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How to Read a Photograph

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Read Time: 15 min
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We spend a lot of time thinking about how to make and take a photograph, but we may not be as thorough when thinking about how to view a finished photograph. With the exception of studying photography as fine art, we typically approach a photograph as a technically accurate representation of what the photographer saw. A subject is a subject is a subject, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein. And in all fairness, some photographs—snapshots and pics, really—are not meant to be more than tangible items that remind us of what we saw or experienced. Quick pics of a restaurant meal, selfies, and snapshots taken at events often fall into this category.  

Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose. —Gertrude Stein, “Sacred Emily”

However, most photographs offer another layer of experience—a reading experience as rich as any written prose—if we take the time to observe and process the photograph’s visual language. A photographer intervened between the subject and viewer in these photographs, composing and framing the elements in the photograph to express a narrative, nudge the viewer’s focus, and evoke feelings. These photographs are about something. They not only invite a viewer’s involvement; they demand that engagement. These photographs provide insights and information, but only if we interpret the visual rhetoric.

We also read photographs to avoid being visually misinformed. More than any other art form, a photograph represents something real. We don’t look at a photograph as much as we look through it, using the photograph as a visual portal to a mental re-creation of what we expect to see. But even the most representative photograph is a version of reality interpreted by the photographer for an intended audience. By reading a photograph, we decode the photograph, unpacking the photographer’s interpretation rather than accepting the photograph as it appears on its face.

How to Read a Photograph

There’s nothing fixed about how to read photographs. In fact, your approach to reading a photograph can change, depending upon the purpose or your use of the photograph. For example, if viewing a photograph for historical information, you’d spend time closely examining the photographer’s cultural bias and the prevailing social attitudes at the time the photograph was taken. In contrast, if you’re viewing a photograph for social meaning, you might spend more time considering the techniques a photographer used to identify the subject.

Viewers can disagree about the quality or relevance of a photograph, and they can—and usually do—generate multiple interpretations of the same image. It’s also common to read a photograph one way and then some time later, when re-visiting the photograph, read the same photograph a different way or arrive at a different interpretation. However, there is a limit on the range of interpretations a photograph will allow. The limit is not what the photographer meant the photograph to mean but what the internal visual coherence of the photograph will sustain. An interpretation that breaks a photograph down into unrelatable or conflicting parts is invalid.

So, how do we read photographs? While there may not be hard and fast rules, there are some guidelines. The guidelines are based on our understanding of how we see two-dimensional representations of three-dimensional space, and how, as a culture, we interpret visual elements, icons, and symbols. Terry Barrett, an American art critic who specializes in reading photography, suggests we work our way through these guidelines in an approach that I’m going to express as a formula:

Subject Matter + Form + Medium + Context = Content

I’ve used that formula to shape my following guidelines for reading photography.

Subject Matter: What’s In the Photograph?

Begin reading a photograph by looking at the things in the photograph. What people, places, and things are included in the photograph? (Be sure to look right to the edges of the photograph.) List the items and group them (mentally or on paper) into logical categories.

Consider whether there are any activities captured. If so, how do the people or activities use the objects in the photograph? Is there a relationship between subjects in the photograph? Do they touch or look at each other? Or is there an existing order in the subjects?

In the photograph below, there are a boy, a ball, a half-open entrance, a camera, and several signs. There are also windows, a canal, a railing, steps, lots of sun and some shade. There’s a relationship of play between the boy and the ball. There’s also a relationship between the signs (Carabinieri, or police), entrance, and security camera. The canal, windows, steps, and street all provide a setting. There is not yet a relationship between the boy and his ball and the police, but the anticipation of a relationship is a palpable subject.

Boy playing with a soccer ball in front of a police stationBoy playing with a soccer ball in front of a police stationBoy playing with a soccer ball in front of a police station
Dawn Oosterhoff

When looking at what’s in the photograph, be sure to also consider what is not in the photograph. Can you assume that the missing items exist but have been left out of the frame, either deliberately or by necessity? That is, did the photographer frame the photograph to exclude the item or is the item excluded because it would not be possible to include it in the photograph? For example, in the above photograph, the shadow on the ground suggests there’s a large tree behind, but it would be impossible to include that tree in this photograph. Also missing is a playmate. Is the boy playing with the ball by himself or did the photographer deliberately exclude a playmate?

Form: How is the Photograph Composed?

The nature of photography forces us to work with a frame, making a decision about what to include and what to exclude. Within the frame, we use various techniques to lead viewers around the objects that were included and emphasize some objects over others. These compositional techniques speak volumes about what is in the photograph and what the photographer is trying to communicate.

