The Nature of Photographs by Stephen Shore is a strange book to say the least. It is a very quick read – only about one hour, and you are done reading. It is written with very little embellishment about the various concepts covered, each page consisting of very short paragraph(s) – the page with the most writing having only five paragraphs. Yet, despite its conciseness, it contains much information which requires more thought. It is a deceptive book, illusive in character for one has to tease out the concepts in each further read of the book. The book contains a variety of photographs from well known photographers such as Diane Arbus, Eugène Atget, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Paul Graham, André Kertész, Dorothea Lange, August Sander, Garry Winogrand and many more as well as Shore’s own work.
According to Shore (2007), a photograph can be viewed on several levels. The physical level refers to the flat surface coated with either emulsions, inks or dyes, etc. The physicality is determined by the photographic paper (the flatness), the edges of the print, the moment of time captured in the frame and the type of emulsion or pigments which contribute to the hue and tonal range of the photograph. The final element, namely texture is determined by the type of paper the photograph is printed on. Colour adds another layer to the physical level.
The depictive level consist of a ‘photograph’s visual grammar’ (Shore, 2007 p. 38), namely flatness, frame, time and focus. These are all tools which the photographer uses in making his/her photograph. The flatness refers to the rendering of an image which one sees in a three dimensional capacity normally into a two dimensional image on a piece of paper. Usage of a wide-angled lens changes perspective as opposed to a telephoto lens which will compress the view one sees. The edges of the photograph form an important component. They hold or exclude objects, people and scenes. Sometimes what is not seen is just as important as that which is in the frame. Time refers to the duration of the exposure—a very fast shutter speed is ‘Frozen time: an exposure of short duration, cutting across the grain of time, generating a new moment.’ (Shore, 2007 p. 72), while a slow shutter speed is rendered as ‘Extrusive time: the movement occurring in front of the camera, or movement of the camera itself, accumulating on the film, producing a blur.’ (Shore, 2007 p. 74). A very long exposure setting would be seen as ‘Still time: the content is at rest and time is still.’ (Shore, 2007, p 76). Focus is the tool that the photographer uses to direct a viewer’s gaze to the subject of the photographs. Various depths of field can alter the attention drawn a subject.
Although the mental level is separate from the depictive level, it is the decisions taken on the depictive level that form the mental level, namely the photographer’s point of view, what he/she chooses to include in the frame, when to press the shutter and what to focus on.
All the levels interact with each other and build upon each other. The mental level is the ability to be aware of one’s surroundings while perceiving changes and brining this awareness under one’s control.
Shore, Stephen. (2007) The Nature of Photographs. 2nd ed. London: Phaidon Press Limited