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Reading an Image

Here are some useful terms to help you explain your images, or when writing about the images of others.

But firstly, don’t be afraid when looking at an image to first take note of your instinctive gut reaction. What do you think the image is about, how does it make you feel, does it remind your of anything, why do you feel this way, what from your previous life experience has taught you to respond or read the image in that way?

Then you can start to break the image down according to what you know of the artist, the subject, the purpose of the image, for no images are created without some reason, be it only as a memento or to amuse.

At this point you might find some of these terms help you to explain your point of view.

‘There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer’. - Ansel Adams

Okay lets start with some tricky but fundamental points.

What is this?

boat photograph

Now hopefully you said, ‘A picture of a boat’ and not ‘a boat’.

leci n'est pas une pipe
This of course refers back to:

‘This is not a pipe’.

Which you may well have seen before.

boat painting
If I had asked the same question of this version, there is a much greater chance that you would have answered ‘a picture of a boat’.

When looking at photographs the first thing we need to remember is that it is a fairly limited portrayal of the original scene, taken with a mechanical device. This process alters reality in a number of ways. Here are three key elements that photographers use to create meaning in their images:

The Frame
When ‘making’ a photograph, you make judgments about what is and is not included in the picture space.

Objects/subjects can be isolated from their surroundings.

This ability to frame the world allows for juxtaposition of visual elements to create meaning that did not exist before.

post and clouds

Photographs compress 3 dimensions into 2.

This compression of space creates relationships between objects that did not exist before.

selective focus


Focusing is a function of the optics of the camera. How much of what is in focus through the viewfinder is a product of the relationship between how close the camera is to the subject/object and the aperture setting used.

Focusing can be used to create an order of importance to elements within the viewfinder

sand and shoe print
The thing itself

Photography deals with the actual.

Reality can be filtered, reduced in size, made monochrome, clarified or exaggerated.

Signifiers: the visual clues

cindy sherman
Photographs are not the objects themselves. They represent or stand in for the real objects.

Cindy Sherman uses signifiers to inform or lead the viewer in how to read the image. You cannot portray power, but you can show Obama in the oval office, this signifies power. The same with love, this cannot be photographed but it can be shown through signifiers, such as touching hands etc.

Here Sherman has given the viewer a number of signifiers: Martini Glass, Sunglasses, Stockings, Cigarette and more, these lead us to understand or read the character portrayed.
When you make a statement about an image, try and pin point the signifiers or signs that lead you to your reading.

© Nigel Watts 2011-2016 Contact/About