Can You Read Photography?

In brief

  • A photograph portrays the world but it’s also a depiction of the person who made it. If you know how to read it, a photo can tell you a lot about the photographer’s experience, interests and character.
  • Bad photography is a reflection of the person behind the camera. Good photography transcends the photographer and shows us something essential of the world.
  • Like Marcel Duchamp’s famous Fountain, photography at its core is concept art. It is created by removing an object or its representation from the natural world and transferring it into a man made environment.
  • All creation is transforming chaos into an order. The original creator, God, worked on a much deeper level than even the most celebrated human artists. God’s order has become our chaos, the raw material which we attempt to convert into a unified whole.

Marcel Duchamp,_photograph publish

Whether you know it or not, you’re interpreting the world and commenting on it when you make a photograph. In one of my earlier blog posts I talked about intentionality. To be a successful photographer – and I’m not talking about financial success – you must know what you’re photographing. You’ll need to know what the subject of your photo is, and how you want to portray it. The choice of subject and your treatment of it makes your photo belong to you, it reflects your intention.

It has taken me years to appreciate this simple truth. Your intention is the photograph, and it is an indication of what you think about the world. That crucial moment, when you press the shutter button and the image gets recorded on film or on a memory card, is like a fingerprint. Looking at any photo, a keen observer can deduce some things about the photographer.

What Your Photograph Says About You

Black and white film spiral

For those with eyes to see, a photograph is an introduction to the experience and the expertise of the photographer. At the very basic level, the photo reveals the level of the photographer’s technical knowledge. A beginner photographer on his way to deeper understanding of photography goes through phases of experimentation. This is typically shown in the choice of subject matter and the post processing techniques he uses.

A person with a newly found interest in photography might, for example, shoot homeless people or commuters in a large city. The photos are then given a black and white treatment in Lightroom with one object or person rendered in colour. This is not to disparage anyone. I have put my own photos through this ordeal, even if I’ve usually shied away from photographing homeless people.

Secondly, the photograph will tell you what the interests of the photographer are. You may not be able to tell them from one or two examples but a larger collection of photos will certainly give you an idea whether the person behind them likes to spend their time in the woods or shooting the streets or creating macro photographs of insects.

The photographer’s interests shown in his or her photos can also reveal things about her background, place of residence, circle of friends and the level of financial security. People don’t normally venture too far from their home to photograph. They may use their friends as models repeatedly. They might frequently photograph in places with a limited access or an expensive entry fee. All these details are visible in a person’s body of photographic work.

Lastly, you can tell quite a lot from the photographer’s character by looking at their photos. A bold, outgoing photographer has the courage to approach strangers and create closeup shots of them without worrying about consequences. There is always a risk of rejection when you ask to take someone’s photo.

Close contact photography without obtaining permission and using an in-your-face flash can even lead to a conflict and is reserved for only a very few photographers. The ethics of such aggressive portraiture can be argued. I’m of two minds about the issue, given the fact that I like some of the results but think that these photographers are basically acting like jerks.

To continue with the street photography theme, however, you can tell if someone is not cut out for street shooting by the lenses they use. A telephoto lens will allow you to stay far away from the action and any potential danger. Many famous street photographers, (such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Garry Winogrand, William Klein) have used wide-angle lenses almost exclusively in their photography. A wide lens forces you to get close. It brings the human being in the photograph face to face with the viewer. It may be voyeuristic to an extent but it also forces on us the tragic comedy of life that we all share in.

The photo of a street scene taken from behind the window in Starbucks, on the other hand, just doesn’t have the same urgency to interest the viewer. I’m exaggerating to make a point here, but if you’re too shy to get close to the action you’re probably more suited to photographing birds or landscapes. You might even find that you’re very good at them.

What Does Photography Tell Us About the World

Black and white film waves

Experience, interests and a rough idea of the photographer’s character can all be deduced from the photographs created by him or her. Good photos are also an image of our social and physical environment. They recreate the world in a way that allows us to digest and understand it better.

While bad photography is more a reflection of the photographer than his or her subject matter, good photography transcends individuality and portrays the world in an idiosyncratic way simultaneously. Talent and mastery of any art by its practitioner elevates the work produced onto a whole new level. The characteristics of the person creating the work and something akin to archetypal idea of excellence are at play. You know when you see a master work, even if you don’t know why you know. You also know when you’ve reached it in your own work. It is a precious thing to have and should make one humble, if properly understood. Superiority and genius are bigger than the individual.

They are part of a larger process of creation, started by God and continued by humans. Photographers are perhaps the least of all creators. Very little of what we do involves creation in the true sense of the word: making something new by mixing, blending, forming or adding onto. Photography is unique in being an art of exclusion. It doesn’t change elements or objects in the physical world, as many other arts do. Instead, it happens by removing something from a larger whole and bringing the dissected piece of reality for the viewer’s evaluation.

Photography Is a Choice

black and white film leaf

When photographers talk about creating a certain kind of picture, they are almost always referring to the process of making a choice between two or more options. The individuality of the photographer manifests in the choice of viewpoint and the decision to frame the image so that it serves the photographer’s vision. Most of the photography happens inside your brain. We look at the world around us, then pick out fractions of it. We call these fractions a photograph because they make sense as an esthetic composition.

Like Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain – a urinal purchased from a sanitary ware supplier and first exhibited in photographer Alfred Stieglitz’s studio in 1917 – photography at its core is concept art. What Duchamp achieved was photography in three dimensions. He took an object created by someone else and removed it from its natural location.

Duchamp Fountain

It could be tempting to dismiss Duchamp and other dadaists as practical jokers but their “readymades” serve a purpose: they help to emphasise the fact that all art and all creation is a matter of selection. The artist transforms the chaos of nature into an order of the man-made world. In creating a work of art, she is, in fact, hauling a part of the wild indoors, using whatever transport mechanism she may find convenient and setting it for observation.

This process seems to apply to all arts. Physical arts transform natural objects, such as pieces of rock, into civilised bite-sized representations of the natural world. Immaterial arts – literature, music, drama – make the mental and spiritual chaos inside our souls accessible to others. All movement within the creative process is from complicated to simplified.

God, the original creator, took the world that was “without form, and void” and remodeled it into the complex system of living and nonliving things inhabiting the earth. We as humans, endowed with our creator’s essence, have an urge to replicate His nature by creating order out of chaos.

But, we operate on a much lower level, and what to us is chaos, or nature, is God’s order. The true primordial chaos, which God used as His material, is beyond our capacity to comprehend, let alone transform. Even the best of us – the Mozarts, Michelangelos and Shakespeares – are diletants compared to Him who created everything.


Marcel Duchamp Fountain 1917, replica 1964:

Fountain (Duchamp):

The Bible: Genesis.

Jordan B. Peterson: 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. Penguin Books, 2018.

All photographs, except the portrait of Marcel Duchamp and the photo of the Fountain, copyright (c) Markus Jaaskelainen 2018

Leave a comment