How Do We Understand a Photograph?

© Irina Rozovsky

What is the psychological process through which we understand a photograph?

This simple, straight question would require a doctoral thesis to consider fully and I have a few other obligations during the next three years and I'm sure you do too, but that shouldn't prevent us from meditating generally on the question as photographers.

The education of the eye plays a large role in how we understand an image; this post is an exploration of how a photographer who has had formal education and/or learned through experience in the field might understand a photograph. This overlaps in many ways with the way anyone understands an image, but also has its particularities as we will see.

This process of understanding is mutable, subjective, image-dependent and varies according to what number beer you're on; what follows is an outline exploring one possible way that the different ingredients in the process might come together to bring an understanding. I've broken it down into four parts: recognition of the image and physiological reaction; starting analysis; finding subtle relationships and analytical conclusions; and meaning. As a conclusion I talk about why and how we might undermine this process as photographers.

Why talk about this? This type of examination can help us in critiques as teachers, fellow students, friends or reviewers. It can also give us a way to think about making our own work: looking at how we understand images can allow us to borrow ideas from others, identify problems with and improve our own work and also manipulate the process of understanding to our benefit.

This post complements and builds from a post called Considering a Photograph written last year.

Look at the lead image by Irina Rozovsky from her project One to Nothing for a few seconds. At the moment of looking at it, do you see the entire image all at once?

To clarify this question, I'll loosely reference a similar question asked by Jorge Luis Borges in his essay "An Investigation of the Word" about language and impress you by referencing Borges at the same time.

Do you understand this sentence as an entirety as you read it?

Or do you understand it in clusters: Do you understand / this sentence / as an entirety / as you read it?

Or do you understand it in individual parts, word-by-word as you go along: Do / you / understand / this / sentence / as / an / entirety / as / you / read / it?

And if the sentence is much shorter - "I must go" - or longer (I'll spare you), how does that impact the process of how you understand it?

To bring this question back to photographs and to Rozovksy's image, in the first fraction of a second upon seeing the image, we first attempt to recognize the entire "sentence" - that is to say the whole image - as opposed to first looking in detail at each "word" (a hoof, a rock, a fabric on the camel's back). We have an innate drive for immediate whole image recognition as a first part of understanding an image. We want to have a sense of the whole before we spend a minute looking at the hoof (barring prior use of hallucinogens).

How we get to that recognition has variables. We'll discuss a few to get the idea. One is density. If the image is low density like this image by Rozovksy - we can most likely understand it as a whole directly. We can read the whole sentence and understand it all at once, as we might with "I must go."

© Carolyn Drake

In a denser image with more parts to it, such as this photograph above by Carolyn Drake from her series "Two Rivers," we would be more likely to achieve whole image recognition in a different way. Instead of being able to recognize it immediately in the initial glance at the photograph, instead we would be more likely to rapidly look around the image and create in our mind a series of groupings or "clusters" that we then use to recognize the whole. This is a process that takes on the order of a second or two. We see the three figures on the left and the painting above them as a cluster; the central swimmer and those paintings above as a second; the torch and Olympic rings painting on the right and the boy climbing out of the pool as the third. Our eyes bounce around for a moment until we construct a whole from these clusters.

A second variable is image size and/or our distance from the image, both of which relate directly to density. Here on the screen, at this average size, the images fit in our visual field and density is compacted, but not too much. We can look at the two photographs we've considered and achieve whole image recognition either directly or by clusters, but in either case fairly immediately.

Seeing these same images at 100 inches square on a wall, however, the process of recognition changes. If an image overwhelms our visual field, we're much more inclined to construct the whole image from clusters than to see the whole immediately. In fact, if the image becomes large enough, we probably would need to look at the individual constituent parts that make up the clusters to recognize the photograph. Going back to our analogy with reading a sentence, recognition via constituent parts would be the equivalent to understanding a sentence word-by-word.

Similarly, a very small image, like Drake's image at 100 pixels wide below, can also affect the process of recognition. Ironically, it also makes it more likely we will need to rely on clusters or their constituent parts to recognize it. We try to pick out what we can - the central figure perhaps, the pool, the guy on the left - and then draw conclusions of what the image is of.

A third variable is tonality. Images with a very collapsed range of tonality - think of the text images from Amy Elkins' "Black Is the Day, Black Is the Night" (example below) - create more likelihood of coming to a recognition of the whole through clusters or perhaps even by the constituent parts that make up a cluster. Seeing the whole is rendered difficult by the tonal range.

