What makes an interesting image, part two: illusion and reality

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Inversion I

In the previous article, we distilled down the two components of an interesting image: subject and presentation. We looked at the theoretical implications of both; today we’re going to attempt to address practical application. It will be in a very limited subjective way, as there’s simply no way to do it at an absolute level; I suppose it will be as much a snapshot of my current state of interpretation of the purpose of photography as a medium as much as anything. I certainly would not have had this line of logic two years ago, nor will I probably agree with everything again in another two years. The more we see, the more we experiment, the more our own vision evolves together with the creative philosophy behind it.

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Portrait of a man

It’s probably quite important to think about the personal part: I don’t think anybody will argue against it being almost impossible to make an image that’s universally interesting to everybody. That said, every image will be relatable to some degree or other: the question is, to what extent? As the ‘personal resonance’ increases, the audience shrinks. Ultimately, there should be an audience of at least one: the client. I use that term in a broad sense: commissioned commercial work aside, it’s going to be the creator (and ideally should still be the creator even for commissioned work).

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Form defined by negative space.

I think there are really only two ways around this that still result in the production of an interesting image: either leaving a deliberate amount of ambiguity, or the sort of clinical precision/ perfection that may appeal unemotional and cold to some, but hits the target precisely for one person and one person only. That person should obviously be the creator, simply because it’s impossible to know the mind of somebody else to the same extent that one knows one’s own likes and dislikes*. Both approaches require a goodly amount of control, both from an artistic/aesthetic standpoint as well as a technical one.

*Though to what extent we really consciously know ourselves is another debate entirely.

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Do you instantly notice anything else bedsides the moving man, his cigarette, and the telephone?

The idea of deliberate ambiguity is quite simple: you allow enough uncertainty in the image for the audience to interpret and project into the poorly defined areas whatever he or she is expecting to see. This way, there is no disappointment or spontaneous opposing emotion; you see what you want to see and there is nothing to contradict that. It can be as simple as a huge amount of negative space – the content of the blackness does not have any form or shape, so there is nothing preventing your viewers from imagining the space inhabited with trolls or fairies or kittens or sinister men in black suits with sunglasses. The imagination of the audience is allowed the latitude to satisfy itself. Given a choice, this is probably why almost every one of my students will pick and produce low key images over high key ones; it’s important to understand why. High key images tend to have the inverse effect, suggesting innocence or honesty – everything in the shadows is opened up and exposed, leaving no ambiguity or place to hide. It’s probably why most product and bridal photography tends to be high rather than low key.

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Not really intimate – the shadows suggest one thing, reality suggests another. But there’s that moment of ambiguity when you’re not really quite sure which is real and which is merely an artefact of projection.

Incidentally, this is also the same reason why the best horror movies are frightening: there’s only a suggestion of what might be lurking around the corner; the rest is filled in by the expectation of one’s worst fears. Precisely defining those fears would make it not scary at all – a beautifully lit static zombie in a bright gallery would probably bring curiosity and surface revulsion rather than primal fear of the unknown. It is defined in every way possible, removing the mystery.

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Sanctuary. What does you imagination tell you is in the bits you can’t see into?

In an image that leaves absolutely no room for interpretation, there is almost always the certainty of disappointment to some degree. You can only see what is presented to you; you might want to see what you expect, but your eyes are telling you something else; this dissonance creates all sorts of discomfort intellectually. Of course, the same dissonance can also be used to create philosophical challenges. If an audience goes in with an open mind and as far as possible, no expectations, these are the most interesting kind of images: the photographer has the potential to very precisely define an idea, and hope that it translates visually into the mind of another person. The more control you have over this process, the better that idea will translate. And the more control you’ll need to translate ideas of increasing complexity.

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Continuation: that bus isn’t transparent; the reflection is behind it, but the continuing tops of buildings fool you into thinking otherwise.

At this point, we go back to square one: you can’t translate an idea that’s ill-defined in even your own mind, because then nobody really knows what you’re trying to say – even yourself as creator. And we really need quite a deep understanding of human psychology and the way the subconscious mind processes visual information and makes associations with other memories or thoughts in order to seed a very complex or unusual idea. The strongest and most lasting translation is when the clues are presented in a certain order, but the viewer comes to the conclusion on their own.

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From the Venetian cinematics

As a simple example, the idea of a rainy day can be conveyed by a figure with an umbrella and some reflections off wet ground; we could leave the background blurred out or invisible and only the type of ground (grass, pavement, road, mud etc.) to suggest location. The figure in the image could really be wherever you want them to be; if you can’t see a face, they could be any age or race, too. Direction and amount of light could suggest during or after rain; if we see warm bright light casting shadows then the storm is probably over. Conversely, a highly defined image might be an ultraprint of a city in the rain in which raindrop splashes in puddles are visible, people swarm with umbrellas and there are landmarks on the skyline to lead you to specifically define the location.

