Category Archives: The Nature of Photographs by Stephen Shore

The Nature of Photographs by Stephen Shore

Stephen Shore and The Nature of Photographs

 Stephen Shore (b.1947) had been given a camera as a child. By the time he was in his teens he was using black and white photography and working with Andy Warhol and the Factory. By 1971, he was the 1st living photographer to hold a solo exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MOMA) in New York (Roberts, 2007). His debut photographs have been described as a ‘uniquely deadpan interpretations of the social, cultural and physical landscape of the US’ (BJofP, 2010)

 Stephen Shore’s The Nature of Photographs (2007) grew as a result of the many years he spent teaching photography at Bard College, New York State. It is described as an ‘indispensible tool for students, teachers and everyone who wants to take pictures or learn to look at them in a more informed way’.

The book presents photographs from photographic greats such as Stieglitz and Evans alongside those of contemporary artists and unknown photographers, encompassing a range of genres. The photographs accompany and illustrate the themes of Shore’s text, which is both, succinct and edifying. 

 Shore begins by asking ‘What are the characteristics of photography that establish how an image looks?

He raises the idea that a photograph, initially, will be viewed on a physical level, as a physical object, a print which holds an image that the viewer will read to discover it’s content. Entrenched in the physical level are the depictive level and the mental level, which gives signals to our mind’s perceptual apparatus.

The Physical Level

 Simply put, the physical characteristics of a photograph are that it is flat, it is bounded by edges and it is static. Colour is also a physical attribute of a photograph, adding descriptive information about light, culture and era. As I am in the process of studying colour, I found this thought-provoking. In particular, how colour adds information about culture and era. To illustrate this point Shore has selected the photograph by Anne Turyn, 12 . 17. 1960 (1986) , as although it was shot in 1986, the colour palate used makes the time captured appear much earlier. The link between colour, culture and age also brought to my mind the family snapshots taken throughout my childhood. Polaroid’s mostly, which heavily depict the brown, orange and yellow hues popular in home furnishings and clothing in 1970’s Britain.

Shore states that the context in which a photograph is seen affects the meaning a viewer draws from it. For example, photographs saved in a shoebox, displayed in a museum, reproduced for information or advertisement, bought and sold or regarded at a utilitarian object or a work of art.  I considered this, and thought how true that statement is not only in affecting photographic meaning but also on value. Personally, I may notice an interesting image in a magazine then, with minimal thought, recycle or pass on that magazine. I would, however, be shocked at the suggestion that the same would happen to a photograph I had purchased from a gallery or to treasured family photographs.

Shore notes that by consciously adopting a visual style a photographer can reference context and assist in the reading of the image. Being aware of a photographer’s intention is something I find extremely valuable when viewing photographs. It provides context and information, which assists in interpreting the images. This is something that was very apparent when I recently viewed the exhibition Moments Before the Flood by Carl de Keyzer.   De-Keyzer photographed European coastal scenes to capture a point in time ‘just before’ the impending catastrophe of flood, created by rising sea levels due to climate change. Had I not been informed of this premise I would have viewed beautiful, interesting seascapes and not been aware that the scenes contained uncertainty and hidden threats.

To summarise The Physical Level, a photographs physical attributes are that it is flat, static, bounded by edges, the texture of the print, colour, the context in which it’s seen and the photographer’s visual style.

The Depictive Level

A photograph depicts, within certain formal constraints, an aspect of the world. A photographer begins with the messiness of the world and simplifies the jumble by giving it structure. On the depictive level, the order within a photograph is achieved through

  • Flatness
  • Frame
  • Time
  • Focus

Shore describes these four attributes as the basis of a photographer’s visual grammar.

Flatness– While a photograph is two-dimensional; it can contain an illusion of deep space. This statement made me consider what techniques could be applied to add depth to a photograph? Freeman (2007, p52) notes several ways of strengthening perspective and depth including selection of viewpoint, use of a wide-angle lens to enhance linear perspective and shallow depth of field so the focus becomes unsharp towards the distance. An internet search also revealed some useful tips from these websites

Shore describes some photographs as being opaque as the viewer is stopped by the picture plane. Others photographs he describes as transparent, drawing the viewer through the surface into the illusion of the image.

Frame- A photograph has edges, the world does not. The edges separate what is in the photograph and what is excluded. Shore notes that for some pictures the frame can act passively. This is where the structures of the photograph begins with the image and works its way out to the frame, where it ends. For some other pictures the frame is active, beginning with the frame and working inwards. Passive and active framing are new concepts to me and I will add it to my mental list of things to consider when viewing photograph or indeed, taking them

Time– A photograph is static, but the world flows in time. Each exposure has a duration and Shore refers to what Szarkowski called ‘a discrete parcel of time’ to describe the duration.

1/10000- Frozen time, a short duration exposure, capturing a new moment.

2 seconds-Extrusive time, movement producing a blur

6 minutes-Still time, the context is at rest and time is still.

The vast majority of the photograph I have taken up to this point could be described as frozen time. However, I do really like the effect of longer exposures using light such as Kevin Cooley’s Lights Edge series and the Light Painting work by Finnish artist, Janne Parviainen,!page-5 Perhaps this is something I should experiment with?

 Focus- Simply put, attention to focus concentrates our attention. It gives emphasis to part of a picture and helps distill a photograph’s subject from it’s content. When taking my own photographs I am selective with my point of focus and choice of aperture in order to use the plane of focus to help guide a viewer.

 The Mental Level

The mental level is where you construct a mental image. Shore explains that the mental level elaborates, refines and embellishes our perceptions of the depictive level.

Shore talks of photographs having both depictive space and mental space on the mental level. He notes that while a photograph may show a deep depictive space it may only have a shallow space on the mental, and vice versa. What I have taken from shallow and deep space on the mental level is how much thought an individual would apply in constructing their understanding of the subject and if the subject prompts questions and/or personal connections.

Decisions on vantage point, framing, focus and time can only be made after the photographer has decided what to pay attention to. This is something that I need to remind myself of when I am taking photographs. It can, on occasions, feel as though, in the midst of all the other decisions I am making, that the choice of subject and what I am paying attention receives only a brief thought. Shore notes that what a photographer pays attention to has the capacity to leave its imprint on the mental image of the photograph.

Mental Modelling

Shore notes that when photographers take pictures, they hold mental models in their minds, either consciously or unconsciously. I think, for me, when the mental models are conscious they are fleeting and often not well-defined. Shore offers valuable advice, stating that by making the model conscious, a photographer can bring the model and the mental level of the photograph under their control.

Shore summarises the process as follows,

Screen Shot 2013-04-23 at 3.42.45 PM

He describes the procedure as a dynamic, self-edifying process.


This book was an enjoyable, informative read. It had clear explanations and the photographs selected helped to exemplify the themes. Despite, being a relatively short read it holds a lot of advice that will be useful to me on a practical level and I will add it the collection of books that I return to often. It has left me with much to think about, including, what I pay attention to and the mental model I want to imprint on an image.

Freeman, M. (2007) The Photographer’s Eye. Lewes: ILEX

Roberts, P. (2007)  The Genius of Colour Photography. London: Goodman

Shore, S. (2007) The Nature of Photographs (2nd edition). London: Phaidon Press Limited