Basic Strategies in Reading Photographs

PhotographsOf course, you know what you like. But would you like to know more about how a photograph is composed? By learning what visual elements the artist uses to communicate with you, you may appreciate better why you like or don't like a particular work of art. In the presentation below, the concepts are illustrated with photographic works. Click on the work for a larger image of it and then click on BACK to return to the presentation.

Nuovo thanks the Museum of Photographic Art (MOPA) in San Diego for allowing us to adopt one of their papers for this presentation. Artistic examples were added by Nuovo with permission the artist. All images are copyrighted by the photographer, Jack Leigh. All rights are reserved.

Index


Objective:

To enhance your appreciation of photography it is necessary to develop the skills to make careful visual analysis. While everyone can easily discuss the contents of photographs ("what you see"), most need more training to learn about formal analysis used in the visual arts. Formal analysis focuses on an artwork's "formal" qualities, or those visual elements that give it form. These include: shape, size, texture, line, space, etc.

Formal analysis provides a basic common language in the visual arts. However, a description of a photograph based only on formal analysis would be incomplete. Photographers make decisions both about composition (arrangement of visual elements) as well as content (meaning) when taking photographs. Consequently, it is important to consider the artist's intentions for making a photograph of a particular subject. Finally, the historical and social context in which a photograph was made must also be carefully considered.

An important note: each image offers a variety of interpretations. Therefore, the information provided in this resource for each photograph should be regarded as a starting point for discussion and not as a conclusive interpretation. There is no one correct answer when interpreting works of art. We encourage you to carefully examine photographs to develop your skills for analyzing photographs and to explore your own personal interpretations.


General Vocabulary Used in Photography

The following words are the basic vocabulary used in describing photographs.

Vertigo abstract: an image that emphasizes formal elements (line, shape, etc) rather than specific, recognizable objects.
Bluegrass content: the subject, topic or information captured in a photograph.
Buster direct approach: confronting a scene in a straight-forward manner, without using unusual angles or distortion.
Baptism documentary photography: photographs whose main purpose is to record a place, person(s) or event.
3 Boys expressive: concerned with communicating emotion.
Cedar Cay geometric shape: simple rectilinear or curvilinear shapes found in geometry, such as circles, squares, triangles, etc.
applied for detail
intention:
reason(s) why the artist made a work of art.
Cypress landscape: an image that portrays the natural environment.
Inbound objective: a point of view free from personal bias, which attempts to consider all available information with equal regard and fairness.
live oak organic shape: shapes based on natural objects such as trees, mountains, leaves, etc.
Peaches representational: an image which shows recognizable objects.
Checkers subject: the main object or person(s) in a photograph.
Train theme: a unifying or dominant idea in one work of art or in a collection of works.

Visual Elements

Practice the use of these words by asking the following questions:

Triton focus: what areas appear clearest or sharpest in the photograph? What do not?
Kitchen light: what areas of the photograph are most highlighted? Are there any shadows? Does the photograph allow you to guess the time of day? Is the light natural or artificial? Harsh or soft? Reflected or direct?
Crossing line: are there objects in the photograph that act as lines? Are they straight, curvy, thin, thick? Do the lines create direction in the photograph? Do they outline? Do the lines show movement or energy?
Kaolin repetition: are there any objects, shapes or lines which repeat and create a pattern?
Dock shape: do you see geometric or organic shapes? What are they?
After rain space: is there depth to the photograph or does it seem shallow? What creates this appearance? Are there important negative spaces in addition to positive spaces? Is there depth created by spatial illusions?
Shirt texture: if you could touch the surface of the photograph how would it feel? How do the objects in the picture look like they would feel?
Melissa value: is there a range of tones from dark to light? Where is the darkest value? Where is the lightest?

Composition of the Photograph

The words here will allow you to think about how visual elements combine within a photograph to create a composition.

Close angle: the vantage point from which the photograph was taken; generally used when discussing a photograph taken from an unusual or exaggerated vantage point.
Kids background: the part of a scene or picture that is or seems to be toward the back.
Cove Marshbalance: the distribution of visual elements in a photograph. Symmetrical balance distributes visual elements evenly in an image. Asymmetrical balance is found when visual elements are not evenly distributed in an image.
Dam central focus: the objects(s) which appears most prominently and/or most clearly focused in a photograph.
Good & Evil composition: the arrangement or structure of the formal elements that make up an image.
Cook shack contour: the outline of an object or shape.
Unmade contrast: strong visual differences between light and dark, varying textures, sizes, etc.
Beds framing: what the photographer has placed within the boundaries of the photograph.
water tower setting: actual physical surroundings or scenery whether real or artificial.
Shoes vantage point: the place from which a photographer takes a photograph.