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Forest VII. It does not really at web sizes; in an ideal world it’d either be Ultraprinted at 30×34″, or mounted on a larger backlit transparency and attached to a ceiling.

Moving along the idea of definition, I find myself being increasingly drawn to two types of image: the first kind is where you seek as much clarity, transparency and definition as possible; these are for scenes that appeal to you in some way in real life, but perhaps don’t always translate into an image. I want to suspend the feeling of seeing a two dimensional print and make you feel as though you’re looking into the scene. A lot of times, this is not possible because of a lack of information: it may be other non-visual sensory cues, or it may simply because the output medium lacks resolution or dynamic range or color gamut. Ultraprinting addresses the latter to a large degree; a web image may have 0.01% the information in the print, which in itself is a further infinite reduction on reality (though perhaps reasonably close to perceivable reality given the limits of human vision). Fortunately, we do respond strongly to visual stimuli, which is good, because as yet we can’t reliably capture or print smells.

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The second kind of image is the opposite; we exploit precisely the two-dimensionality of photographs, the projection of the camera and the way our mind reads spatial cues (shadows, light, perspective) into something that turns into what I think of as a visual discontinuity or non-sequitur. It is where we see juxtapositions and continuations where there shouldn’t be; the unexpected forces us to pause and think. Good examples here are the complete removal of depth cues, or the use of very wide angle lenses to create abstraction by holding them deliberately misaligned. The more unexpected and impossible, the harder to figure out, the better. Think beyond strategically placed balloons over faces, frozen motion in awkward positions and the like. Photographs are instantly recognisable as facsimiles of reality and representing real objects, which only adds to this confusion: as an audience, we ask ourselves ‘how can this be real?’ Yet it obviously is, because it was captured (presumably) without manipulation.

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Transparency I

Both types of images serve one purpose: they offer the opportunity to see and explore a scene or instant at leisure that might otherwise have not been noticed or passed by and not fully appreciated because of the continuity of time. (There’s a third type of image in which there’s no real ‘instant’ per se that looks at visualising the continuity of static time – as opposed to long exposures that are aggregate time – which I’m exploring now, but it’s very early days yet.)

The more I shoot, the more challenging it is to commit to an image. This is not because I’m not seeing; it’s because I’m curating before I shoot, and I know that in order to make a more interesting image and something with a more complex or unusual idea, more elements need to come together in a very precise way. I prefer definition to ambiguity precisely because it allows for more complex ideas. There’s a large degree of experimentation and uncertainty; the more there is, the higher the failure rate. More so when none of those elements are in your direct control. I also recognise that this is going to produce images with increasingly polarised responses: it’s down to removal of ambiguity and room for interpretation. I spend more time now conceptualising, thinking, observing my environment and devising ideas to fit; it’s almost as though you try to drum these things into your subconscious because you want to recognise them instantly and react the moment you see them.

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Man with idea

On the other hand, I’m also spending more time studying the behaviour and psychology of people: not as subject, but as audience. When viewing an image, it’s not just what’s said but also all of the things that pass through your subconscious to make you arrive at a certain conclusion. At a simple level, color temperature of light and brightness change the way we feel about a scene; at a more complex level, certain elements may invoke discomfort or other physical sensations like warmth, hunger, desire, intrusion or inclusiveness etc. Learning how these elements translate from the visual to the emotional arms the arsenal with yet another tool. Whoever said that a photograph says as much about the photographer as the subject was right; they should have appended it to include the response of the audience being rather revealing about the viewer, too. MT


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  1. Ian Riela says:

    Been reading here for quite some time now, the thought provoking concepts, captivating images, and well written dialogue is still the very best in the photographic world. You continue to surprise and impress. Keep it up!

    Thank you for all you have done so far,


  2. I especially like Inversion 1. Makes me look twice, then thrice. Keeps the people coming back!

  3. Carlos Esteban says:

    What a set of pics! Marvelous. Thanks.

  4. MT In my opinion, after 40 years of reading photo writing, you are the top writer in the world today combining art and craft. It is articles like What Makes an Image Interesting, and the points in your Mystery Camera piece, and on shot discipline, Ming, that prompted me to order a lens via your website link, from B and H . Sincerely, thank you Ming Thein

  5. Thought provoking two articles, but more than that a very strong set of images that also illustrate your points.

    • Thanks – not useful without examples 🙂

    • Fully agree with this guy. Without the awesome images, I might have dismissed the piece. Actually, your writing itself feels like art to me. These types of topics are hard to grasp and might mean little as it is mostly subjective and changes over time, or impossible to include most of the possibilities, like music or my philosophy of truth, but your writing is beautiful.