Look at what the photographer chose to emphasize within the frame and with what technique. How does the photographer lead you around and through the contents of the frame? Consider subject placement within the frame and the use of leading lines, depth of field, and focus. Did the photographer choose a focal length that emphasizes one object or de-emphasizes another? What has become the focus of the photograph as a result of these techniques? What does the photographer’s techniques for emphasis tell us about the subject of the photograph?

Sometimes, a photographer is able to deliberately organize items before framing and taking the photograph. This would be the case with a still life, product shot, or portrait. Other times, the photographer is faced with what the situation presents and must choose a perspective that organizes the objects within the frame. To see how a photograph has been structured and organized, try turning the photograph upside down or imagining the photograph as a flat piece of plain paper with shapes and objects rather than a representation of three-dimensional space. What shapes do you see? Are there lines or repetitions in the photograph? What do these shapes and their placement tell you about the photograph?

In the following photograph, the photographer uses lines and shapes to lead the viewer past the person in the foreground to the second person, who is the subject. The line of chairs in the foreground, the edge of the light coming in from the distant windows, and the planks in the floor all point to the grandmother, who is sitting in the centre right of the photograph—a compositionally strong point in the frame. The photographer also uses the archway to create a frame around the grandmother and, in the distance, the parents. If the viewer is drawn past the grandmother to the parents and windows in the background, the line created by the furniture along the right wall redirects the viewer's eye back to the grandmother. The photographer's composition tells you the grandmother is the matriarch, the strength in this photograph of a three-generational family. 

Grandmother parents and son sitting in different areas of a cottageGrandmother parents and son sitting in different areas of a cottageGrandmother parents and son sitting in different areas of a cottage
Canadian National Railways, Library and Archives Canada, e010860630.
Photograph of family in a cottage with overlay showing shapesPhotograph of family in a cottage with overlay showing shapesPhotograph of family in a cottage with overlay showing shapes

Light and shadows are also objects within a photograph, so be sure to consider them when reading a photograph. Notice where the light and shadows are placed. What are their shapes? Where are the light and shadows in relation to the frame of the photograph? What has been placed in light and what has been placed in shadow. What does the photographer’s use of light and shadow tell you about the photograph and its story? For example, in the above photograph, light is streaming in from the windows in the background, washing out the parents in highlights but perfectly lighting the grandmother. The young boy, who occupies the largest physical space in the photograph, is in shadow. There is light coming in from the window behind him, but it's a weak light that doesn't illuminate the boy's face or the book he is reading. What does the photographer's use of light and shadow tell you about the boy and his place in the family?

Medium: What Materials and Processes Were Used?

Medium is the materials and processes used to make the art. For a photograph, this can include the equipment (camera and lens), the recording medium (digital or film, and if film, the size and kind), the developing process or adjustments, and the final presentation (printed or web, and if printed, the size and type of the paper and framing).

Historic photos are going to be black and white by necessity, but modern photographs could be colour or black and white. Consider the photographer’s choice and what that means for the photograph’s story. If a photograph is taken with film, even the choice of film stock can make a significant difference in how a subject is portrayed. Is the film high contrast and grainy, or is it a slow, smooth film with infinite tonality? If the photograph is in colour, are the colours enhanced or altered, or if the photograph is black and white, was the photograph toned? Was the photograph taken with a smartphone or a large format camera? Does it matter? Did the photographer use a specific lens—a fisheye, for example—to emphasize something in the frame?

When considering medium, also consider the photographer’s choices within the context of the standards and practices of photography at the time. A modern photograph presented in black and white would tell us something about the photographer’s intent, but the same photograph taken seventy or eighty years ago would necessarily be in black and white. Similarly, a modern photographer using an historic photographic process—collodion plates, for example—is adding layers of meaning to the photograph.

In the following photograph, you can’t tell whether the photographer originally shot in colour or black and white, but you can tell that the black and white photograph has been toned to create or enhance a cold, moody look. The lack of compression indicates that the photograph was taken with a wide-angle lens, and even with that, the photographer has created an impressively-wide panoramic. How do those choices add to the photograph? Do they influence your feelings about the view?

Hubbard Glacier and surrounding mountains AlaskaHubbard Glacier and surrounding mountains AlaskaHubbard Glacier and surrounding mountains Alaska
Dawn Oosterhoff

When considering medium, also consider where and how the photograph is displayed. The same photograph could sustain different interpretations depending upon whether it’s hung in a gallery, printed in a magazine, or displayed on a personal website. How would you read the above photograph if it was used as a banner image in a travel magazine or in material advocating environmental awareness? Would your reading be different if the photograph was printed 6-feet wide on canvas, framed, and hung in an art gallery?

Context: What Were the Circumstances in Which the Photograph Was Made?