There's a question of image reading that I'm undecided on that I would like to insert somewhere and here seems as good of a place as any. People say images are read left to right in our culture as with text and from right to left in countries like Israel where text reads in that direction. This competes with another idea that I won't try to engage here, one of visual hierarchies which states that we would see a big, pure red blotch, let's say, before a small gray one, or a face before feet. I'm not sure how those two – directional reading and visual hierarchies – relate, but I believe both ideas are important and relate to this first phase of recognizing an image.

There are other variables we could surely include, but I think the point is made: our initial drive upon seeing an image is to have whole image recognition; how we arrive there depends on variables. We take the path of least work. If we can see the image all at once and immediately, we do so. Other times we need to build a recognition via clusters or, if that fails, look at the constituent parts of an image. Regardless, the initial drive upon seeing an image and the first step to understanding an image is to recognize the whole.

© Amy Elkins

Another immediate element of seeing an image is physiological. An image of a murder scene causes one reaction, porn another. A camel in a desert dries my mouth, an image of a pool makes me feel cooler, especially in the heat wave we're currently in. I am not sure if we feel something bodily before we come to recognize the image as described above, or if the physiological reaction can come before recognizing what we are looking at. I think it's the latter. We have a visceral reaction to blood, for example, as soon as it hits our eyes and before we recognize the whole image. Regardless, I would say that both belong together in this first phase of understanding an image.

When we recognize the image as a whole, the next step in understanding an image is not just seeing what it is, but how it's built. We shift from reaction to analysis. We go back and look at the clusters again, and then at their constituent parts. Once we recognize the image, we investigate. The process begins to become more verbal, an inner dialogue about the image develops. As we see these parts, we name them and make basic visual relationships.

Take a look at the first cluster on the left of Drake's image, for example. We see that there are three people. A fence that's mostly out of focus. A lane line. Lots of white and - hey look! - the reds and yellows in the lane line repeat in the wall painting above.

We also begin to see basic latent structures and geometries. This is probably one place in the process where photographers separate from others in terms of our process of understanding images. There are patterns of squares, circles, triangles that begin to pop out at us through our history of looking at images and training.

In Drake's photograph we see triangles:


And geometries and structures in two-dimensional images aren't just two-dimensional; in this image we can tease out three-dimensional forms as well, like this pyramid:

Looking back to Irina Rozovsky's image, there’s a central triangle:

And lots of little triangles as well as lines of thirds through the image:

We could also understand the image as a series of boxes:

Or as circles:

Concurrent to this process of recognizing the geometry and structure of the photograph, we begin creating some initial questions and beliefs about the photograph. For example, where the fuck is the camel's head? The legs look like human legs in a burlap bag. It's a square, medium format, film photograph. Look at the incredible range of fabrics that make up the saddle! We also notice more details amongst the parts. What's that yellow brick wall back there doing or separating? And is that a second built wall slightly behind it?

The second phase, to summarize, is about the shift from an initial reaction to the photograph to exploring how the image is built in terms of technique and form; the beginnings of analysis of content through asking questions and stating initial beliefs about the image; and a further investigation of constituent parts or details.

We begin to find and analyze more complex, subtle relationships as we spend more time with the image. Look, for example, at how the body of the central figure on the starting block is a square that's the same shape and size as the door behind him in Drake's image. Look also at the hands of the people in the left half of the frame, especially the hand of the blurred man in the foreground and that of the woman outside the pool. Look at how their gestures connect them visually. Their gestures also echo in the boy's hand in the water below the woman and in the painted swimming figure above them. Like 16th-century Mannerist paintings that rely on hand gestures to communicate interior states of being, all of the figures in this cluster convey a gestural motion of action and they work together to give Drake's image movement.

With further exploration we see the symmetry of the two red torch and Olympic rings paintings on either side of the image, a symmetry repeated in the two painted female swimmers in the center above the figure standing on the starting block, and then discover how all of this symmetry is playing against the odd figure swimming horizontally to the left of the two women reaching upwards. There's a central formal disruption of the image's symmetry by this horizontal swimmer that's important to its success.

In addition, the underlying tensions and the balance of the image is both understood as well as viscerally felt with extended time. We both recognize and feel the relative air and space around the central swimmer and begin to sense the importance of how Drake has loaded the edges of the image. There's an accumulation of objects on the left and right edges; on the left the blurred man and the painting on the wall behind him create a lot of weight on that side, which is balanced by the pinching of the number on the last starting block, the second pinched form above it and the pinning down of the upper right corner by the joist and rafter joint. The weight on the left edge and the three points of pinching on the right edge create a delicate stability and elevate the dynamic feel of the image.

