The limitations of language

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Cloud I.

I have a bit of a problem. In fact, it’s becoming an increasingly large one. Put simply, I’m running out of words to describe the things I’m seeing and the visual concepts I’m trying to explain; and I don’t know if the vernacular even exists. I suspect it doesn’t, but then again, I’m sure there are English speakers with greater vocabulary than me for whom it does. A large portion of you probably think this is stating the obvious; it is. But we reach a point beyond which it becomes impossible to progress further without some sort of common baseline accurately and consistently describe what it is we’re intending to convey; or more specifically, to ensure that what I’m saying and imagining are the same things as what you’re hearing and seeing in your own mind.

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Cloud II.

Let’s take this image, and the first one in the post. Ostensibly, they’re both clouds; they’re even structured the same, with a dominating central cloud and some mostly empty sky around the outside. You could spend quite some effort describing both in a quantitative way – and come up with an ultimately inadequate description that nobody would be able to visualize. You could say they’re both a colour portrait of a cloud, one shaped like a fluffy jujube, and the other like an inside-out explosion. I bet the second pair of descriptions would’t be far off the mark. But the only reason this works is because there’s a lot of common secondary language here: we all know what clouds are, we have our own expectations of what a ‘fluffy cloud’ looks like, inside out is a concept we understand, and can translate into an expectation of lighting – but does everybody know what a jujube is?

And here we start to be on slippery ground: the more remote the allegory we use, the less likely our audience is going to understand it. And that’s just describing the visual portion – we haven’t even started on the structural or storytelling aspects of the image yet. Ironically, the storytelling portion is much easier: it almost doesn’t have to relate to the image at all; metaphor is the order of the day. But describing the structure of an image? That’s tough.

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Cloud III.

Part of the problem is that the same word can mean a lot of things, even in a photographic context. Take ‘Light’, for instance:

  1. Subjective quality of ambient luminance
  2. Quantitative measures of ambient luminance: amount, direction, colour, diffusion
  3. Quality or nature of contrast
  4. The opposite of dark, i.e. an abundance of ambient or subject luminance
  5. Visually uplifting 
  6. Minimalist; the opposite of busy/ detailed
  7. Empty, but bright
  8. High key
  9. Equipment that has relatively low real mass compared to expected mass for its size or function

I think you can see the problem here already: depending on the context, the word ‘light’ can mean a huge number of things. And it isn’t always clear which one (or ones, I suppose) of these things we’re referring to. It’s very possible for an image to have good light and simultaneously feel light and airy; I suppose this would qualify:

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‘Soft as a cloud’ – an adequate description, but still not at all a cloud.

Yet ultimately, it doesn’t tell you anything about the subject, the contents, or the colour, or composition. See what I mean about our language being insufficient to really discuss images in detail? I suspect musicians, painters, actors etc. all had the same problem at some point. They cannot easily discuss their work because they can’t describe it; so they invented new words to work around it. Even that is largely inadequate, because you’re trying to use a written/ spoken/ conceptual language to describe something that is fundamentally physical and actually quite precise, but at the same time not: a riff can take many different specific forms, but still count as a riff.

We photographers, on the other hand, don’t really have this: how do you describe the feel of a smooth tonal transition over a large spatial area mixed with high frequency detail over a small portion of the image? What if that’s predominantly high key? Or low key? Our verbiage is dominated by the technical; talk about sensor blooming or lateral chromatic aberration and everybody knows what that means. But the artistic is simply left by the wayside and ignored. And that’s sad, because photography is not about measurbating your camera: it’s about making images. Understanding your equipment is a critical part of that, but it isn’t the end goal.

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An even larger problem we face is that most of the time, the two people discussing an image are not even looking at the same thing: even if you’ve got the same digital file, your screen calibrations and ambient lighting conditions are almost certainly non-identical. And we know how much that can change things: look at a file on a screen with poor brightness, relatively little contrast, a limited gamut and low resolution – and then on a properly calibrated, state-of-the-art wide-gamut 4K display. And then the same thing again on a retina iPad: they’re all different. Dramatically so. The only way to ensure we’re actually talking about the same thing is to look at the same print, under the same light, in person. That obviously isn’t practical, so we have to make caveats in the discussion and allowances for such variances; yet these variances can make an enormous difference in the overall impact and feel of an image. Even though there will always be subjective interpretative differences, at least you can minimise the overall range by starting out at the same point. What gives still images at least half of their magic is also what makes them very difficult to pin down and improve.

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Cloud IV.

This brings us to The Disconnect: even if you can describe it in a way that makes sense to you, and perhaps others, does it make sense to me? What we need is some sort of universally – across photographers, at least – consistent set of terminology to describe at least common visual features of images; a set of building blocks, if you will. This way, if you can say something about the subject, the style, and the major building blocks, you should have a reasonably good idea of what the image might look like in person – perhaps not as condensed a description as saying a piece of music is a fugue and expecting it to follow a relatively fixed structure, but at least something that lets the viewer know what they’re in for – and subsequently allows us to discuss and analyse the images in a more structured way.

The disconnect is something that’s become increasingly apparent to me as I do more and more portfolio reviews for the Email School; I used to write the portfolio reviews, but I’ve long switched over to a video because it’s simply easier for me to point at the portions of the image I want to talk about. Then only once I establish a baseline set of vocabulary to associate with certain images do I revert to text. Video is of course not always practical, however; hence the need to find a more consistent solution. I have no idea how we go about this, but I’m willing to try, if there’s enough support. Such a wordset will not appeal or apply to everybody; much the same as there’s subject-specific vocabulary in every other pursuit. I don’t expect it to be widely adopted, because most people will simply have no use for it. But if enough people use it, in connection with images, hopefully it will become commonplace. So, over to the audience: any and all thoughts/ suggestions/ ideas in the comments please? MT


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  1. MT: at root, a fascinating conundruum! From some perspectives whole lives – indeed, whole cultures – can be taken as struggles to better define some of our trickier words: ‘good’, ‘true’, and the like. One viewpoint on language I find alluring is that of JG Bennett, though he’s somewhat outre academically, who emphasises its non-homogeneity. The page at has a summary of his idea that inasmuch as its meaning transcends the straightforwardly functional, different conditions are required for understanding language. It gets mixed in with his views on spirituality, but nonetheless a philosophically interesting position, I think.

  2. I’ll go back to one of your initial observations about the visual language of the picture itself being the best way to describe it, with the problem being a wide disparity in viewers’ monitor quality. Perhaps an online app or website could be developed that would function, with participation of the viewer, to help calibrate their monitors to some common standard. Then, we’d all at least be on the same page with regard to some of the essential visual qualities of the images under discussion. Here I’m referring to some novel way of calibrating (or, more accurately, correlating) each monitor remotely without the need for a dedicated hardware gizmo.

    • You still need a good eyeball because all hardware has a range of tolerances. But I find the apple calibration utility pretty good, actually.

  3. Wow. Some topic. Very philosophical, yet scientific as well. Language can only work if a variety of meaning exists; it’s an inherent part of language. Proof: If we all meant exactly the same thing by our words, then if I now wrote “Stand up now!”, everyone who reads this would stand up immediately! Physically and psychologically meaning is applied or given to words by people based on their own experiences with it (and the sources) in their own cultural context, and in context in which it occurs. So, most people reading that order would quickly interpret it as an example of how language works, not an actual order, nor would hardly any reader be personally inclined to follow a textual order on the this site . . . from me. The most useful words have the greatest variety of meaning: “run” in English may be the best example, but “stand” also has a huge variety of meaning as well (you can even place your camera on one or take to the streets to oppose an injustice with the same word. How could it be any different when talking about a photograph. Reality? Picasso was asked at a cocktail party why he didn’t paint something more realistic that people could understand. “Like a photograph, you mean?” “Why, yes.” Are you married . . . yes. Happen to have a photograph of your wife to show me what you mean? Of course. Looking at the photo in his hand, Picasso said, “What a small wife you have.” She was only one inch tall.