  6. “….I prefer definition to ambiguity precisely because it allows for more complex ideas.”
    I would never have guessed 😉
    This is precisely why I enjoy reading your blog so much, because when you post a series like this there are shots where I “get” an idea (perhaps not exactly the idea you intended, but something that makes sense to me), and shots where I don’t; but because you so carefully planned and executed each shot I can treat the latter like a puzzle, knowing there must be elements that are there, but that I’m not seeing…

    And a question on a completely different topic, that I’m not sure where to post: for your photoshop videos am I better off starting with A1 or A2? I’m coming from a background of using only lightroom with a workflow that never seems to do my pictures justice….

    • Actually, one of the things I wish I could know was exactly what gets lost in translation; the problem is once you make a suggestion/ inquiry that so much as suggests an idea, people no longer draw their own conclusions without heavy suggestion.

      As for PS: both are comprehensive, though A2 is a bit faster, much easier to manage color with and skews towards transparent rather than cinematic.

      • Thanks! Looks like I need to pick up A2 at some point then as consistent colour is a bit of a pain point…
        On things being lost in translation, the problem is that it’s even harder to explain what I don’t see than what I do. I can tell you that, for example, of the series above the (only) one at the moment that doesn’t work for me is “roof”, because I can’t see what you’re getting at there, but whether that’s any use to you or not, I’m not sure!
        I will add, actually, that whether or not I understand the idea doesn’t (for me) relate to whether or not I understand the subject. I actually don’t understand the object photographed in “Transparency 1” in that I can’t tell what shape it is and what exactly is a surface and what is a reflection, but nevertheless the image works for me aesthetically and conceptually. If you want better feedback, perhaps you should require your readers to take an art appreciation course before commenting 🙂

        • ‘Roof’ was about form and the positive-negative balance between the white building and the shadow (implied building). I think this one has less of a clear idea and more of an interesting spatial and tonal arrangement instead.

  7. Good thoughts well stated as always!
    Digging that “transparency” shot!
    I would only add an extra layer to the conversation:
    The graphic, compositional, technical type elements or basic choices of abstract vs non abstract are often merely a “delivery system” for larger ideas of culture, politics, art history, society, ecology, psychology, semi elusive thematic ties to a larger body of work (see Alec Soth’s recent Songbook for one example), and so on.
    By leveraging these “outside the frame” elements the audiences imagination and non visual faculties become engaged, often taking the image “beyond the image”.

    • Well said! We just have to be careful that there are either enough clues as to what the larger ideas might be, or that the intended audience is one who can make sense of them – sometimes local-specific elements might not register to a wider audience because of lack of awareness…

      • absolutely.
        it is this fine line of how intentionality comes across either in a single image or grouped images (which can individually be more cryptic or subtle since larger arcs can be observed viewing them together). that is why many photo artists i’ve seen only really reveal what they’re up to when you see an entire book or exhibit (which is often accompanied by thesis statement or some sort of explanatory text, etc).
        it is a tricky puzzle. too cryptic and nobody gets it….too obvious and it is discarded as tacky, unsubtle, and thus unartistic.
        another approach which seems to succeed in more “avant” type artists (in photo, video, movie work) is using very surreal and/or extreme images which in and of themselves seem to imply some great master plan and coherent private mythology/narrative (that may or may not actually fully exist), and it is the inability of the audience to QUITE grasp what the point is that makes the work stand out, creating intrigue, mystery, etc. i guess one key in that arena is overt provocation (sex, violence, death, horror, apocalypse, ugliness etc). you can see that at work in Lynch, Cronenberg, Barney, Kubrick, Sally Mann, and some Cindy Sherman stuff, among others.
        keep up the good work!

        • Sometimes I do wonder with those deliberately ambiguous images whether the creator themselves has quite gotten the idea straight in their own minds 🙂

          • it’s an interesting question.
            the further question is just how much of the idea must be straight to make the image work. perhaps if it’s TOO straight it actually limits it’s impact? i guess the idea of a “deep” image is giving the viewer enough juice to be convinced that there is a story but not explicitly stating it. I suspect that is a huge part of the success of someone like Gregory Crewdson. Vast size, resolution, detail, multiple characters, mood, complete control of the frame, etc but just enough space for the imagination to go to work.

