Photography, philosophy and psychology

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In a sense, this entire site has revolved around these three topics*: the way we experience it and share this experience with others (psychology, and to some degree, physiology), and the way we interpret it (philosophy) – expressed by means of a static, 2D visual medium (photography). Today I’m going to attempt to tie it together in a deceptively simple way in today’s post: photography is capturing a still image. Good photography is capturing something unique or transient and sharing it; really exceptional photography says something meaningful about the subject and the interpretation – and in a way that an external audience can understand.

*Despite what others may think about my views on or approach towards hardware: that is merely a means to an end, and I think sufficiently resolved now to the point of being effectively unimportant.

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There is some crossfeed and overlap between the philosophical and psychological parts. The weighting/impact of the raw sensory data we experience (what we notice) is tied into our biases and preferences and experiences; this is as much psychological as physiological. But what we actively continue to think about (and thus, noticing) is reinforced by the frequency and intensity with which we experience it. It’s entirely possible to see the same things all the time and ignore them or not really notice them – this happens all the time in our home environments – but at the same time, it’s possible to be captivated by all of the tiny details of a new environment precisely because they are different. Photography is where we take these inputs and make a conscious choice about which ones we want to present, and how we want to present them. We isolate – curate, really – from the environment what we think is interesting and hopefully arrange them in a way that makes them noticeable in the right order of prominence relative to their importance in the idea we want to convey. The overall process of making an image is something we discussed at length previously in the Four Things.

But this is an almost formulaic, mechanical process. In theory, it could be automated for any given situation to look for certain subjects, prioritise them in a certain order and arrange them spatially so as to yield a consistent compositional result. It is no secret that companies are already doing this; both in the hopes of stumbling upon the next big thing in consumer photography to make a pile of money, and also as an intermediate step to improve and selectively optimise the images we take today, automatically. I think it would be easy to argue that whilst this satisfies the requirements for being considered photography in the strict definition, it is not photography in a creative definition as it lacks any sort of subjective interpretation of the type that make the viewer stop and think.

This is an important point: if an image doesn’t make us pause momentarily to reconsider our interpretation of the subjects presented, how is it any different from the background noise we already ignore? Answer: it isn’t. It might work in that way for its creator, but if the only reason it does is because it also serves as a mnemonic to remember the actual scene or event – then it does not carry a story on its own and cannot survive beyond the memory of its creator. It is not strong enough to stand alone as a story or composition of visual interest. What it means in practical terms is that for an interesting photograph to be made, a lot of things have to happen on the cognitive side of the observer before we even start to think about execution: I believe this process has to start off conscious, but may later become a sort of reflex action once continuous active observation and ‘noticing things’ has become hardwired. In short:

  1. Be aware of what an ‘average’ or normal environment or scene is for your intended audience
  2. Be actively observing in order to find elements that stand out as interesting because they are unusual, or interesting because they are representative/typical of how an overall scene is different
  3. Have some awareness of what that difference might say as a succinct message
  4. Convert that message from a verbal/textual thought into a visual one
  5. Assess surrounding elements to determine what might be contextually useful and supporting, and include these, or what might be distracting or confusing and exclude these
  6. Isolate these elements in the intended order, and compose with a structure that supports this and is attractive and therefore attracts viewer attention
  7. Bonus: ensure the message(s) are not so complex or esoteric as to require so much local context that the image only makes sense to a select group
  8. Go back and look at the image again some time after capture to decide if the intended message has been adequately conveyed.

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Clearly, this is not a simple process, and requires a significant degree of both self-awareness and objectivity in being able to view and interpret the world around you. This is not to say that one has to be fully aware of all eight steps at the making of every photograph: clearly this is not the case for the majority of images, as they often lack clear subjects, let alone ideas – even if they are sharp, in focus, well resolved, correctly exposed and accurately colored – it’s equally easy to output visual diarrhoea as it is its verbal equivalent. Similarly, I’m sure there are photographers who have automated this entire process either through practice or just acute observation skill – who’s to say the young girl with the cameraphone hasn’t seen something that we missed, and managed to capture and convey it?

There’s one elephant in the room I haven’t mentioned: being able to convey a message (visual or otherwise) also implies an understanding of both the mechanics of the language and the way your intended audience is likely to interpret it. It is possible to compose two messages in English that say exactly the same thing but may land up unintelligible or interpreted differently by two different audiences – both of whom understand English. I feel this is much more difficult to get right with a communication medium that’s entirely visual as the rules are nowhere near as defined, and if we learn by mimicry – then the average quality of message to copy is at best the equivalent of kindergarten level English. Here is where the psychological element of photography really comes into its own: it is just as critical to understand one’s audience and how they are likely to interpret certain visual presentations as it is to understand one’s subject and what other elements might be contextually relevant. But most people make the fatal assumption that everybody sees as they do, with the same biases and preferences and obsessions and likes and dislikes – that their images will automatically make sense. The truth is, that gap between what was captured and what was intended to be capture conceptually is often so large as to be only bridgeable by a hefty dose of memory.

