language. Both have preconceptions, which is information. Without preconceved definitions, nothing gets communicated. A low tone and crossed arms mean "back off".

    Some art and photography does not translate well across cultures. In the west, black is often associated with death. In the east, it's white.

    I think we agree here. These are the elements of the photographic language, as words are for written and verbal languages, and tone and gestures are for body language.
     
  4. Torus34

    Torus34 No longer a newbie, moving up!

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    "T'was brillig, . . ."

    You've taken the time and effort to make a point, and that deserves a thoughtful response. Mine is augmented by an excellent glass of Merlot following a lovely dinner of shish kabob [beef tenderloin, mushroom buttons, peppers and zucchini] over basmati rice.

    On the relationship of photography and poetry:

    Photography can be viewed on one level as visual haiku. The print itself is the poem. Ideally, a well-composed print will hold our attention long enough for us to begin to form associations with the image(s) presented. A good print, like the best of Basho's haiku, is open-ended and allows many associations. A poor one is open to only a simple, basic interpretation -- 'Isn't this pretty?"

    As an aside, check out the visual impact of some of the Chopin etudes. The score on the printed page is visually interesting, even if you don't read music. [Are there truly people out there these days who consider themselves educated without such basics as reading Latin, Greek and music, or am I just too old-school?]

    You might also enjoy looking into some of the cross-art efforts of Scriabin. Also, if there are any professors who are able to provide a good course in aesthetics in your area, try to locate them and sit in.
     
  5. 2framesbelowzero

    2framesbelowzero TPF Noob!

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    Your welcome Mark, I think it's an interesting topic and engaging 1st post...

    This assumes a heirachy of accomplishment. The late 19th century 'Salon'
    rejected the 'unfinished' nature of non-conformist ''impressionism''.

    Yves Klein, Barnett Newman were happy with stage #1 or #2 of your creative process. William Burroughs with his cut-ups was content with a #1's. although to be fair maybe the original intent of your post was to discuss full-frame nearly full-frame photographs, rather than a load of
    photographs cut-up and stuck together in in a random rectangle or shape.


    I meant you might find Edith Piaf, or Billie Holiday's voice 'beautiful', without understanding the words..the tone and the projection/dynamics (posture in an accoustic sense). "What does it say?" ..Q.what does an Armenian choir 'say' if you only speak Danish?

    Beauty can be a realisation, communicated through tone and posture.

    I wouldn't equate physical language vs. body language in a way which cancels out their relevance to this topic. They are handled in different areas of the brain. I would guess one is older than the other and has deeper mammalian wiring..if your too scared to speak you can still have the urge to hug someone big and strong. Pick up a baby before it has begun to be able to articulate sounds and it will shoot-out it's arms in
    response.

    Preconceptions due to negative programming can be an inhibitor to
    meaningful communication rather than a prerequisite.

    good one Mark,
    ciaociao for now :thumbup:
     
  6. markc

    markc TPF Noob!

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    That's not exactly what I meant. My focus is on message and the communication of information.

    That's great. I'm not saying people shouldn't be. For myself, I want more, and I consider 3 and 4 to be better photographs because of that.

    Exactly. Which is different from imparting information in my mind.

    I think you can communicate beauty, but beauty alone, or the simple perception that something is beautiful, does not communicate a message other than perhaps that this is something beautiful. Placing something beautiful amid some trash can communicate something, but it's that placement and contrast that is doing so. I believe having an image simply beautiful does not.

    This is irrevelant for the point I was trying to make.

    True. But how do you communicate without any reconceived agreement on the meening of anything, conscious or no? Language is all about agreement of terms. My point is that there is a language used in photography that is separate from it simply looking nice. Much of it is based on our unconscious responses to techniques that are often based on culture and social consciousness.

    Thanks.
     
  7. Hertz van Rental

    Hertz van Rental TPF Noob!