    Here’s a nice scientific expedient you can do in your next workshop if there’s time. The 2 cloud photos could be used, they differ in a variety of ways that people can see. First ask each participant to write down any word that they think might apply to the first cloud, a free association, so to speak. Whatever first comes to their mind; then later what further thought suggests. Then the other one. Each participant does this independently. Collect them and the next day show the list of all words for each photo. With 10 participants, you will have many words that are used by more than one person (“fluffy”, say). So, place a frequency count next to each word. Do this for both photos separately, of course. At some point the 10 run out of new words to use, and you get fewer and fewer unique words. All to describe the same, single, simple object in the photo, the cloud. The result amounts to the degree of variety of meaning that is possible and this variety can be measured quantitatively with the formula for information theory and statistical thermodynamics. Don’t worry about those sciences: it only refers to statistical variety (uniformity/diversity) of potential meaning from these 10, likely from several different cultures in your workshops. Hence, variety of interpreters as well. S= – Sum (pi Log pi) where p is the probability or in this case frequency of each word divided by the sum of all words used by the 10 (hence the percentage that each word occurs). These numbers are on your lists and already counted. It might be more enlightening to take two different types of photos, the cloud and say one of a person walking towards another one on a dark street at night. Or a bucket with a mop in it. Seriously. The words will vary and the number of words as well.

    Conclusion. Some photos have a greater variety of meaning to viewers than others (in a particular population of people). Now here’s the punch line. In the interview above that was shared on this blog, the psychotherapist said something like “A bad photograph (painting) is easy to describe.” Perhaps, . . . “talk about.” Not much to say. Good ones inspire more thought and variety of response, so you might even want to look at them from time to time again, only to discover something new.

    Now take the the most frequent 10 words for the cloud photo and give them back to all 10 participants. Place each work on a scale from 0 to 10, with the word used at each end: e.g.. 0 = Not fluffy at all . . . 10 Fluffiest cloud possible. As each participant to rate the photo this way, from low to medium (5) to high (10). “Gloomy” would be a good word to use for the two clouds if my eyesight is working. Now you have 10 scores on each word scale. They will not all be the same number, of course. Variety, no? Now you can calculate the mean score for your ten participants on each word used for each photo. And if you remember your statistics, you can also calculate the variance around each mean, or just look at the spread of scores around the mean. If the mean is 7 on gloomy, the 10 scores for glooming might range from 3 to 10, say. If it’s only 6 to 9 with a mean of 7, then that photo on that word scale has a greater uniformity of response (variety again), and the mean is a more precise score. This is another way (quantitative) of saying that the level of preciseness of gloominess when applied to this cloud photo is very high (low variation). Obviously, this will not be the same across all photos or with a different group of workshop participants. In place of a 10 point, 0 to 10 numerical scale, you can also get rid of the numbers altogether and simply use a line that is 10 centimeters long, with “not gloomy at all” on one end and “most gloomy possible.” Have them make a hashmark at some point along the line to indicate how gloomy they think it is. It might help to have one hashmark already there to indicate the midpoint between 0 and 10. In the study of pain in medicine, this is called a “visual analogue scale.” Ah ha. No longer digital or numeric, purely intuitive based on our sense of distance and inherent ratios that exist in a straight line (halfway, about a third, etc.) Now, since the line is 10 centimeters long, all you have to do is place ruler on the line to get number to apply to each hashmark. You can even have the students do this themselves, for their own answers, or perhaps for the person next to them. Group work, easier on the teacher. With a white board an magic marker (or chalk and black) you can also go around the 10 and have them read out their number for each judgement, mark the answers and when you’re done they can SEE the distribution develop themselves in real time as the numbers are being registered on the chalk board. Then ask why all the differences are occurring for such a simple straightforward task. So, to answer the question: do good photographs reveal a greater variety of meaning/interpretations from a group of viewers or less? Perhaps it’s curvilinear: So-called “good” photographs increase in variety (lower uniformity) up to a point decline if variety gets too great. Is this what we mean by a photo is “too busy” or “too complex,” versus one that is simple and geometrically profound.

    Or don’t do this at all. Just treat this as a thought experiment and see if it adds any insight into the limits of words for describing photographs. If it’s not fun, by all means don’t do it. Sorry for passing the twitter word limit so quickly. I’ll try not to do it again.

    • That’s a very interesting idea. I’m not sure I’d do it during a workshop, but I get your meaning.

      The biggest risk I see to an experiment like that would be that you are still very much limited by the erudition/ vocabulary of your audience, surely? Even if you had a large enough sample population with a representative distribution of intellectual skill, the more descriptive terms would land up dropping out due to lack of frequency. You’d need a very skewed population towards the long end of the tail, but then you’d run the opposite risk of using a lot of terms that might not make sense to a greater audience. Hmmm…food for thought.

      Good news is wordpress has no word limits on comments, just levels of nesting.

      • You’ve just nailed the essence of the problem you started with: “limited by the vocabulary of your audience.” And yourself, by the way. This is always one inherent limitations of thinking and talking with others, including anyone’s analysis of a photograph including their own. This is also one of the first problems that a teacher has to overcome. The principle is always to start where the student is, not ahead or behind. Know your audience, so to speak, hmmm, before you speak. Otherwise, plan on speaking past one another. Of course, one can teach photography by showing photographs and paintings for illustration (classic and your own), and then asking them to paint copies of the masters–emulate photos of the masters as a teaching device. Ancient as art itself. Learn somewhat by feel or as they they say “improve memory and skill in the finger tips” (muscle memory) not just the brain. This is exactly how you run your blog, and as I’ve said before, your own photos are better than most any of the other blogs I’ve seen. It’s why I (we) keep coming back. If a teacher cannot communicate with their own work, then what good are words anyway. The great philosopher, Cratalus, teacher of Socrates, in whatever 400 BC, when he reached old age resorted only to one ambiguous answer when people would come from around the known world to ask a question: He simply raised his little finger on one hand and said nothing. By then he knew that any words he might use would just further confuse them. This indeed is the same essence of the Zen koan, a la “sound of one hand clapping.” It’s precisely to get the novice to see beyond the limitations of words and perceive with direct insight. Well known that the world as “known” through thought and hence words and language is an illusion. It’s not that it’s not there; just that language would always distort that reality. Far fetched? Then why are you encountering such limitations with words and language? You’ve simply discovered the ancient truths of Western and Eastern philosophy. The little finger raised may be interpreted as “you can only find the answer that satisfies you by yourself, not from what I say. And so, the teacher of photography sets up the last day of the workshop to see what each student has learned by doing and somewhat by listening and watching. Fun stuff, and hard to avoid when one tries to teach . . . or try to talk to one’s spouse! or own children. P.S. You may at least want to get the classes independent list of words/concepts that first come to mind when they see a new photograph. Then maybe show the same one at the end of the workshop and see if any new concepts arise. Let’s hope. By the way, I’d really like to try your Venice workshop in November. Just to see.

        • I agree: when teaching, or in doubt, always easiest to start too basic and tell people to hurry you along if you’re covering the familiar. Otherwise you run the risk of losing your audience before you start.

          It might be an interesting experiment to try at a Masterclass where the audience is perhaps more open to such things, and already thinking about them – Outstanding Images is more exercise – based, distilled down to the minimum essence and there isn’t enough time to add in additional things.

          As for workshops – I’ve got one slot left for the Venice Masterclass, but lots of people thinking and attempting to rearrange schedules, so don’t take too long to decide if you’d like to come 🙂

  4. Ming,
    The Teutonic languages (including English) are wonderful for technical description. Much technology was developed in countries speaking these languages. The tools are there to help us inform our thoughts precisely in the technical domain. Languages tend to have a multiplicity of words and ways of explaining things that are important to that culture. Inuits, snow. Pacific Islanders, family relationships. Germanic languages, metal fasteners. My heritage is Hispanic. I sense that mood and feelings come more easily in the Romance languages. A different set of linguistic tools. I studied Japanese for a while because of a fascination for the Kanji characters, enough to get a feel for a totally different way of informing thoughts – through pictures. These ‘pictures’ work to communicate essentially the same concepts in several different languages, originally being Chinese, and used by a number of cultures in their languages (Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese being among them.) It was such an interesting revelation to me that you could learn to read the Chinese characters, derive meaning and communicate without learning Chinese. This is clearly a case of concepts being communicated by pictures as a language. You could just as well learn to interpret Chinese characters in English as do the Japanese and others, but perhaps with some conceptual limitations. Two thoughts occur. Would Chinese or some other language family have the tools for the type of communication you are discussing? Could these tools ever be possible in English? Once again you have opened an interesting philosophical discussion.

