I believe good photographs can be divided into two camps: the literal and the ambiguous. (There’s a third kind, which you cannot really classify into either because they are lacking something fundamental like a clear subject – these land up as being ambiguous by default, but not intentionally.) From an interpretative/ artistic standpoint, a photograph is perhaps the most literal of all art forms; assuming minimal postprocessing, the translation between reality and finished interpretation is predictable and consistent across all subjects and capture conditions. The resultant image has to obey the laws of physics, after all – and these are generally quite consistent. But then how can we use ambiguity to our advantage to make a stronger image?
In its simplest form, a properly-focused lens will project a scaled image of the subject onto the focal plane. The relative spatial relationship between elements of the subject will remain the same – if the real object has a line at 2/3rds of its height, then there will be a line at 2/3rds of its height in the image*. This is clearly not the same as an interpretative representation like a painting, where that line may be drawn 1/2 way up, or 3/4s of the way up, or not even exist – and the subject may still be recognisable because it is not a necessary defining characteristic. Even if we use lenses that do not match ‘natural’ human eye perspectives, the difference in foreground-to-background proportion is always consistent and predictable. We can therefore say this is the defining characteristic of a photograph: it is a recognisable and relatively linear representation of reality, both in spatial arrangement and luminosity.
*Ignoring distortion – but even then, except for fisheyes, the distortion is relatively minor and does not affect the overall impression of proportion.
How then, is it possible to make a photograph that is ambiguous?
There are three aspects to consider and control here: resolving power, spatial arrangement and conscious exclusion. The first is simple: if you cannot see it, there’s no way you can know for sure an object is there. This may be achieved through size, light or depth of field – if something is so small as to be insignificant, you won’t notice it or be able to see sufficient detail to know what you’re looking at; if it’s dark there are no visible textures or details; if it’s out of focus then the optical system cannot resolve sufficiently high frequency structures. We simply do not have enough information to match what it is we’re seeing with our visual memory bank.
Spatial arrangement is more complex: our perception of the real world does not enjoy hard boundaries, which means that there is no real ‘frame’ and you can always turn your head to get additional context, or move the camera angle to get a second point of reference. What you see in a photograph is all you get: and there is an implied limitation to the composition delineated by the edges of the frame that forces the viewer to consider only what lies within it. It is the spatial relationship between not just the elements within the frame but the frame itself that has implications on causality and story: forced empty space in the center of the frame suggests deliberate avoidance; proximity suggests collaboration. This is both an important storytelling tool as well as a visually balancing one.
Finally, we have the obvious: if it isn’t in the frame, there’s no way the audience can know it was there. Intentional omission is as good as not existing. We can get caught out by this – the number of times I’ve heard people say ‘but X was also here’ – is a sign of the disconnect between our live perception and the camera’s defined limits – and we can use it to our advantage to make our audience make certain assumptions and think a certain way. Perhaps an extreme example, but an image of a child playing happily in a park is very different if you don’t know there’s a pack of wild lions surrounding him or her just outside of the frame.
That’s already three conscious choices, controlled by depth of field/focal plane, perspective/spatial position and composition. On top of that, we have the ability to use captions to add a further layer of suggestion to the viewer. It’s actually more than enough to dial in the precise amount of definition desired in your story. Whilst a very tight visual story with no ambiguity is the ultimate goal of most photojournalists in order to present exactly the same story to the entire audience independent of extremely specific contextual information, this isn’t always desirable in an image that’s intended to make you think. If the story itself is unusual, that may have the desired effect – and from experience, specificity isn’t easy to achieve when you are photographing in an uncontrolled situation. However, to find something that breaks sufficiently from the normal in daily photography or to present a philosophical question in an image requires a bit more interpretative latitude.
Such an image benefits from extra layers: not just compositionally and structurally, but interpretatively. It has to be aesthetically pleasing or challenging to attract attention in the first place; have an obvious message to make the viewer receptive, then a subtler one (or alternative interpretations) that reward on more focused study. Such elements can take the form of the unexpected, the hidden, the juxtaposed, or the out and out ambiguous – is it a man or a woman? Are those objects actually stacked or is it a trick of perspective? Is there actually a building there, or is it merely a reflection? Is this landscape at a large scale or a macro one? The more an image can give back to the viewer, the longer it is likely to be viewed, the more it will be thought about, and therefore more likely to be remembered.
In order for this to happen, ambiguity is necessary: too much information and there’s only one interpretation. There’s a very thin line between ‘vague enough’ and ‘too vague’, though: an image with no clear subject or focus and all sorts of messy elements falls into the latter category because either the interpretation is too complex and impossible to fathom. An image with too much bokeh is the same: the background is so undefined that it is impossible to determine exactly what we are looking at, thus rendering it irrelevant from a conceptual standpoint.
Imagination is what bridges the gap between the literal presentation and translation of the idea into the mind of the viewer: it is both the logical leaps required to determine causality and the personal interpretation of the situation that fits the experiences, biases and preferences of the audience. It also lets you keep a wider range of the audience happy: they can see what they want to see in the areas that are not concretely shown. You cannot see outside the frame or into the black shadows. A silhouette has no face; you have to guess the mood of the figure in the frame by their body language, but you cannot know for sure. It is difficult to put yourself in the position of a figure whose face is completely different to your own, but much easier if you cannot see their facial features. This is also the reason behind the popular wisdom that ‘the book is always better than the movie’ – a movie is a very literal interpretation; a book leaves a huge amount of latitude open for the audience to decide just how large a waistline defines ‘fat’, or how many stories is ‘tall’, or whether there was a cloud in the sky or not. We are only unhappy when our expectations are not met.
This brings me to the crux of the matter: one needs to have just enough information for the audience to have a fairly good idea of what is going on in your mind (the ‘idea’) but not more than that. Just make sure there’s sufficient immediately obvious information to hold attention and encourage further viewing. Reduction of a complex idea to the bare minimum number of elements is one of the most difficult things to do; however, to make a very strong image, the photographer must understand exactly what they are trying to say, and thus know what is absolutely necessary and what isn’t. Photography is as much a dialogue between the photographer and the audience as it is a presentation – there’s nothing wrong with letting the viewers work for their entertainment. MT
Images from this series are from the ongoing Idea Of Man project. Ultraprints are available on request here
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