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    I think Mark is trying to say something using words that you can actually only show with images.
    Language of necessity is linear - a sequence of symbols one leading on to the next one to produce a meaning. When describing a visual image you have to interpret what is going on and this locks the picture into one particular direction - and locks your mind similarly.
    Visual 'language' is far more subtle as you can work on nuance and association. Each fragment of image carries a wealth of ideas and associations which then can react together like chemistry and new thoughts, memories, emotions bubble up. A good picture literally fizzes.
    Enough with the words. A demonstration.
    Ralph Gibson is one of my all-time favourite photographers because his images do this - but with an artlessness that is deceptive.
    It is common for people to look at his pictures and just say 'so what?'. Then you tell them to actually look - and then it hits them. So don't just flick through - look..... and then experience a strange thrill with every image.
    The second one in the gallery slide show (guitar and hands) should actually give you a shiver. Analyse that!
    http://www.ralphgibson.com/ **Not worksafe**

    Gibson did a wonderful book in the late 70's that had specially selected pictures on opposite pages. The pictures were often separated by years and miles but they appeared to be connected. The first view of each pair gave you a distinct shock.

    Am I following you here Mark?



    PS The separation between language and image - how the former has been privileged over the latter even though it is inferior as a means of communication - is the area that I have been studying in for 20 years. At the moment I am still trying to construct the framework for people to discuss all this in.
    It's like climbing the Himalayas barefoot.
     
  8. markc

    markc TPF Noob!

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    Indeed. Poetry was an imperfect simile, but I felt it was at least better than actually telling a story. I think the differences between the various poems are similar to the differences between the images I described, but trying to compare photography and poetry directly doesn't work so well. I meant to mainly use it to demonstrate the difference between a crafted message and leaving the message to chance or only caring if the image (poem) looked (sounded) good.

    Several of his images are much more than just "good looking" to me.

    Not sure. I'll use one of his pieces as an example. In the fourth image with the view of the motorcycle, I get the sense of someone privileged (riding in the back seat, being driven) but constrained (enclosed in the dark car) observing less privileged but freer spirits on the motorcycle. Aesthetically, someone might prefer a motocycle with a single rider, or seeing more of it by getting closer to the window, but that would change the content of what is being "said". A single person would lose the direct comparison of rider/driver that is in both vehicles, and getting closer to the window would more readily imply a sense of wishful thinking. As it is, I don't get the sense that the car rider, the image's POV source, wants to trade places. There might be a wistfulness in the actual viewer of the photograph, but it's not anything that the implied viewer in the car is going to act on. If the viewer were closer to the window, it could be seen to be similar as a child pressing his nose to the glass, wanting to be "out there".

    So this photograph says something to me other than "look at me" or "I'm nice looking". It may not be exactly the same as what other people read from it, but I'll bet that I'm not far off from what a number of other people get, whether it consciously or subconsciously. I get this meaning through a sort of language, which involves psychology and an understanding of the culture it was taken in. It's not exact, but if you ask 10 people to define love, you'll probably get 10 different answers, though you'll see that most will probably follow a similar vein.

    I think that this is a cool aspect of photography and that understanding it goes a long way not only in helping someone better appreciate photograph images, but more easily create more meaningful work. I'm only a beginner at it, and I want to learn a lot more.
     
  9. markc

    markc TPF Noob!

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    Oh, and I don't believe that language has to be linear. English is, but language is "communication of thoughts and feelings through a system of arbitrary signals, such as voice sounds, gestures, or written symbols". If I made a red sign with several icons, one a lightning bolt, one a hand with a circle/slash through it, and one that looks like chainlink fence, you probably get the idea that it wouldn't be a good idea to touch the fence it's near. The icons could be in a row or a circle and in any order. They and the red color all combine into the message in a more obvious but similar way as to what a photograph usually contains.
     
  10. 2framesbelowzero

    2framesbelowzero TPF Noob!