    By the way, I am fascinated with your titles. Impressed as well. I don’t believe I can title my photographs with anywhere near the skill. Your command of English is extraordinary, and your ability to crystalize so precisely the thought behind the title is something in common with the work of one of my favorite poets, John Cantey Knight. I am always a bit disappointed when there is no title to one of your photographs. They add to my enjoyment of your work.

    This has been very interesting. It will be fun to see where it goes from here.

    • Good point: a lot gets lost in translation between the Asian pictographic and teutonic letter-based languages. Yet Japanese somehow manages to bridge both: they use Chinese logography and a letter-based system; so perhaps it’s not entirely impossible to go between one and the other.

      The titles come out of the idea – if they don’t match the image, or I don’t have one to begin with and it’s purely about aesthetics, then something got lost in the visual part of the translation/ execution.

      • An interesting thought. Do the Japanese actually think in both pictographic and letter based, or do they subconsciously translate? I have often asked myself the same question between Spanish and English. The one thing that I do know is that I tend to respond in the language that I am thinking in at the time, regardless of the question or statement or language that provokes the response. In any case, the notion of using a pictographic language to discuss pictographic items is intriguing. Do you speak Chinese?

        • Not being Japanese, I have no idea. But perhaps Tom Liles can weigh in; he lives in Tokyo and is far more fluent in Japanese than I am. I speak Cantonese but can’t read or write it, so my experience there isn’t very useful, either.

  5. Joni Mitchell once wrote:
    “I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
    From up and down, and still somehow
    It’s cloud illusions I recall
    I really don’t know clouds at all”
    Sometimes beauty is to be admired rather than dissected in an attempt to understand?

  6. Marty Moloney says:

    fewer words, more imagery…

    • You have to understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it to make better images. I don’t want to just make more images, there’s enough crap on the internet as it is already.

  7. Ming

    Nice topic, though I don’t think you’ll find an answer to this one. Presumably the people you teach have signed up because they appreciate your images and would like to elicit a similar emotional response from their own photos – quite an assumption, but I’ve got to start somewhere. If this is the case then they have already selected themselves as people who value the way you feel about images and have similar feelings towards the photographs they enjoy – in short, you’re teaching a subset of the population who shares at least a part of your aesthetic.

    When describing how you feel about an image I don’t think you can do more than keep it simple and keep it honest. Do you ask your students to describe how they feel about the images they send you? What made them choose one image over another? Are they trusting their gut reaction or are they selecting for correct exposure etc? Sometimes it can be very hard to describe why a photo doesn’t work; when the light is good and the exposure is spot on, but the image just doesn’t grab you – something is missing and maybe it’s just that it fails to evoke a feeling. I see heaps, but I feel nothing as someone once said.

    I don’t think a shared and specialised terminology is necessary and if different people describe different feelings towards an image then what the heck, just so long as they feel something. In some ways it’s more important that they elicit an emotional response than the ability to describe that response. I find your images to be crisp, with a sense of space and calm, whereas you’ve mentioned in the past that some people find them too cold (paraphrasing). Same images, different feelings, different descriptions, but at least they’re both assessments that indicate a feeling.

    A couple of days ago I asked my partner about her feelings towards an image. She took an instant to assess it as too cold because the monochrome sucked the warmth out of what was a warm summer’s day. I don’t know if I like the image, but I’d never describe it as cold and was quite surprised so I showed her another monochrome image, one that I class as cold, and she agreed that both the subject matter and the monochrome processing marked this as a cold photo. So, although we have a common description – cold – we applied it both for similar(subject matter) and different(monochrome processing) reasons. The terminology may be the same, but our underlying feelings and the times that we employ the terminology will vary from person to person.


    • Well, I certainly need to try to understand a student’s intention with a particular image before being able to give constructive feedback – without knowing the end, it’s impossible to describe the directions for the journey. This is especially true when you’re starting to get into more subjective and artistic output…

  8. Kristian Wannebo says:

    Another kind of limitation of language;
    but considering the photo equipment involved below, that is obviously not one of your students …

  9. An interesting description here:

    a balance maintained in an artistic work between opposing forces or elements

    Additional Ways to Create Visual Tension:

    As we saw above asymmetrical space is one way to add tension as it creates unbalanced forces on elements.

    Another way to create tension using space is through the figure/ground relationship. If figure and ground each carry equal weight it can create tension as each threatens to overtake the other.

    Juxtaposition can also be used. Juxtaposing conflicting elements is one of the stronger ways to visually show tension. An ice cube next to the sun for example. The greater the conflict, the greater the tension.

    Similarly contrast can be used to create tension. Light and dark, large and small, curves and straight lines. And again the greater the contrast, the greater the tension.

    Angular lines typically carry more tension than either horizontal or vertical lines, because the are perceived as less stable.

    Breaking rules, such as moving an element off the grid creates an uneasiness, an escape from order. This uneasiness creates tension and naturally draws the eye and adds visual interest.

    • Hmmm…it seems to be a rather vague description, doesn’t it? Especially since the word has so many possible interpretations/ meaning…

      • The main description (“a balance maintained in an artistic work …”) does seem vague, but the specific examples are much clearer, at least to me, even if I don’t agree with all of them. Maybe we have another example of the lack of visually descriptive language here?

        • Very much so. I’ve grappled with attempting to describe the idea of balance for some time, and come to the conclusion that a balanced image is one in which your eyes go to the intended subject(a) in the intended order with no unintentional distractions, emptiness or shading.

      • I think I like the stricter interpretation of tension and then also use contrast and juxtaposition to complete it out.

  10. Manfred says:

    Dear Ming,
    first of all I like your article a lot, already cause I like intellectual quest and challenges. But then on a second thought, I wonder where that leads to, when we’d actually be able to develop such a descriptive language.
    Even looking at the same photograph, there isn’t just the technical side you mentioned like comparable and calibrated monitor. It has to do with actual mood we are presently in and many other very personal conditions.

    Where you stand determines what you see and what you don`’t see. It also determines the angle you see it from. A change in where you stand changes everything
    Steve de Shazer

    I think that does not only count for the scenery one takes a shot from but also for the onlooker viewing a photograph from someone else.

    In the medial world we live in we view a multitude of images every day, a good share documenting a situation, or illustrate the point made in written and a whole lot of simply crap. Not least due to modern technology (e.g. smartphone that make some sort of camera available at any given moment), overwhelming image platforms that degraded photographs to a penny value on the rummage table of a super sale the remaining mystery of some good photographs are probably the sole point to make them survive the next state of social evolution.
    I think the unexplainable too leads to that remaining mystery, that forces us, to personally look on the accordingly photograph as we are unable to convey the content otherwise. Even though you, in this case, share your photographs via the internet, of course not knowing how that what you see might come out on the medium of the onlooker, there is something that he might understand beyond what he actually sees. And this may even be more difficult to bring on any common denominator.

    My impression is, that many people visit your site frequently. Thus they know already something about how you tick and how you approach a subject or scenery. So they have already a context, which may deliver more unspoken but still valuable explanations, than you think.
    I’m not quite sure if that would be sufficient for your teaching classes, however it may well be for understanding a lot about your images and the articles they are embedded in.
    Even with all intellectual effort possible, I believe that we can’t convey these things in a large perfection. But then it seems to me it’s rather a blessing than a curse.
    Best regards

  11. Eye see. Therefore eye am.

  12. Dieter Kief says:

    Dear Ming –

    – aesthetics is a tricky field, which has seen lots of ploughmen stumbling along. The easiest way with words is the poet’s. Therefor I’d recommand Rilkes Thing-Poems as a general access-bill to the field of wording the kind of things (clouds, for example), you’re trying to word (Seleted Poems, C. F. MacIntyre, University of California Press). And then I’d recommend Hans Magnus Enzensbergers The History Of Clouds – 99 Meditations – all to be understood as if it were written between qotation marks and/or with a curious laugh.
    As subject for further research and a way to get mad with excitement about the incredible precision/beauty of it’s descriptions – or mad in anger about the poor readers impatience, I highly praise Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Journal and – (to a very high, even if a little lesser extent) – J. A. Bakers The Peregrine. The Kunsthaus Aarau hosted a Clouds Painting Exhibition, the catalog is still available and well worth the sweat of the nobleman – – studying it, even though it is not available in English; but the collection is very instructive.
    Then give J. v. Ruisdael a close look (the two horizontal shadows att he cloud of your first picture remind me of big R.), and Johann Georg Dillis, a Bavarian painter (1759 – 1841), who was no genius// b u t the first who scetched clouds on a daily basis over quite a period of time.// The only Dillis-catalog available misses almost completeley out on this dear aspect, unfortunateley. You mention Magritte – there’s a (painted) Magritte-Clouds paraphrase on the album-cover of Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty” LP that I like a lot. It captures the mood of the sweet summer night, – : who’s sibling is just coming around the corner at Lake Constance as I finish these lines – – with all cumuli one after the other being swept away by the soft force of an Azorian breeze…

    – – Keep rockin’!


