Depth of Field:  The philosophical musings of a photographer

The viewer can also play an active role in the interpretation of a photograph’s meaning. Despite the information being provided inside and outside a photograph’s frame, the photographer cannot fully control the viewer’s interpretation of the visual space. Just as a photographer’s history and role in society play a part in the taking of the photograph so does the viewer’s history and role play a part in the perception of the image. More than one celebrity has faced the situation of posting what they thought to be an innocent photo of family or an event in their life only to be criticized for their parenting, or body shamed or ridiculed.

The photographer, however, does have technical control over the image he presents. Berger argues that, “There is no transforming in photography.” He believes that, “The only decision [the photographer] can take is as regards the moment he chooses to isolate.” [1] But almost since its advent the power to transform has been a part of a photograph’s creation. In “On Photography,” Susan Sontag accounts,

A decade after Fox Talbot’s negative-positive

process had begun replacing the daguerreotype (the

first practical photographic process) in the mid-1840’s,

a German photographer invented the first technique

for retouching the negative. His two versions of the

same portrait—one retouched, the other not

—astounded crowds at the Exposition Universelle held

in Paris in 1855 (the second world fair, and the first with

a photography exhibit). The news that the camera could

lie made getting photographed much more popular. [2]

In the environment of the darkroom the photographer has the ability to use the techniques of dodging, burning and masking to enhance or decrease the visibility of details caught by the camera. These physical manipulations are similar to the alterations that can be found in the digital realm. We can increase the saturation of colors or enhance the contrast of light and shadow. We can airbrush out imperfections and add additional filters to achieve the final look we want. Therefore, sunsets become more vibrant, models become thinner and life takes on the hue of the ideal.

There is no better example of the photographer’s ability to control the interpretation of the truth he is trying to present than social media, Instagram in particular. We currently exist in a society that lives or dies by a person’s ability to ‘capture the gram,’ whether or not that ‘gram’ actually reflects reality. We edit our lives to the choicest moments, what we believe to be the most beautiful, the most provoking, the ones with the most viral potential. We have been molded to believe that our true realities are boring and unfit, or in some cases simple wrong. So we alter our photographs in the hope of altering our reality.

A photograph then cannot be taken as a whole truth. It is instead a detail, a partial truth. It lends itself to an understanding of the light beyond the cave but it can never bring us into the light itself. But if the photograph is such an unreliable means of representing truth, why then do we persist in its use? Why do we accept the images we see as representative as something true?

[1] Berger, John. Understanding a Photograph. New York: Aperture Foundation, 2013

[2] Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Picador, 1977.

With all the unknowns presented can this photograph be considered truth? And what about when captions and a title are added? From these additions we gain further information about our subject. She is a migrant mother. The image was taken in Nipomo, California in 1936. Captions add information to a photograph but can never fully re-contextualize the image. Walter Benjamin in his essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Reproducibility,” wrote that photo magazines used captions as “signposts” to guide the viewer and because exhibitionist value has dislodged the cult value of a documentary photograph, “captions have become obligatory.” [1] Mary Price argues in, “The Photograph: A Strange, Confined Space,”

Describing is necessary for photographs.

Call it captioning, call it titling, call it describing,

the act of specifying in words what the viewer

may be led to understand and to see is as necessary

to the photograph as it is to the painting. Or call it

criticism. It is the act of describing that enables the

act of seeing. [2]

Captions guide our assumptions and sometimes tell us what they should be but even captions are in themselves limited by space for how much information they can contain.

What happens then if we supplement with additional text? In the pictorial magazines we have today, such as “National Geographic,” photographs always are accompanied by words, whether it is captions or an article. Words have become necessary to the documentary photograph in order to make sure the information received by the viewer is more complete and accurate.

A discussion of the pictorial magazine leads us to the consideration of the photographic essay, another method used to give the viewer additional information. Time Life defines a photo essay as an,

Organization of a number of pictures on a single

theme so that they give a deeper, fuller, more rounded,

more intense view of their subject than any single

picture could. [3]

It is very hard within the confines of the photograph to tell a story. A story is a series of happenings, like in a film. But a photograph, unlike the many images of a film is only a single image. What a photographic essay seeks to do is to piece together a series of photographs into a narrative as is found in a movie.

All, these methods discussed above are used to re-contextualize the subject. The process of taking a photograph is one of transcription and translation. Clarke wrote, “The photographer imposes, steals, recreates the scene/seen…” [4]

What Clarke seems to be saying is that the photographer takes the subject from its original context by composing and choosing and creates a specific image. The subject has thus been decontextualized. Captions and other images are used to bring some of the necessary information back to the subject but can never put that scene back into its moment in history.