            • I think what he does is even harder if you’re working with ‘found elements’ rather than big budgets and full control…

              • 100% agree.
                it is perhaps one of the biggest challenges. So much of fine art photography occurs in “created situations” now using elaborate sets, actors, models, lighting rigs, big studios, etc.
                It can be hard to match the appeal, “uniqueness”, narrative elements etc when you cannot “direct the scene” as many of the industry leaders do (jeff wall, crewdson, etc etc). huge challenge.

                • I think it’s less a case of cannot but more of no budget…

                  • i hear that! Crewdson spends enough money on a single image to finance a small movie. crazy stuff.
                    two interesting exceptions whose work i enjoy are Sally Mann and Francesca Woodman (sadly deceased).
                    both have accomplished strong, expressive, disturbing, and lasting work that has at least some implied narrative/larger cultural content but produced on a limited budget.

                    • Something in the region of 200-500,000 USD is what was thrown around in a documentary on him – that’s astonishing. I can only imagine what the prints have to sell for to make that a workable business.

                    • well…considering the evidence I think it’s safe to say that Mr. Crewdson is, um….financially comfortable.
                      60″ prints go for $60,000 to $120,000 in editions of 10.
                      so he could spend $100,000 for producing just one image on a 1-2 day shoot plus extensive post compositing, etc with little to no risk, and more than likely realize a large profit.
                      more significantly once you are repped at Gagosian, auctioning at Cristie’s, and have movie stars posing in your shots things are good to go for a lifetime.
                      regardless of all this i think it should be possible to produce strong controlled narrative type stuff much more modestly.
                      Sherman shoots self portraits, Mann shoots mostly landscapes and family members, and Woodman shot self portraits and art school buddies. Not expensive work to produce for the most part afaik.

  8. Hi Ming,

    I enjoy your insights a great deal and the images are outstanding. It may not be what you intended but two of the strongest impressions I come away with are those of the patience required and your heightened ability to see possible ambiguities before a camera even comes into play. By now the precision of the framing is exactly what I’ve come to expect.

    Thank you again for taking the time to record your thoughts.


    • Thanks Jerry – those are definitely intended consequences; it’s probably almost impossible to make a strong image through pure luck alone if you don’t have some idea of what you’re expecting out of the camera before shooting…

  9. Ron Scubadiver says:

    There is a lot of ambiguity in my images, probably because I am photographing people doing strange things. Great set of photos above to illustrate your points.

    • Thanks Ron. Ambiguity isn’t a bad thing, it means a wider range of expectations can be satisfied – just so long as there aren’t also conflicting/ confusing elements also…

  10. I don’t think optical illusions need to play such a prominent part in this topic.

    • I think you’re missing the point. ‘Illusion’ is the most succinct term to describe presentation of a subject from anything other than a human-eye one. This is something that is a consequence of the way the camera works vs. human vision. We ‘see’ – being interpretation of a scene – as much with our brains as our eyes.

    • Granite Slack – What a lame comment. Where are your interesting images?

      Ming – Are older images like Inversion 1 and Transparency 1 available as Ultraprints? Illusion is becoming more and more my favorite type of image.

      • Yes, Inversion I was in an edition but I still have some left. Transparency I is not limited. Both are therefore available – I will shoot you an email shortly… 🙂

      • Grow up, Mr-insulting-comment-leaver-Ryan-S. My comment to MT (NOT to you) was that there are a lot more interesting things in photos than the optical tricks, photos upside down, reflections that bemuse for a nanosecond type of thing.

        If someone was to write an article on what makes a piece of music interesting, not many people would think it’s a great summation of the topic if it had too much emphasis on making clarinets sound like flutes, playing instruments backwards etc.

        However, my typing is apparently a waste of space because I am told I am missing the point.

        • I never disagreed with you, but I did say you were misinterpreting what I said. How about elaborating and adding something meaningful to the discussion by elucidating instead?

  11. I see parallels to my own process of what you touch here Ming, and it is a process to come to the point of curation before take and if taken how to distill your interpretation of the scene. More far out for me is how it translate to the viewer.

    Thanks for writing the later two articles, they are most inspiring and touching the essential idea I have had since I started all this.

  12. Daniel Boyd says:

    Santuary and Portrait of man evoke an emotion in me that i can not name. Maybe because it is late at night here in california and I need to stop the coffee… but man these two images, they get into my head. Love your essay and rest of the images

  13. Ming,
    Could you expand a bit on visualising the continuity of static time?
    – Eric

    • Planned for a future article 🙂

      • 🙂 Thank You! I have another question that came up while reading Part 1 but I was waiting until part 2 to ask just in case it was covered. 🙂 Is 50mm the new 85mm for you with regards to the usual 28/85mm pairing and if so is it at all related to Making Interesting Images (with the normal lens allowing more context)?


  1. […] found it as part of a post he recently did on illusion and reality at his web […]

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