  13. “But we reach a point beyond which it becomes impossible to progress further without some sort of common baseline accurately and consistently describe what it is we’re intending to convey; or more specifically, to ensure that what I’m saying and imagining are the same things as what you’re hearing and seeing in your own mind.”

    Hi Ming,

    I think you’ve answered your own question, and I’d suggest that you look at the overall issue in pragmatic, concrete terms (rather than the philosophical aspect). Everybody, and I mean everybody uses language differently, depending on their background, values and native language. I would argue that it is not a limitation of the language, but the limitation of those communicating with each other, due to differences background, values and other factors. (Wars may have been started, even by decent translators, so I doubt we can expect the discussion of something as abstract as art to be easier, even in one language and among several cultures…)

    If you can directly identify your audience or the differences within your audience, you can better determine how best to communicate with them.

    I’m not a teacher; however, all the time, I hear from my math teacher friend that, each year, he has to determine the best method of teaching (and communicating), depending on the particular subset of students.

    Determine your audience; setup the baseline for communication and use of language.
    (My guess is that artists and photographers would be closer to using the same language, as you, to describe images. Engineers, perhaps, will be more literal…)

    • Reduction of math to pragmatic terms works, because everything is absolute. Reduction of photography and images isn’t quite the same because it’s highly subjective. And yes, one of the main reasons I’m spending so much time considering this is because I teach, and to improve that requires significant consideration of the pedagogy…

  14. mosswings says:

    What a fantastic discussion. Language is inherently inadequate in fully describing experience, because experience is always personal, integrative, emergent, and nonlinear. Language – at least English – is constructive and analytic, assembling labels for the world based on a Cartesian objectivity that doesn’t really exist. Dismembering experience to describe experience serves only as a pointer to the most obvious aspects of that experience, but not the emotional content of it. Some languages are far better at capturing the more holistic aspects of the world, and every language has certain specialities that don’t translate into others either well or at all.

    Your opening cloud image is one such example of this fundamental inadequacy. The technical aspects of it enhance the experience of this singular cloud, but the power in it lies in its calling up of my own experiences of similarly powerful clouds. An attempt to describe it precisely loses the gestalt of the scene captured.

    That a 2 dimensional still image can conjure up such depth of experience is really quite amazing – but what you’re attempting to do here, Ming, is what neurophysicists and cognitive scientists are still wrestling with – how do you describe what a person experiences when the very act is purely internal and unobservable?

    In a way, though, our inability to precisely describe our own experiences through our language emphasizes the need to share experiences directly rather than passively observe and attempt to describe. The whole is more than the sum of its descriptions.

    • Yes and no – whilst there’s a definite need to describe some of what’s represented in the actual image, I’m getting at making a fundamental/ basic set of terms that allows us to discuss the properties and feel of an image in a not-so-subjective way; especially when two people cannot share the experience or even possibly the same viewing medium. It’d be impossible to describe the experience in anything more than an allusional way.

  15. Tom Hudgins says:

    We start with a dynamic stereoscopic visual replete all sensations and end up with a flat, static photograph that inevitably fails at conveying what we saw in our mind’s eye. Is this a limitation of language or of photography that leaves us wanting more? Nice clouds!

    • Photography in that it doesn’t replicate all of reality, but that wasn’t the point. We use those limitations to force an interesting interpretation of the world. The limitation of language comes in trying to discuss it.

  16. Amazing !

  17. Cloud IV is a phenomenal image. I would love a framed copy on my wall!
    Also, as to the theme of the post, you could be having the experience of “such-ness” or “is-ness” of what you’re seeing, and making an image that is an approximation of that experience. And then for me, I am experiencing the “such-ness” of the image of what you were seeing. And it’s perfectly OK to leave it at that. Not understanding this thing you’re seeing, leaving the experience un-articulated beyond the photo itself – that’s a space where photography can and does exist, at least in part.
    Somewhat related, you may enjoy this interview:

  18. Chris Griffiths says:

    I’ve just attempted to write an essay around this subject for a book I’ve been working on – a set of 24 images taken at eye level at one hour intervals over the space of 24 waking hours. By classical standards and to a casual observer they are junk photos that can’t be easily be described – any sense of classical arrangement is purely coincidental. You can only fully decode the photographs by applying 3 principles to them. Viewing and understanding the ‘known spacial facts’ (the exposure) being certain of the ‘cancellation’ (the impossibly complex and intangible world that exists outside of the frame) and then combining the known facts and the cancellation to come up with the translation. If we concentrate to much on the ‘known spacial facts’ we run the risk of ignoring the cancellation and creating a deeper fiction. Every viewers equivalent translation (a la Stieglitz) will be different which is why it’s so hard to describe an image in a universally agreeable language. Back to my set of 24 junk photos: They describe every detail of my day and a good portion of my lifestyle to me – yet any other person who viewed the set couldn’t possibly explain them without knowing the cancellation that I purposefully constructed around the junk photos. The book and essay becomes a critical part of the cancellation where you start to colour my life with your own.

    This is why photography thrives on cliches.

    Or I could be talking nonsense.

    • I don’t think you are, but it’s a very different approach and description to what I’d use – take ‘cancellation’, instead of ‘conscious exclusion’ for instance. I get the impression that you’re deliberately negating something, which is probably the same as consciously excluding it; however, it’s also the same as calling it the ‘external irrelevance’, for instance. But al of these terms imply something slightly different about the content.

  19. William Rounds says:

    Whenever the whole is greater than the simple sum of the parts, words rarely suffice.

  20. JohnAmes says:

    The language used for conveying the measurable and quantifiable can indeed be a very slippery slope. Before one knows it, the work of the philosopher Alan Watts begins to sound more and more reasonable and one’s cherished sense of being a unique self begins to disappear. Words can only go so far. Pointing at the moon is about the best one can hope to do.

  21. Regarding the below-the-lines question of titles, I suggest your “Lost” from Havana to be an interesting example. In this case the range of possible interpretations without the title seems to be broader; the title itself would seem to convey more specificity and thus a possible narrowing of the interpretation, which in some cases may prove important to deliver the artist’s idea, although a viewer of course may not be constrained to a singular interpretation provided by the artist. To say whether providing a title for an image works either to positive or negative effect might at least beg a look to the artist’s own intentions as well as consideration of the visual content of the image itself; and like post decions perhaps choice of and desirability of affixing a title may vary for each individual image.

    • I actually find that whilst I prefer titles, there are some images that work visually but just don’t have any obvious way of transferring the idea into language – that’s when you land up with ‘Untitled XVIII’ or something similar…

      • I’d agree that some images as well as some other aspects of human experience can form very particular impressions that seem entirely worth conveying yet defy linguistic expression. I’ve come up against ones that have been positively frustrating.

        Now I’m curious to see if you have an article discussing Gestalt…

        It just occurred that poetry, good poetry that is?, aims to convey ideas that are otherwise beyond the capacity of language to express; but at first glance I’d prefer not try to compose poetry for my image titles 🙂

        • Gestalt = Idea + Style, no?

