Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Stephen Shore and The Nature of Photographs


Phaidon has just published a revised and expanded edition of Stephen Shore’s The Nature of Photographs: A Primer. This is a welcome reprint as the book is an informative read for both the student and the experienced photographer. The original edition, released in 1998, has been devoured by the pricey first edition book rage since its author is Stephen Shore.

The book apparently grew out of a class that Shore has been teaching at Bard College in New York. He mentions teaching the course in the early years using John Szarkowski’s The Photographer’s Eye as the text which is another must read about photographic perception. Like Szarkowski’s book, The Nature of Photographs uses short well written texts to plant the ideas in the readers mind and then illustrates the points with a wide range of photographs.

Shore writes about perception using three levels: The Physical level, The Depictive Level and The Mental Level. The basic aim of the book is to bring awareness of what happens when you turn the three dimensions of the real world into the two dimensional world of the photograph. Essentially, it is a manual for understanding the transitions in photography. The first transition is in making an image. A photographer stands in front of a subject and makes several decisions: Where to stand, what to include, how to utilize focus and finally, how to use time to record the image. Then after the print (the physical level) is made, he describes the transition from the print to the deeper mental level and how we perceive “reading” photographs.

The last chapter which is called Mental Modelling I found most interesting. Here is an excerpt:

“Earlier I suggested that you become aware of the space between you and the page in this book. That caused an alteration of your mental model. You can add to this awareness by being mindful, right now, of yourself sitting in your chair, its back pressing against your spine. To this you can add an awareness of the sounds in your room. And all the while, as your awareness is shifting and your mental model is metamorphosing, you are reading this book, seeing these words – these words, which are only ink on paper, the ink depicting a series of funny little symbols whose meaning is conveyed on the mental level. And all the while, as your framework of understanding shifts, you continue to read and to contemplate the nature of photographs.”

While you were reading that excerpt you probably found yourself taking the instructions from Shore and altering your perception on a conscious level. This is what this book does best. The short bursts of text fall next to images that both illustrate his point but also serve as images to “practice on” and see your perception working. These lessons of observation are invaluable to photographers (I would extend their importance to anyone alive in this world of images) so keep a copy of this book near by and exercise your mind.

Book Available Here

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Just found your blog - it is great, wonderful!

Shore's book: nice printing, better printing tonality than the new edition of Szarkowski. (Just found one or two printing problems; for example, do you, in your copy, have a small blob on page 85, in the right part of the picture, about 2 cm:s from the right border, just where the sky and the mountain intersect in Robert Adam's picture?)

However, there's something about this book, some drawback somewhere that makes me not so enthusiastic as I would want to be.

Perhaps it is the selection of pictures: Shore himself - whose photos I am not a particular fan of - get five pictures, the photographer with most pictures, whereas Friedlander 3, Frank 1, Sherman 1, Arbus 1, Brassaï 1. (Hey, where's Helmut Newton? :)

It is all a matter of taste, obviously, but I prefer more portraits (both environmental and studio) and street photography and good photojournalism than the "clear art photo style" he is so fond of.

Also, his treatment of time is a bit strange. He talks about exposure time, but not much about pictures being time capsules showing subtle changes in how we lead our lives. (Compare, for example, the discussion about time in the texts by Fran Lebowitz and Jeffrey Fraenkel in the introduction to The Man in the Crowd: The Uneasy Streets of Garry Winogrand (San Francisco, 1999)

Gustav.

Jeff Ladd said...

My copy doesn't have the flaw you are mentioning.