We also begin conclusions on what we're seeing. Questions that arose earlier are decided upon. In Rozovsky's image, for example, given the lack of blood or trauma and the body's upright position, we conclude that the camel's head must be tucked to the side and that part of the image's strength is the angle Rozovsky chose to give the illusion of the camel as headless. On the question of the presence of a second yellow wall in the background of Rozovsky's image, the line begins to feel too straight to be natural and we conclude it's clearly man-made. While the line is very smooth to the left, it's more granular to the right in the same way as the bricks or stones in the wall closer to us. It ultimately feels inconclusive, however, and while there is evidence it could be a second wall, it may also be perhaps a path of some kind.

To continue with the section summaries, the third stage is an appreciation of more complex and more subtle formal dynamics within the image and the start of conclusions on the questions raised earlier. More questions will arise (and be answered) as viewing continues, but here is when we begin to see a number of conclusions.

Finally, we begin to think about and associate the image beyond itself, the last step of understanding an image for ourselves. To create an example, look at how the boy on the left in the water could also be the same boy on the right leaving the pool. Same age, hair, body type. It could be viewed as an entering and a leaving, a play with time and space; it could be a moving from the sea to land or from risk to safety.

What's more, the central younger man could be this boy but older, now grown into his body, the boy(s) in the image will become this man. Taking it a another logical step, maybe the central figure, now in the full strength of his body, will become the man on the left in the foreground, who appears to be a slightly older man, maybe 40. He is past his physical prime, looking back across time to see himself on the starting block, then back further in time to see himself as the boy in the pool. By making this man almost anonymous via the aggressive crop and by leaving him out of focus, Drake makes it easier for this vision back across time to not only be his, but ours.

If we really wanted to work this idea further, we could include the woman as the starting point for this man's life, a stand-in for his mother and his birth. We end up with life's cycle:

We associate this interpretation of the image with the stages of man riddle of the Sphinx or with Shakespeare's seven ages of man monologue from As You Like It. We begin to build an argument, to make a comment in class and we might eventually use these ideas to write an article or book. Another observer might use the land to sea idea for a separate interpretive departure, another might build one based in gender or class or representations of sports. This ascription of meaning through interpretive argument is what art is about in the end. You can build a really fantastic image of incredible geometries and detail, but if that's all it ultimately offers, it's not nutritive for long. We give it a moment and move on, it doesn't fill us. Ultimately it's the work that gives us a lot to build meaning from that sustains, like these three images by Rozovsky, Drake, and Elkins.

This fourth and final stage of understanding a photograph, to recap, is finding the meaning of the photograph for ourselves. We may reshape our interpretations over time. The work of art reflects our ever evolving life experience and knowledge. We use our ideas around its meaning to feed the arguments and conversations around the work of art that extend out from our own personal search for its meaning to interact with the searches of others.

© Carolyn Drake

In a matter of minutes, we have moved from trying to recognize the image through a series of steps to arrive at our interpretations of meaning in the image, moving through the full circle of understanding a photograph.

As I stated at the outset, this type of examination of the process of understanding an image can help us in looking at the work of others and also at our own work. To extend the conversation as to how it might help our own work as a form of conclusion, great photography frequently undermines and knowingly plays with this process of understanding we've just outlined. A photographer might purposefully manipulate tone, scale, or as in the case of the image by Drake above, gravity in order to frustrate our analysis of the image. They might choose how to place the frame in order to confuse our understanding of the image or to surprise us, such as in this Mark Powell image below. These types of plays with the process of understanding trap us in the image, putting us in mental loops that complicate - in the best possible way - our reading of it.

© Mark Powell

As a final example of how a photographer might undermine the process of understanding to create a strong photograph, he or she might make a photograph that works with a very slow process of revelation which encourages extended looking by bringing us continued rewards. For example, I looked at Rozovsky's image of the camel 50 times before I saw the figure in the background who in tone and texture blends into the distant rocks, confirming it's some sort of path back there.

These loops that trap us into looking and the continued giving of more with extended looking enrich the viewing experience by creating layers of revelation, dimensionality and an ongoing sense that we'll find more if we only stay looking at it just a little bit longer. These are just a few ways we can strengthen our work by exploring and subverting the process how we understand a photograph