          I’d also rather not go into poetry. I’m a much better photographer, I think. 😛

          • Your images are outstanding indeed. In very little time your work also impressed me as very consistent with my own tastes and image-making aspirations. Combined with your blog, your work has truly been an encouragement to me to continue practicing photography — while the vast number of popular images today would be suggestive there was no point in it. Thank you!

            I haven’t read any of your poetry, so maybe there’s another talent to be revealed sometime 🙂

  22. Ming, you think too much 🙂 Joke aside. I think this is simple, and its beautifully framed by the old saying: “One picture tells more than 1000 words”. In many ways similar problem as you find in wine tasting, but they have developed a language around how to define and describe a taste. I don’t think such language is possible for the “capture of light in context”…

    • Hey, if I didn’t think, I wouldn’t be making very interesting images…

      • Thats true my friend, but this one contained more thinking than most people grasp on a very though subject. We have language for wine tasting, a language most people (drinking wine or not) find obscure. A oral language for defining/describing the mood of a picture or whatever we should call it is at its best damned hard. That said, I enjoyed your post, even though this one to me was a “bridge too far”. I see the problem, but do not think there is a solution ….. Piece …

        • Thank you. There may not be an obvious solution (which is why we don’t have one!) but it doesn’t stop us from trying 🙂

  23. I have to say that the example images you give as part of each email assignment are very, very useful to me for understanding what it is that you want from each assignment. I start out trying to imitate what I think I see, and then I try to work in my own take and how I feel about the assignment in subsequent pictures — it’s like one of those meandering late night conversations that jump from topic to topic. Sometimes I end up with something wonderful, and other times, it’s kind of a mess, but that’s the fun of it all.

    The videos that follow you around, especially the ones where we can see through the camera, are also very illuminating.

    • Thank you – I’m always afraid with those that there isn’t a wide enough range of examples for most scenarios, but at the same time I don’t want to be limiting, and the assignment content generally consciously applied to all of my images if you look hard enough. Imitation is good to get you started, but ultimately limited.

      • Yes agreed. Imitation is only the first step, and one has to be willing to go your own way after you’ve gotten the idea of the lesson. For me, the imitating part is like an experiment to see if I get the idea before I go off on a tangent so I still maintain the idea of the exercise in whatever picture I take. For example, I think you’ve commented on doing more midtone dodging more than once for my pictures, and that’s one of the things that’s been on my radar to “get”, so it’s still in the imitation stage.

  24. My instinct is to define the problem, define the parameters of an acceptable solution, implement a method that meets those parameters, and then repeat the process–as our failure to perfectly solve the problem will teach us more about the nature of the problem.

    Having read the post several times, and the comments, I’m still not sure what the problem is, though I agree that there is one. So I don’t nominate these ideas but rather throw them out there in case anyone else wants to brainstorm with me.

    Problem: “We do not talk about images as much as we would like to because doing so productively requires establishing a relationship with the (other) critics so that we all know what we’re talking about.” For example, critiquing an image as “that’s pretty,” while positive and encouraging for beginning photographers, does not help the more experienced improve their craft. On the other hand, saying “I like how the smooth tonal transitions in the dominant sky balance with the high frequency detail of the horizon” might sound like mumbo-jumbo, and thus be wasted, on someone who does not fluently understand those concepts.

    Solution: “We should identify common visual elements in photographs and name them.” For example, it would appear that not many American photographers discussed the artistic characteristics of out-of-focus blur until the word “bokeh” was accepted into our vocabulary, which led to ideas such as “nissen” (for a particular spherical aberration artefact), “onion” (for an aberration caused by imperfections inherent in some aspheric lens production methods), and “swirly” (for images with severely low resolution of tangential structures). Except, instead of talking about how particular equipment renders, regardless of scene, we should have words that talk about how the scene was rendered, regardless of equipment. The more words we have about the same subject, the easier it becomes to discuss the nuances of that subject.

    As an aside, if we can get that kind of idea into the public mindset, it would go a long way to bolster the idea of photography as a technical and artistic pursuit rather than “it isn’t special because I would have captured the same thing on my phone if I had been there at the same time.”

    Method: If this is attempted, it will be messy. That’s unavoidable. Here’s my idea, though: we start a Flickr pool. This pool contains images that, by definition, allow others the right to repost those images for the purpose of critique and discussion. Ideally, the pool would include tens of thousands of images. We look at those images until someone sees something that they want to name. Then they name it and share it. Ming might do so on his blog. Or we might have a Flickr group that we use. I’m not sure. But we look at images, we talk about images, and we look at more images until we see important artistic themes that we can name and apply to other images.

    In short, we want to make it easier to discuss photographs, so we should discuss photographs. We develop a specific culture of photographic discussion with the idea that we will conscientiously harvest those ideas, terms, and phrases that make our discussions easier, and we will offer those tools to anyone who might be interested. We build an intentional community of photographic criticism with the perhaps evangelical goal of growing it to include all communities of photographic discussion.

    The worst case scenario, as I see it, is that we look at more photographs and become better photographers for it, even if our ability to talk about it doesn’t improve in the slightest.


    • Thanks for your thoughts – that’s a very scientific approach, and one I can agree with. We can use the site’s flickr pool – images are discussed there, anyway.

      The tough part is going to be getting the idea into the greater public mindset – for photographers, at very least – and then doing it with enough images that we cover the majority of all the possibilities.

  25. plevyadophy says:

    Cloud IV.

  26. Martin Fritter says:

    I think Ansel Adams’ ‘Examples, The Making of 40 Photographs’ could be a useful guide. It’s quite charming and involves discussions of technical problems and how they were solved, aesthetic choices and story some story telling. Much of the technical stuff is not relevant in the digital era of course. Many of the photos are justly famous. The amount of “post processing” (development, printing) that he did was considerable. His writing and teaching were large parts of his income in the early phases of his career so he’s a good example for you.

    Minor White wrote quite a bit as well, as did the San Fransisco school in general. I find White woolly and problematic. The New York guys didn’t have much to say as far as I can tell. Robert Adams – who used to teach on James Joyce – has written quite well.

    I think placing work in an historical context might be useful. For example, your cloud pictures are (inadvertent?) echos of Stieglitz’s ‘Equivalent’ series.

    I’m quite partial to Janet Malcolm’s ‘Diana & Nike’ which appeared just before the digital revolution/apocalypse as did Geoff Dyer’s ‘The Ongoing Moment.’ Both are humanist writers of great scope and clarity.

    Susan Sontag wrote a great deal of very interesting photography criticism from the ’60’s. It doesn’t matter that she’s often wrong. It good to read really smart peoples’ mistakes.

    Finally, the most interesting question (to me) is the one of “what is a picture” because of how it mutates from platform to platform. I never understood Warhol until I saw an enormous Mao silkscreen at the Art Institute in Chicago. Size does matter. The same thing is true, I’m sure, for Gursky and Waal. But one can assume that (at lease some) photo books are objective. I have the Steidl reprint of “The Americans’ which I assume is accurate. Amazing how small the pictures are!

    • Some really good references in there, Martin. I agree that size does matter. I still vividly remember my first visit to MOMA in New York City. The energy coming off the Pollocks is something you don’t get except in live viewing. And Monet’s Water Lilies triptych is literally awesome.

    • I’ve read most of these books, and find that whilst they’re interesting in that they attempt to discuss individual images, they’re not really consistent at all between each other so there’s still no way for us to easily discuss the visual features of an image in a way that’s easily understood. It isn’t the same as a precise description of the subject – but rather the mood and feel, which is partially influenced by tonality, light etc. and partially influenced by the compositional structure of the image…

  27. Some time a cloud is just a cloud, sometimes not. The image meant something to you when you took it, maybe something different when you processed it. I’d let the viewer apply his/her own language to whatever the image evokes and be at peace with that. What counts is that your images are evoking a response from the viewer. That’s a goal that eludes most people “taking” pictures.

    • Taking that one step further, we need to understand exactly what it is about the image that evokes the response – and if we can’t describe it, it’s rather difficult to do again…

  28. English is definitely not my language, so ever so often I run into a lack of suitable words to express even more daily occurrences than lovely shots of clouds (thanks for sharing)!

    I think the inner workings of art is something we can’t define in words, although a lot try! It is definitely so, that, which we try the most to achieve (what we have put our hearts and minds into), is, by some automatic rule, that what the public like the most, no matter if it is a song we write, a text we write, a painting we paint, or a mathematical formula we create.