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    Mark's analogy about the 3 icons warning of electric-shock is a good one. It doesn't strictly matter in which order those symbolic messages are fed into someone's brain, they use a more abstract form of internal brain -language (whether visual, or kinastetic, or verbal internal-dialogue) to warn themselves not to touch. But if the viewer was color-blind, would it prevent understanding of the symbols ? Not if the viewer understands the cultural convention of a strike-through line meaning 'NO' or 'DO NOT'.

    Does that suggest that color is less important in the overall language
    of photography than form / context... Or is color a wildcard element that
    has unpredictable influence on the interpretation of a picture.

    I was thinking how I could equate Words + Tones/Posture with the things that constitute a photograph.

    1. WORDS = SUBJECT
    2. TONE/POSTURE= POV, LIGHTING, CONTRAST, BLUR = (color) TONE & SITUATION. (bit circular that one !)

    Is 1. more 'important' than 2. ?

    Do 1 & 2 need to be equally effective to put a rush up your spine and think "this is a great photograph" ?

    I think Hertz's example link convinces me that it is necessary for 1 & 2
    to work in concert to produce fantastic photographs...or Marks view that poem e.g #4 is more effective/powerful. 999 out of 1000 people might share this view too, but I still argue this is about 'taste' than it really is 'more effective language' to everyone. Can one approach really be more informing without losing something too. Everything has a price.

    People want different things from art..photographs, paintings.
    This is why we have had the different movements from religious iconography through the renaissance, impressionism, expressionism, pop,
    post-modernism.

    The purpose with language is to communicate meaning to the recipient effectively as possible. Are Ralph Gibson's photos 'better' or more informative than e.g a Radio Shack product photo of a calculator ?
    That depends on what you want to show and what the reciever wants to be shown.

    Haiku is brilliant because it is uses minimal language which is suggestive rather than all-defining. Some of the photographs on Ralph Gibsons website to me, are doing the same thing. The viewer is given
    clues.. and casts the scene more in the own mind than seeking full-explanations from the image.
     
  11. Hertz van Rental

    Hertz van Rental TPF Noob!

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    I use the term 'language' to denote the written or spoken word. It is, of necessity, linear because it happens sequentially in a timescale. One word follows another but the meaning is not truly clear until the sequence is completed. The same is true for music and film so I suppose a better term would be 'narrative'. Sculpture and theatre also behave in the same way as they are revealed - or explored - in 3D and over time.
    The 2D Arts (painting, drawing, graphics, photography...) do not have that facility. The eye/brain comprehends the totality almost instantly. A longer viewing may reveal more detail but it rarely alters the initial impact - or the initial meaning.
    Where music or a book, for example, develops over a period of time to produce an effect and reveal it's meaning, a graphic symbol has to make it's meaning immediately obvious. The former works by narrative, the latter by symbolism.
    To return to Gibson's work, his images (and I'm speaking personally here but I know others experience him similarly) produce an immediate frisson - a kind of shock of surprise at a subliminal level. This feeling passes just as quickly as the image is viewed with more attention. Analysing or trying to describe the feeling has the effect of destroying it. But if the image is put aside for a while the shock re-occurs when it is next viewed.
    I just find this curious.
    The only thing I can compare it with is the effect of an optical illusion.
    There are other photographers who achieve similar results - Gibson is just the easiest to access.
     
  12. markc

    markc TPF Noob!

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    That makes sense to me. In my mind, a narative is a construct that uses language, just as symbolism is a construct that uses language. In the example of the sign, it's symbolism, but I could arrange similar icons in a row so that they tell a story, in which case they would form a narative. Written words and music are linear and narative, single photos are usually nonlinear and symbolic. Sometimes a series of photos is used to form a narative.

    I guess I don't experience this. I do get the shock as you say, like with the image of the guitar and child, but it doesn't leave when I try to examine it. I have spent a lot of time with self-examination though. I'm not saying that others haven't, but feelings like that don't usually fade into the æther for me. I'm not trying to suss meaning from the image itself, but my reactions to it. Poking and prodding the image helps me better define those reactions. "What does this part of the image do?" "Where is that feeling coming from?"
     

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