A strange thing happened when I visited the National Gallery of Victoria recently, an afternoon with the artwork messed with my mind! I felt all kinds of emotions, from turmoil and frustration to sheer relief, joy and anticipation. It came from a bunch of pictures on the walls, and there was no talking or need for words. Unlike words, photographs and other visual artwork tell their story through the lines, colours and shapes they contain, so how can that work?
A while back I was considering this question, how do we interpret images, and what makes them work? So I figured I’d share some of that thinking with you, and some things I’ve picked up along the way. As artists and photographers we aim to share something with the viewer, something deeper than the simple objects depicted, and it’s done visually, just like text is a written language, photography is a visual language, it was this concept that got me thinking in the Gallery, there was an overload of connection, visual elements felt like they were bypassing regular paths and knocking straight on my mind’s door, going straight for an emotional connection.
First we see
The subject, the environment and the light. These are the physical and tangible things. Most photographs and artwork would have these simple elements at the core, there has to be a main focus or theme. The reason for the photograph, that’s usually known as the subject but it could be more abstract. Then there’s the environment, where and how the subject is positioned, the space around it, and then there’s the light that defines the shapes to make things visible.
We feel something
A quick look at the scene we want to photograph conveys some kind of emotion, the strength of this emotion is probably an indication of the potential in the image . We can also have the flip side of this, seemingly meaningless subjects can convey an emotional photograph by playing on light, colour, experiences, cultural influences and other connections, but I’m getting ahead of myself. The emotion we feel from a scene could be simple or so complex it’s difficult to convert into words, happy, sad, tension, warmth or anger could come across, but why do we react like that?
This is where things get tricky. Out of our initial emotion comes a reaction, maybe an idea, a decision, an influence, or a question. But the reaction is based on many factors, I’ve classed them into Internal, External Mood and Comparisons.
The internal relates to our personal beliefs, experiences, wants and needs, it’s looking through our our own eyes, its’ not what Bob from over the road sees, it helps explain why people experience the same image in different ways. The internal might determine how we react to the story in the image, it effects our interpretations of actions, how we think the image depicts the past, present or future and the meaning we place on that.
The external is how we relate to the depicted scene spatially, do we feel a part of it, or on the outside. Are we looking from afar or from within, are we enclosed or do we have space to move around?
The mood might steer our reaction too, it’s interpreted from the use of elements such as colour, hardness and softness, static or dynamic elements, dark or light tones, complexity or simplicity, similarities or differences, it’s how we interpret the visual elements, and it links to our senses, is the scene quiet or loud, warm or cool, what are the smells and tastes.
Comparisons are a more subconscious analysis of the relationships within the image, what is the order of importance and how do the elements relate together as a whole? There could be comparisons of size, colour and tone, hard or soft, warm or cold, heavy or light, or perhaps comparisons to ourselves, or to our situation. There may be metaphors, for example a bent old gate may represent aged mans life, and there could be human gestures or comparisons to human form and ideas. Are the elements coherent or clashing.
So as artists we build elements into an image that will trigger emotions and reactions because this is what will impact our viewer. As we construct an image we might also consider whether the intention is to promote our point of view within an image, or whether we are more passive and inviting the viewer to make their own interpretations. To facilitate this communication whatever it may be, we need a tool kit.
Using visual design
The tool kit can work in two fundamental areas, A. Concepts that will be interpreted by the viewer that aren’t actually visible in the image, and B. Visible content which can be physically seen within the image.
The visible content can be considered part of composition but I prefer to think of composition as including all the above as well, composition relates to the visible and its path to interpretation. Understanding how and why to use visual content as a means for interpretation is the real key, it’s almost as if our sub conscious is against us, we interpret hidden meanings every day but perfecting that as a means of conveying a work of art is another story.
Visible content could be broken down further, let’s try these for want of some better words: Descriptive, Physical & Technical. The descriptive content of an image is like the tone and speed of my voice or my facial expressions, it conveys the meaning and emotion. Where as the physical content of an image, the scenes depicted may represent the words I use, and the technical aspects of a photograph such as sharpness or contrast could be represented by the way I move my lips, whether I am clear or muffled.
The descriptive aspect is really visual design, such as:
Depth, converging lines, layers, near far size scale, receding detail, aerial perspective….
Colour, saturation, colour harmony’s, colour effects, primary, secondary, warm, cool….
Tone, light, dark, chiaroscuro, contrast, transition of shadows…..
Geometry, line, shape, direction, flow ….
Texture, hard, soft, complex, smooth…..
Arrangement, Similarity, grouping, proximity, pattern, symmetry, balance….
Position (of elements), high, low, middle, edges…
We interpret meaning from these elements, maybe yellow is a happy colour, high contrast might represent difficulty, a strong diagonal could be movement, speed or time, these interpretations are built into us as humans, through our make up and experiences. In a Van Gogh you can just about feel his mood through the shape and direction of his brush strokes and insightful use of colour, photographs use the same visual language elements albeit with a different level of control.
Using invisible design
Invisible elements can be included in a photograph too, such as relationships and metaphors, these elements aren’t shown, they’re interpreted. This is less about visual design and more to do with psychology, rather than write a book on psychology which is all very interesting but definitely not my specialty, I’ll attempt a few examples.
Water motion blurs around rocks, you sense time, peace or danger.
A young sapling grows from between rocks, you sense life, hope, fragility, youth.
A dark shadow between the rocks, you feel danger or curiosity about what lays behind.
The curves of a rock may resemble the curves of human form (check out Edward Weston).
A cloud formation mimicking a rock formation develops a relationship.
A withering tree under a harsh sun could represent survival or death.
A young girl looks directly into the lens, you feel a connection.
A football player dodges and appears levitated on an impossible angle, we interpret motion, gravity and anticipation.
Putting it together
All this is materialised into an image through our actions and decisions. There are ‘rules’ we could follow to help us out (rule of thirds anyone), but they’re not really rules, they’re more like established ideas that tend to work in certain circumstances but aren’t always particularly expressive. Rules can only go so far, you are better off understanding what makes them work and consider why they became a ‘rule’.
Composing by feel and balance is more likely to convey your message, consider what really strikes you in a scene. Dig deeper, why exactly has it captured you? Photograph that feeling. Understand what triggered it, understand your reaction and your message, this might happen in an instant but get it first.
From there we take actions and decisions, which can include:
Position, how we place ourselves in the scene, high, low, close or distant….
Time of day, edge of day, night, middle of day. Time of day affects light direction and the ratio of direct light to ambient light, as well as the dominant colours.
Geometric arrangement, considering how objects overlap, considering leading lines, shape and balance, big sky, small sky, the list can be endless.
Anticipation, sometimes we find some of the right elements and have to anticipate when the rest will come together, this could mean waiting for the right light or preparing our position for the next move.
Technical, depth of field, exposure, field of view, how we operate the camera.
Post Processing (another endless list)
All this for a single image!
This is a mind map, a way of understanding what’s going into an image in that moment it’s captured. So if a picture is worth a thousand words then this article must be a picture. I hope it will help you create your own thoughts, connections and ideas on how an image comes together.