    So why should we be able to express what we feel about something by default be possible to express in the form of a text?!

    Some writers write just one text, in their lives, that is lauded by everyone, no matter how many texts they write over the years,
    and I bet there are the same with all other kinds of artists, while some seem to be able to do it over and over.

    Good luck, and hope the force will be with you!

    • I’m not trying to express what I feel in text: I’m trying to discuss the look of an image in a way that people can constantly understand, and lets me make better images…

  29. nothingbeforecoffee says:

    PS: Ming , your cloud pictures are arresting.

  30. nothingbeforecoffee says:

    A fascinating challenge. My career as an ad agency owner and creative director / copywriter meant that my days were filled with “language”. My embrace of Photography was largely driven by a real desire to move beyond the written/spoken words that occupied so much of my time. I am generally of the opinion, that we spend far too much time applying language to the visual arts. The mere act of naming things tends to rob them of their meaning… at least a little and some time a great deal.

    • No need to name them, but we do need a much better way to express what we want/like/don’t want – ‘make it more fun’ is not the kind of vague feedback you want to hear from a client…

  31. I love your food for thought – Just because of this kind of essays/articles beside your impressive photo art – I’m addicted to you” (Avicii 2014)…. I have to use his words…

    By the way the soft cloud image is lovely….simplicity/minimalism can be so impressive (using one structure, one color, one sttylistic device) in order to create an impressive, unique image….as you could also seen in your transparency shot….i hate the expression/ word amazing which is overused nowadays but this matches really to this unique image….well done! bow making/chapeau, Maestro!

    Hope we will meet someday in the future at your photoworkshops/masterclass….saving money already – gonna learn a lot for sure despite having 5yrs-old D7000…;) ;)! But thinking about trading in for an em1 m43 due to size/weight issues even if i lose IQ….tough decisions to be made sometimes….


    • Haha. Funny you should mention Avicii, I’m finding that the last album makes great running music.

      Thanks for the compliments. Just remember that the camera matters a lot less than knowing how to use it.

  32. This may sound silly, but perhaps part of the problem is that there is no clear consensus yet on the kind of words that should be used to describe an image. Go to any forum on sound (or any other aural endeavor) and one may hear terms such as articulate, bloated, analytical, boomy, fast, nasal, opaque, or crisp to describe a variety of different presentations of sound, and its mood and feel. And through over-use, for better or worse, they have become part of the standard glossary. Things may not be as fully developed in the photographic arts, and this will give rise to a variety of idiomatic quirks to describe basically the same thing. But I don’t know if I am making any sense here. 🙂

    • You’re making plenty of sense. I’m actually starting to think that a large part of the problem is that most people don’t talk about images enough – they’re too focused on the equipment!

  33. ANDREW HILLS says:

    Going to the Music analogy again one will find that there are many (especially ambient/electronic music where the titles are similar to cloud1 2 3 etc one could describe a piece of music ad infinitum and yet on listening no two people would probably agree on that description. How much description does one need for Art, tAke a Rothko painting some of the most straight forward paintings out there one would think but the emotions for each individual viewer are likely to be very different. Some he obviously couldn’t find titles for and became “Untitled x” Your images speak there own language, enough said if not that helpful on your quest.

    Screenshot 2014-06-05 10.08.59.jpg

  34. I sent this photo out for critique by artist:

    What I found out is that artist critique things way different then photographers. They actually explained their thoughts as they explored the image. Once I had their critiques I realized what it took for an observer to process the image. I really underestimated how abstract the image was. They really focused on the texture and the shadow and also the contextual clues of the chair leg and crack in the sidewalk. I had left the context in because “it was context” However they placed an even higher value on that portion than I had. Some indicated that it was magical once they saw real object appear out of the abstraction. However no one commented on the composition or the personification of the objects in the picture. That they objects are arrange in a way to express a friendly/social relationship. Which is what I saw when I took the picture, The other thing about the critiques is that they mostly started with Love and stated the things about the photo that they were passionate about.

    I also have extensive notes from your videos where you explain things in lecture and also while you are shooting. I find the shooting portions very helpful as you use terms and phrases that you have never explained/used anywhere else. With regards to light your comments while shooting in MOI EP4 for Fine Art and Cinematic really help and I now get it. Also Your HTS EP2 in Tokyo is full of time where you are talking and shooting. In particular buildings and during the landscape portions.

    • Different critiques because as a consequence of a different way of seeing the world; for an artist, everything is a conscious choice – the textures, the colors, the extras at the edge – simply because they MUST be created. For photographers – we generally include the important, make sure the rest doesn’t distract, and let it be.

      The reason for the unique phrases I use when shooting is because they wouldn’t make any sense in any other context – you have to see what I’m seeing, and it should hopefully be somewhat logical…

    • Eric, that’s a great photo! Just for your edification, here is what I thought when I saw it:

      1. Wow, that looks cool!
      2. Wait, what is that?
      3. After figuring out it was the shadows of chairs, I then started looking at the composition and the asymmetry of the shadows, and asking myself why they’re like that.

      Part of it may be influenced by where I am in my own photography and whatever problems in my own photography I’m working on, too.

      I’m curious what your artist friends said to you about the picture, if you don’t mind sharing.

      • Thanks Andre!

        They used the word tension in place of what we call contrast (Contrast between old/new, light/dark,etc..) Tension just sounds cooler and also contrast is already taken in photography anyways when you talk about light and shadows.

        Things they liked:

        1) Texture and shading. This was a consistent feedback. Several questions on how I got the texture which is good light and spot metering on the pavement.
        2) The tension between the thick lines and texture fields.
        3) The abstraction and the magical discovery of the chairs in the photo.
        4) The tension between representation and abstraction
        5) The real objects not being obvious immediately adding mystery and causing the eyes to explore the image.

        • I always thought ‘tension’ referred to some implied emotion between human elements, or things leaning away from each other.

        • Thanks Eric. It’s interesting that they chose to use tension and that you interpreted it as contrast, because I think we’re getting into the language problem that Ming writes about. For me, tension implies a dynamic instability, like two people in a tug-of-war, whereas contrast could be more general, but could also just as easily describe a static kind of stability.

          We’ve probably all seen pictures where things seem sit still (and yet there is contrast), and also ones where things look like they could fly apart. Motion blur can sometimes be used to cause this, but one can also use composition of still things to show a kind of coiled-up energy that looks like it could let go at any moment. I think many of Saul Leiter’s photos have this kind of tension in it, but I couldn’t tell you why.

          • Bingo – I have to agree with you here. Things about to fly apart because of implied dynamic instability/ gravitational/ physical imbalance is what I’d class as tension…

    • Peter Boender says:

      Hi Eric! Am I understanding you correctly that you find the terms and phrases Ming uses in the lecture parts less helpful? I’m asking since it might be beneficial for Ming to realise the language he’s using in a more natural and comfortable situation (for him) might actually be “better” than that used in a more formal setting like a lecture. It could be a case of the subconscious kicking into the right gear. Remarkable.

      • My guess is it’s having the surrounding context as an example, but I might be wrong…

        • One example that was in How To See Ep2 – Tokyo. You used the word visual anchor with regards to the taxi cabs in Ginza. They were small in the image but provided a visual anchor.

      • I find them both very useful. The formal portions are full of detail. I often watch them in 20 minute sessions to absorb the information and they form the basis of information. Ming does an amazing job on this. The un scripted portions have some hidden gems that are additional information and as Ming says they are in the context of a video and make sense. Some of the unscripted parts are not mentioned any where else. They give insight into particular situations I find myself in.

  35. Not the opening scene, I meant the “Rip it out!” scene where they discuss the theory of analysing poetry.

  36. Isn’t that subjectiveness part of the appeal? If I were to describe an image to you in the most intricate of detail, elaborating upon every aspect there is even with a predetermined terminology, and if I then were able to have you project the image you just constructed in your head to me, it still would look very different from the actual image. The same happens with books and it’s why book movies often disappoint: even if they’re terrifically well executed there’s a negligible chance that it looks anything like what you imagined whilst reading.

