The Nature of Photographs

I’ve been reading a fantastic book by Stephen Shore called The Nature of Photographs. It’s a very short book, easily read in one or two sessions, but it explains beautifully how to look at and understand photographs.

It’s especially interesting for anyone who still believes the old maxim ‘The camera never lies’.

Shore breaks down the process of reading a photograph into four levels:

  1. The Physical Level
  2. The Depictive Level
  3. The Mental Level
  4. Mental Modelling

Let’s look at these in a bit more detail.

The Physical Level

According to Shore, the Physical Level of a photograph comprises of:

  • Flatness of the surface
  • Boundedness of the image
  • Staticness
  • Hue & tonal range
  • Colour

The Depictive Level

The Depictive Level breaks down into:

  • Picture plane: flatness/depth
  • Frame – passive/active, emphasising
  • Time – moment, exposure duration, staticness
  • Focus – focal plane, depth of field, depictive space, spatial hierarchy

The Mental Level

The Mental Level is a little more difficult to grasp, but Shore explains how it is shaped by decisions made at that Depictive level while remaining separate from that level. He suggests focus acts as a bridge between the Mental and Depictive levels – not just lens focus, but focus of the eye, attention and mind.

Perhaps paradoxically, at the mental level he argues it is possible for a photograph to have deep mental space, while at the same time possessing shallow depictive space, and vice-versa.

Mental Modelling

Shore covers the concept of mental modelling last, but it could be argued that the mental model is in fact the driver for the whole photographic process. The mental model Shore talks about is the ‘filter’ through which the photographer sees the world, and ‘sees’ images.

He points out how the model operates unconsciously for most photographers, but how by making the model conscious a photographer can bring it under control to work in conjunction with the other three levels.

I won’t go into any more detail, but suffice it to say you should read the book if you’re interested in photography. Each level is beautifully illustrated with outstanding examples by leading photographers such as Gary Winogrand, William Eggleston, Diane Arbus, and of course Shore himself.

Highly recommended!