Price also argues that use establishes how a viewer sees a photograph, “…the use of a photograph determines its meaning.” [5] The space a photograph is viewed in changes how we view a photograph, whether it is a snapshot versus a professional photograph or created as journalism versus created as art. A photograph originally displayed in the context of a newspaper can later be displayed on the walls of an art museum. The photograph’s spatial context has been changed. In its original context the photograph is seen as a document recording reality as it exists but in the context of the museum the photograph becomes a work of art, the product of an artistic mind. This complicates the relationship between a viewer and the photograph for in the former context, transformation is considered misleading but in the latter, transformation is often welcomed and seen as the mark and genius of the creative hand.

[1] Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Reproducibility” Art and its Significance: an Anthology of Aesthetic Theory. Ed. Stephen David Ross. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994.

[2] Price, Mary. The Photograph: A Strange, Confined Space. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994.

[3] Ed. Donovan, Hedley et al. Photojournalism. New York: Time Life Books, 1975

[4] Clarke, Graham. The Photograph. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

[5] Price, Mary. The Photograph: A Strange, Confined Space. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994.

Human vision is a process of gathering. When we use our eyes we first choose a subject upon which to focus. This action can be deliberate or accidental depending on our mental consciousness. And though our main vision is focused on one particular point our peripheral vision takes into account all the rest. In John Berger’s, “Ways of Seeing,” he states,

Our vision is continually active, continually

moving, continually holding things in a circle

around itself, constituting what is present to

us as we are. [1]

We never stop seeing what is around the object of our focus. That information our peripheral vision sends to our brain is combined with that of our main vision to create a whole picture. A photograph does not allow for peripheral vision. There is only one focus, one point of view. The rest no longer exists.

Also, as we look around our surroundings we have the ability refocus our vision and change our position. We take in more information. The camera does not allow us to do that. The camera takes a three-dimensional space and condenses it onto a two-dimensional piece of paper or screen. Clarke writes of this dynamic,

We assume that we can look into a

photographic space, but we only look over and

across it. Roland Barthes rightly complained

about the frustration involved in the misplaced

assumption that the closer we look at a photograph,

the more we see. [2]

The human brain ultimately views the world as a film. When we look back our memories appear to us as a scene out of a movie. A still camera on the other hand gets much more specific. What the still camera captures within a photograph is usually less than one second out of time. What we see in a photograph is a moment so minute in the timeline of history that even the photographer while taking the photograph does not truly see it in its singularity.

Dorothea Lange’s photograph, “Migrant Mother,” is an icon in the photographic world. Lange’s purpose in taking and publishing the photograph was to inform the world of the plight of the migrant worker during the Great Depression. Within this photograph space is limited. Lange has chosen to close in on her subject, the mother. We assume she is a mother because of the children who burden her shoulders and lay in her arms. The lines on the mother’s face, the children’s dirty cheeks and the ragged clothes speak of the woman’s condition. But we do not know much more than that. We do not know how this woman came to be here. We do not know her name or the names of her children. Her husband, if he indeed existed does not exist within the confines of the photograph. We do not know where she is. We do not know where she is going. Nor can we, by looking at the image pinpoint an exact date. This information cannot fit into the image Lange has chosen to show us. The physical boundaries of Lange’s photograph prevent us from having a complete understanding of the subject.

We do not know what happened right before this moment nor do we know what happens after. The human face, in particular, is an element that is in always changing. Here we see concern and exhaustion but a moment before or after there could have been a smile or a look of anger.

We are unable to judge this look against others she has had. We are only able to know our subject to a point. Therefore, when this image is seen assumption plays a large part in the interpretation of the subject’s face. The photographer through the boundaries created by the photograph has been forced to narrow his focus to a moment that he himself can’t really see until after the image is taken. Clarke wrote,

Thus another paradox, for we look at a

photograph as recording time, as a historical

record, whereas invariably it stops time and,

in turn, takes its subject out of history.

Every photograph, in that sense, has no before

or after: it represents only the moment of its

own making. [3]

[1] Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: British Broadcast Company and Penguin Books, 1972.

[2] Clarke, Graham. The Photograph. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

[3] Clarke, Graham. The Photograph. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

The Reading List

  • Understanding a Photograph, by John Berger

  • Towards a Philosophy of Photography, by Vilém Flusser

  • The Photograph:  A Strange, Confined Space, by Mary Price