Context involves a broad consideration of the interrelated conditions in which the photograph was made and is being viewed. This includes the culture in which the photograph was made; for example, the time, social beliefs, and cultural practices that would have given rise to the image and influenced the photographer. A still life of a rich display of seafood, tropical fruit, and crystal could be an appreciation of texture, light, and tones, but, if the photograph was taken in the late 1800s when seafood, tropical fruit, and crystal were extraordinarily expensive and difficult to obtain, the photograph would also be an expression of wealth. What if that same photograph had been taken during a food crisis: how would that change your interpretation?

The following photograph could be read differently, depending upon where the photograph was taken. The photograph would tell one story if it was taken in a hospital waiting room and yet another if the photograph was taken at a transit stop. What if the photograph was taken in a park or on a busy train? How does the story change if the person in the flowered outfit is a relative, friend, or stranger?

Boy stretched out on a mans lapBoy stretched out on a mans lapBoy stretched out on a mans lap
Dawn Oosterhoff

Considerations of context are deep and convoluted when it comes to reading photographs of conflict. Photographs taken by a journalist embedded with a conflict group will have a different perspective than photographs taken by an outside observer or local journalist. Similarly, photographs taken surreptitiously are likely to tell a different story than those taken by a press corp. Other considerations include who is publishing which photographs and who is photographing whom. Photographs published of the uprisings during the Arab Spring were taken by both foreign and local photographers. How would the photographer’s own culture influence your reading of the photographs?

Tim Hetherington, a British combat photojournalist, is known for his attempts to express how the context of conflict shapes combat photography, and how combat photography shapes conflict. Hetherington called it “the feedback loop”: news, movies, and photographs of war influence young people, who then re-enact that imagery when they find themselves in conflict. Photographs of that conflict then shape the news, movies, and photographs of war. And so on.

Context also includes a photographer’s intent when taking the photograph. Intent is not a definitive indication of meaning, but it certainly contributes to what is read in a photograph. A photographer’s work can also be shaped by influences beyond a photographer’s intent and conscious attention. Richard Avedon intended to offer a fresh view of the American west when he took the photographs for his collection “In the American West.” However, Avedon’s photographs of hardship and suffering among the working class in the West have been criticized as exploitative because, it is argued, Avedon’s perspective was unconsciously skewed by his success as a commercial photographer from the East. Does the criticism change how you read his collection? Avedon had suffered a critical illness before launching on his American West project. Does that change your reading of his photographs? What if, as was alleged, Avedon had dressed some people up to be photographed as someone they were not?

Photographers frequently photograph better than they know. —Minor White

A photograph’s story is also shaped by the person viewing the photograph. We read images from the perspective of our own worldviews and values. I am fascinated by visual storytelling, so will engage documentary photographs with more gusto than I might those that are abstract. Similarly, I would likely read photographs of conflict in Ukraine differently than would a Ukrainian. That’s not to suggest that certain perspectives are more valid than others or even that the photographer’s perspective is the only correct view. Edward Weston railed against those who tried to layer sexual meaning onto his photographs of green peppers. Weston maintained that an object is photographed for its own sake. The fact that many still saw sexual intent in Weston’s peppers says as much about the viewer as it does about the photograph itself. But, if Weston did not intend sexual imagery with his peppers, does that mean that those viewers who saw it there were wrong? The test would be whether the internal consistency of the photograph could sustain the viewer’s sexual interpretation.

[I]t is disgust and weariness over having my work labeled and pigeonholed by those who bring to it their own obviously abnormal, frustrated condition: the sexually unemployed belching gaseous irrelevancies from an undigested Freudian ferment. —Edward Weston

Content: What Story is the Photograph Telling?

By considering together the subject, form, medium, and context of a photograph, we can form some conclusions about the content of a photograph. By examining photographs, we can express in words the visual representation contained within the frame. We can often intuit meaning in a photograph, but taking the time to read a photograph will often provide us with more insight into the photograph itself and what the photograph or photographer is expressing. Finally, learning to read photographs helps us write photographs. Understanding visual literacy is as relevant to making a photograph as it is to reading a finished photograph.

Not every photograph will contain complex content and not every reading will reveal all nuances in an image. Edward Weston maintained that an object is photographed for its own sake. Minor White argued that you can photograph an object for its own sake, but you could also photograph it, or a viewer could interpret it, for what else the object might be. And Alfred Stieglitz believed that you photograph an object with the intention of also provoking an emotional reaction. Regardless of the level of analysis the photographer intends or the viewer undertakes, what is certain is that developing skills in visual literacy will reward you with a richer experience both in making and viewing photographs.

Experiment with reading photographs by using the comments below to offer your reading of the following photograph.

Woman standing on a car to photograph the landscapeWoman standing on a car to photograph the landscapeWoman standing on a car to photograph the landscape
Rosemary Gilliat (1954). Library and Archives Canada, e011161195.
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