It is important to remember also that a photograph might be a reflection or interpretation of a subject or scene, but it’s an even greater reflection of its creator. We can only see in an image what we were permitted to see by where the frame edge ends; we are forced to notice things of higher visual prominence (contrast, color, depth of field, texture etc) and greater personal relevance solely as a consequence of our physiology and the way they are presented. The subject of the photograph itself is selected and restricted by the person taking it – in essence, from the greater scene, it has already been decided for the audience what is interesting. It says more about the creator’s own biases and state of mind than the subject, of which it is merely a presentation. Ultimately, we must go back to this question: what do your photographs say about you? MT

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Comments

  1. Good read!

  2. “This is an important point: if an image doesn’t make us pause momentarily to reconsider our interpretation of the subjects presented, how is it any different from the background noise we already ignore? Answer: it isn’t. It might work in that way for its creator, but if the only reason it does is because it also serves as a mnemonic to remember the actual scene or event – then it does not carry a story on its own and cannot survive beyond the memory of its creator.”
    Oh God. How do I get past this? Mind blown, working to reassemble the pieces. Thank you

    • My pleasure – also, to add to that: it’s fine if an image just serves for one’s personal memory; it just depends on who the audience is (and that’s where the whole curation thing comes into play again).

  3. scott devitte says:

    “who’s to say the young girl with the cameraphone hasn’t seen something that we missed, and managed to capture and convey it?”
    M.Thein

    And you know, suddenly, one day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart, you know, and make a beautiful film with her little father’s camera …
    F.F. Coppola

  4. Very thoughtful and well said. You should put this a similar essays together a book “On Photography” ala Sontag. Now if I could just practice what you preach…

    • Thanks. I actually tried this; the curation alone was…not trivial, and the amount of rewriting required for coherence would mean pretty much starting again. And the potential audience of perhaps 10 photographers who aren’t gear-obsessed limits the market somewhat…

      • mecrox says:

        I wonder. At least one of your articles is given as reading on my photography course (MA). And a lot of the more academic books on photography tend to be poorly written and designed, as I have discovered after ploughing through a bunch. You may well be right that the market is limited but good, short (i.e. not 400 pp), on-point texts that are actually pleasant to read are a rarity, imho. Probably, though, a book would need to have some utility for courses and degrees to underwrite its sales.

        • Hah! I’m surprised and flattered (and also curious which institution you’re studying at). The reality is though writing textbooks isn’t something that particularly interests me; there’s just so many other things I’m involved in at the moment. Standalone essays, however, are often interesting to write as they also serve as a focus for me to clarify my own understanding of certain concepts…

          • mecrox says:

            It’s an MA with Falmouth Uni (UK). They have a department covering all things visual from gaming design to TV and animation. Full-on course which I am enjoying and a godsend to be kept busy during lockdown. The article was your 18 Nov 2013 one in the Huffpost on ‘The Line Between Art and Photography’. I have cited a couple of other articles by you in written work, and I expect others have too. You’ve covered a very wide range of topics by now with many good points, and all from a working photographer. I am grateful!

  5. Kristian Wannebo says:

    Ming, a great summing-up, as always!
    And very nice photos – for “The Idea of Man”?

    An association to #2:
    Lost in the corridors of power?

    But?
    > “Convert that message from a verbal/textual thought into a visual one”
    I’d rather say: “Convert that message [from thought] into a visual one”?

    I believe thinking works better when not using words – especially concerning images.
    In general, for me thinking comes in words only when I want to talk about it or write it down.
    ( A short time note can be largly non-textual, e.g. some diagram.)
    Words can, of course, come in handy for me as anchors for different objects or characteristics in a thought, but not for relations between them – except when my thinking grinds to a halt and I need to force it.

    • I guess it depends on how you think – narratives for me are usually textual; engineering is very much spatial.

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        Exactly!
        I just thought that imaging wasn’t narrative in a textual sense.
        🙂
        ( And, sadly, other (more or rather less) philosophic discussions on thought all too often forget (?) about non-verbal thinking…)

        • Good point, actually. For a lot of purely geometric or abstract photography, there is no narrative so much as a sense of balance or harmony or just ‘visual interest’

          • Kristian Wannebo says:

            Right!
            But even for story-telling photos the preparing thinking can be wordless, and so probably more intuitive and flexible – unless a verbal story came first or one wants to make (an) image(s) with (or to) a caption, or one wants words for memory or notes.

            • True, but all depends on how the individual’s brain is wired…

              • Kristian Wannebo says:

                True, of course.

                While I grew up (1950s – ’70s) thinking verbally was emphasized. And the discussion about language influencing thinking is still there.
                ( So I was a little surprised when I realized (sometime in my youth) that that was only a small part of the truth.)
                And I believe that may influence youngsters into believing that “real” thinking should be verbal.

                – Which is why I chose to enter this discussion.
                Thanks, Ming, for joining!

  6. Really helpful post on photography! Well written.

  7. Great post with lots to mull over! It is the kind of post that I like to read, let it go, and then read again. Very thought provoking.

    –Ken

  8. screwtop says:

    LOL – here’s a shot of KL for you – in the rain!

    [image: image.png]

    Pinched from a photo comp on the net

    On Sat, May 2, 2020 at 12:01 PM Ming Thein | Photographer wrote:

    > Ming Thein posted: ” In a sense, this entire site has revolved around > these three topics*: the way we experience it and share this experience > with others (psychology, and to some degree, physiology), and the way we > interpret it (philosophy) – expressed by means of a stati” >

    • I think the embed failed?

    • Photographs are like footprints. You can’t leave footprints where you have not been. Your intention may be to perform for the audience but it will all come back to footprints. It true in art as it is in leadership. Who you are sells the real value and true meaning.

      • Very true: a photograph is always biased to the point of view of the person who took it; they included what they personally found interesting and excluded what they didn’t, or didn’t notice. There is no absolute narrative objectivity in photography; only absolute physicality…and even then…

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