    I can relate your problem with teaching, being a teacher myself. Language teaching is of course a different beast entirely compared to discussing/reviewing photographs, but we language teachers come across the same barrier of subjectiveness and a loss for words when doing oral exams or even creative writing. We have a very strict format to follow in terms of grading but still many of my co-workers have admitted to fumbling around with the format until it meets the grade they had envisioned whilst reading/listening – I can’t say I’ve never changed a 6 into a 7 because I felt the format didn’t do the student in case justice. The most effective ‘weapon’ we have to counter this? At least two examiners (or more, depending on the size/importance of the assignment) who have to agree fully on the grade.

    Now I’m curious – do you yourself experience less of this problem when doing group discussions of images? In other words, does other peoples’ lingua bridge this gap of subjectiveness? Perhaps the best tool in getting even higher quality teaching for your specific purpose would be to get a second opinion. I don’t know if this is a viable option for you, though.

    I understand your pursuit of the best methods of evaluating and discussing work in the name of teaching. A strict set of rules could very well help with this. I think of compositions that work and creating and refining compositional ‘maps’ for these over time, for instance. However, it is vital that none of this gets in the way of what a good picture does; move you. Don’t box yourself in with terms and rules and all that, lest we end up in a situation similar to the opening scene of Dead Poets Society 😉

    • A precise description of the contents of an image isn’t what I’m after. It’s something more towards talking about mood and feel – though I suppose you could illustrate examples, they’d never be exhaustive and as always with photography, there would be plenty of examples that ‘work’ as photographs while breaking all of the rules or defying definition.

      The intention is far from trying to box in; it’s being able to discuss what we’re seeing and experiencing in a photograph in a meaningfully consistent way. It’s necessary for both teaching and dissection of images to become a better photographer.

      • To achieve, or at least approach, complete consistency in these methods of discussion you’d have to eliminate as many variables as possible. The most minute things (the weather, the song you last listened to) can affect the specific words you choose which in turn affect the message you are trying to transmit. And even then, the tone of your voice affects the message as well. I’d still say the best tool to get more consistency would be to get as many voices as possible. The more you have, the more variables get diminished or ironed out. You’d have to make sure that all the speakers are on the same level of skill and knowledge, though.

  37. Kristian Wannebo says:

    As to specialised language,
    words can be dangerous,
    they can take over the minds of readers with less understanding.

    An example:
    In philosophical discussions, Wittgensteins “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” is often mentioned as a work in depth.
    Later Wittgenstein wrote “Philosophical Investigations”, where (it is said) he refutes most of the earlier work …


  38. Peter Boender says:

    You are experiencing the limitations of language. The are only so many nouns and adjectives to describe a subject or sensation. People run into the same limitations with topics like music (mentioned above by somebody else), food and drinks. Ever noticed how much wine connaisseurs go out of their way to describe all the flavours, aspects and sensations of a particular wine? Same with cigars: do you feel you’re adequately equipped to describe the joy your favorite Cohiba brings you? Another thing that comes into play is: which specific language are we using to describe the particular quality or property? I’ve once been told that the Inuit people on Greenland have 28 different nouns for snow. So maybe you should write in French. Or Mandarin. Or Bahassa… Last but not least, there’s subjectivity. There are many times when I don’t want it to be ensured that you and I (or anybody else) totally agree on the description of the subject or sensation at hand. I don’t want anybody else imposing on me how I should appreciate a Mark Rothko or Jackson Pollock. Please let me have my own interpretation, there’s joy and bliss in that itself. By giving your pictures a title (and I’m not saying you shouldn’t), you force your audience on a certain path. Cloud I and Cloud II are obvious (to me), but Cloud III doesn’t immediately strike me as being about clouds. By titling it, you force me to think and appreciate in a certain direction. I’m not saying that’s bad (and can actually be very powerful if used correctly), but it is directional. Don’t worry too much about nomenclature. The appreciation of art transcends all languages.

    • Interesting thoughts: do you think titles are good because the guide your audience, bad because they pre-influence and remove the audience’s ability to form an independent judgement, or necessary?

      • Peter Boender says:

        There’s no correct answer here. Both can apply. I think it depends on the artist’s intentions. Take for instance Cloud III. If you let it be part of an entire series of cloud pictures, and just call the series Clouds, there’s no direct need to title the individual pictures, and it will be obvious that your intention with Cloud III is to focus on clouds. However if you take Cloud III out of the Clouds Series context, I think it does need that title if you want to lead the viewer to the idea of clouds. But it could equally be part of a series of Prague (?) architecture or street impressions.
        Bottom line: What are your intentions as an artist? What do you want to invoke? As an artist you have the freedom to decide; it’s your art. Guide the audience or let them free-roam. It’s up to you!

  39. Kristian Wannebo says:

    It will be a hard task to induce photographers to agree on words (and even on some concepts).

    ( Perhaps art schools can contribute.
    My only experience of a language like that was when I was a student and a member of the student’s film studio. Quite a lot of students of Aesthetics took part in the discussions. But their language didn’t help them understand films …)

    Consider the language(s) of wine testing.
    Or of cigar testing – I guess there is one?
    Only the experts understand it – or one of them – and then only approximately.

    ( If you haven’t, try reading critical reviews of modern music, it can be rather amusing – so often the rethorical efforts only confuse the issue.)

    Ming, if there is someone qualified to start such a project, you are. Few photographers have the necessary depth in _both_ the craft and the art (and in the use of language).
    I can only wish you good luck!

    • Well, wine and cigars have analogs – all are taste-driven, and it’s fairly easy for me to describe the taste to a seasoned smoker and have them agree – or more interestingly, we jot notes then compare later so there can be no planting of ideas. I think the same probably holds for wine. However, all are of course subjective on both the individual article being samples and the ‘taste experience’ of the person who’s doing the sampling.

      The problem with images is that even though there’s no variability in what is seen – assuming we use the same source – how do you describe a feeling that influences each individual differently? In a tangentially related way, it’s why the book is always better than the movie: there is latitude for interpretation and this avoidance of disappointment through certainty.

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        To a _seasoned_ smoker, yes!
        I think you were considering teaching … , 🙂 .

        Even if smokers can agree on cigars, I guess they too vary on how they are influenced by the taste and aroma?

        I do agree on books, but occasionally the movie is better – it can happen.

        • I don’t think I’d have much to teach about cigars; like Freud, sometimes it’s best to just relax, enjoy, and not think about it too much.

          The movie is better if the director manages to surprise you in a way you never expected (but secretly wanted) – and that’s tough.

          • Kristian Wannebo says:

            Well, I ment (of course) teaching of photography…
            And what you said about Freud would apply there also, yes?

            It’s not only about surprise.
            There are stories and atmospheres that can be conveyed as well by film as with words (albeit in a different way).
            It even happens that the film version leaves enough room for the imagination, even if that space is different from the space a book gives.
            I admit that examples where such a movie is stronger are rare, but I believe that has more to do with the organization of movie production.
            Good film makers are rare. As are good authors.

            • I think you can probably extend your last comment to good [anything] is rare: a degree of artistry and intuition beyond the workmanlike is required.

      • Peter Boender says:

        Interesting train of thought! Two things:
        [1] You say it’s fairly easy to describe to a seasoned smoker. But what if the smoker is a newcomer, a layman? In other words, and back to photography, how do you tell your students? One of the “properties” of newbies is that they’re not (yet) into the correct or appropriate lingo that much. They need a helping hand. I think that’s what you’re trying to establish with this article, right?
        [2] Ever notice how connoisseurs use language outside of the realm of the subject they’re trying to describe? How they use adjectives not directly related to the subject at hand. A lot of allegories are frequently used. At least I know they do in the wine and whiskey world, presuming the same happens with cigars. Funny thing is, that over time, that “outside lingo” is becoming part of the subject world; it’s inherited.

        • 1) By example. The problem with cigars is that there’s so much individual variation that you’d have to smoke a few to be sure. Different for photographs – especially if I know everybody is looking at the same output.
          2) Yes – because it’s necessary to have some sort of allegory or metaphor to describe a sensory property that belongs to a different sense to the one that’s normally used to experience something, e.g. smell and taste.

  40. We’ll the first one is a cumulus cloud. The second one is probably the remains of a cumulonimbus, now more altostratus. But I’m a pilot and such words have a specific meaning, and implications.

    • Understood, but those were examples: I could have used two shades of blue, for instance. Or even two cumulus clouds: botha re the same type of thing, but neither is described precisely by the term and would probably conjure up different visions to different people.

      • stratiformus says:

        I should add, that the first photo is a cracker. You’ve successfully made the difficult capture of the wide dynamic range such clouds possess (sunlit cold air at the top, rain bearing dark underside). I hate photos with poorly captured clouds, perhaps because I notice.

        I may have initially missed the overall thrust of your post at first reading (during a break in study, where my mind was elsewhere). The following is just my rambling thoughts on the subject.

        We will never see what you see, unless we are next to you. A low resolution reproduction on my ipad will never appear the same as he original file on your monitor, any more than a photo of a Turner painting “Rail, steam and speed” will never match viewing the original. You may be able to describe it, or (develop the means to describe it), but by the time your done I’ve stopped listening, because art like that isn’t about the description, it’s about how it make you feel. When viewing some of you images (on the blog and flickr) I often get the feeling that I’m not seeing what you’re seeing. Sometimes I can fill in the blanks on what I’m not seeing that you are. Sometimes not.

        Where a technical description is required, as a means of conveying technique or it’s physical properties, you may find the words, but perhaps a visual illustration is more apt. If you want to explain “dynamic range”, two images, where the only difference is dynamic range, may be a greater help than words? Perhaps you need to develop a “visual dictionary”, to sit alongside your camerapedia?

        For verbal descriptiveness, I guess there’s a battle with adequacy going on.
        – cloud – is adequate for some
        – nimbostratus – May be adequate for others
        – and at come other level (which I don’t know because I have little use) there’s probably another higher order description. (Probably a thousand words worth, which is why we use a picture 😉

        (There’s probably something about ‘methods of communication’ at work here too.
        – Showing me an image to communicate “dynamic range” is more effective than describing it (so use a photo). It’s easier to illustrate high/low key than describe it.
        – but communicating “pain” is possibly more effective in words than a picture (so I’d choose to use the word)

        So perhaps you need to target your language. If “cloud” is sufficient for the message, why confuse us with more. But if there’s a point you need to make, find or invent the words, and we will just have to learn them if we want to receive your message. But just keep in mind hat if you could adequately describe, say, the first picture, you wouldn’t need the picture would you?

        And now I’m done, I realise random thoughts like this are also a little wasted – aural discourse would be a far more effective way of coming to a common understanding. I guess we make the most of what we have….

        • Thank you. I’m a bit obsessed over clouds, so I take care over these things.

          The intention is not for you to see what I see; I fully agree this isn’t possible – even if you were standing next to me. I might be short sighted, for instance (I am). It’s for us to be able to have a common language to discuss the various properties of an image, so that when I say something like ‘the bottom left corner is too heavy and closed’, the reader will know I mean its dark compared to the rest of the image, and has much higher (on average) spatial frequency of detail – for instance…

  41. It probably doesn’t help get us any closer to solving the problem when we consider that the person who took the photograph has had the experience of actually being there, sensing the moment with all five senses – as well as being with their unique mix of feelings and emotions arising in that moment. To the photographer, even though that mix becomes a residual memory, their review of the image is still uniquely coloured in a way that cannot be imparted to anyone else. I guess that is why art is so important, nuanced and unbelievably complex, sophisticated, and diverse.

    What if an image has captured a moment of deep clarity, insight or even an experience of emptiness in the photographer? An image that both sums up everything that has occured up to that point in time in the photographers life, yet also triggering a sense of discontinuance and a suspension of oneself from the usual point of view.

    Transmission. A term found in Buddhist nomenclature, and likely in the language used by the mystics of other religions, too. Can an image be like a Koan to the viewer if the viewer is open? Can the improvement of photographic nomenclature be used to go beyond the communication of mere technical knowledge and understanding? Or, do we begin to borrow from an entirely different field. One already possessing the language required to at least hint at a far deeper experience? Or, are images just too one-dimensional and therefore require presentation within a greater enveloping context or story to help impart transmission.

    When someone attends a gallery showing the images of their revered photographer (or artist) they bring with them a connection to their own sense of deeper emotions, within a relationship with that artist. They may meet the artist and discuss some of the images, but it is almost as if the images become secondary to the greater context of the connections between people.

    The artist and the viewer create the situation for transmission to occur. It is the same for a skilled teacher in any field. They create the situation for transmission that goes beyond instruction. Ming, I think you have accomplished transmission on this site already.

    • I think you’ve hit on something here: we’re trying to convert three dimensions and five senses into two and one, and that’s not so easy to do. But there are all sorts of suggestions and tricks we can use if we understand the psychology of the viewer.

      Transmission: I think it can be done, but not consistently. There has to be enough overlap between the ‘life-experiences’ (for want for a better word) of the photographer and audience. There are people who like/ understand an image on an aesthetic level; others whom it touches personally, but I don’t think there are any – or if there are, very few – that get the same ‘kick’ as the photographer. Now if only we could figure out how to do that consistently…

  42. Tinker's Realm says:

    Don’t Over Think it- just shoot & keep sharing- your cloud images are Dreamy Good!!!

  43. If I think of photo (or other visual art) exhibition critiques they spend very few words on technique, some on visual components, and a lot on the feelings invoked by the images (equal to storytelling in my mind). Teaching and breaking these down to exact definitions surely becomes more difficult as you progress from the first to the last. Have you looked at traditional art study books? I very much doubt this is a new dilemma, but not necessarily one with a perfect solution.

  44. randomesquephoto says:

    I suppose this is why a photograph speaks more than a thousand words.

    As a musician. I relate to the relation you made. We make up words to try to speak a sound that isn’t speakable. Same thing in a photograph. Very interesting article. I’m interested in what others have to say and expound upon here.

    • I’m wondering how we take a discussion of music or images to the next level if we don’t have adequate or common language to describe it…

      • I dont think you can, its like trying to explain to your wife or lover what you feel, you can only go so far with tried and tested words/language but the fine nuance of emotions which things such as pictures music or even perfume cannot be described because its very personal specific and an individual reaction
        I think that’s probably what motivates us to carry on taking pictures we do in an effort to try and capture the emotion we felt at the time and convey it to others………..we rarely succeed and maybe there in lies the skill of the acclaimed photographer who captures an image that you just stare at and scan over and over again

      • My experience with music is that it transcends verbal language. I have multiple personal instances where I have no (or very little) ability to communicate with a person with speech but I can play what I mean/feel to them, or build and share a relationship through playing music with them.

        Photography (or images in a wider sense) do a similar thing.

        Maybe a conversation in images rather than words – one responding to another and to another – is the best discussion?

        • That’s an interesting idea – I wonder how such a conversation would work…we’d need to find two people of similar skill levels in communication, so in addition to seeing commonality – they could respond in kind, too.

        • I totally agree with this. Sometimes perhaps the best response to a photo is another photo, but as Ming says, the people involved would have to have similar skill levels. But if we didn’t know proper grammar, spelling, English, etc. then we couldn’t really converse very well in real life either.

          • That’s also true. And by the same token, just because your language skills might not be that good, it doesn’t mean you can’t still communicate via body language, gesture, etc. I’ve seen it happen before in my workshops.

            • I play piano. It is my biggest passion. Photography is important, but comes some way behind.

              You cannot explain the meaning of music in natural language. It has to be understood on its own terms. If you learn to sing or play an instrument, listen to enough music, and feel its power then the mind eventually figures it out aven though you cannot convey your understanding to anyone in words – except ion the most banal and superficial way. When you get to that point you can play expressively without having to meticulously and mechanically follow all of the composer’s or editor’s expression marks (and ending up like someone reciting a poem in a foreign language) because knowing its meaning you can express it naturally. You can have a musical conversation too. It is called jazz!

              Ther have been mathematicians (e.g. Paul Erdos) with a deep understanding of number theory that had conversations by stating meaningful numbers to each other. It was completely incomprehensible to ordinatry people – or even quite good mathematicians, and while it made sense and had meaning to the participants they could not begin to explain ti to anyone else.

              I agree with Andre Y. The best response to a photo is another photo.


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