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Photos are moments in time. They show an exact duplicate of an area of space. Photos are interpretive. There are many different ways to look at an individual photograph. But which of these statements is true? All are true. Photographs are a creation of the photographer. The photographer may not be able to edit his or her work with a paintbrush, but he or she can edit it by doing many things. For example, photographers have complete control over the "when" in a photograph. They determine when to take the photo. They look for a situation or event, which combined with the natural light and shadows available will make a good photograph. They also have other means to effect their finished photos. For example, a photographer may cause some objects to be in focus, and others not to be. He or she might make choose to take a photo at a distance instead of close-up. The Application of these techniques change how we perceive a photograph, perhaps not on a conscious level, but definitely at a subconscious level. Let's take a look at these techniques in more detail, and see exactly how they manage to change our perception of a photograph.

Outside of a studio, one of the most difficult things for a photographer to control is the lighting of his or her subject. This is especially true in photographs of everyday life. After all, the photographer cannot control the sun. He or she has to deal with the current situation. However, in the developing process, he or she can control some of the lighting. And lighting changes the feel of a photograph.

Look, for example, at Figure 1 and Figure 2 (Lucius Jarvis, circa 1890). The lighting is quite different in these two photos. But, the same photographer took both. However, the emotions that Jarvis instills in the two photos are completely opposite.

In Figure 1, the stairwell is dark. You can barely distinguish the man sitting at the foot of the stairwell. However, everywhere else you look, there is light. This gives the stairwell a gloomy appearance. In turn, the man also has something about him that is haunting. However, in Figure 2, Jarvis has made the photograph very light and airy. There is light everywhere in the photograph. This causes the building to have a much more cheerful ambience than the stairwell.

Another difference between these two photos is what is the primary object. The staircase is the primary object in Figure 1. It dominates the photograph. However, in Figure 2, Jarvis choose to photograph the entire building from a distance. This shows another important thing photographers can do to change how their photos appear. They can make an object, or even part of an object, the primary object, or they can take a much wider shot by standing at a distance. For all we know, the staircase shown in Figure 1 might in actuality be a staircase leading up to a building of the same size as the building shown in Figure 2. However, the building in Figure 2 shows a much more airy and grand building, because the photo encompasses the entire building.

Another good example of this technique is shown in Figure 3 (Harry Pidgeon, circa 1895-1905). In this photograph, we see the entire train crossing the bridge. Notice how small the train and bridge are in comparison to the rest of the river and surrounding brush. It truly shows how the man-made creations are not nearly as impressive as nature's creations. It is clear that the train is not supposed to be the focus of the photograph, but the river is.

Another way that photographers can impact artistic value to their photographs is to make certain objects, but not all, out of focus. This can have a very wide range of effects.

Take, for example, Figures 4 (Matthew Brady, 1863) and 5 (Lucius Jarvis, circa 1890).



In Figure 4, the three confederate prisoners are the only objects in focus. Everything else in the image, even the log they are sitting on, is out of focus. The thing that captures our attention the most and foremost are those three prisoners. However, in Figure 5, Jarvis makes things clear in the front of the photograph, and then as you get towards the back, things get more and more out of focus. By the time you get to the trees in the back of the photo, they aren't even distinguishable from one another. They look like one big object. What does this affect do? It makes it appear the rows of plants never end. The rows keep going back and back for what appears to be miles.

The third technique photographers can use to invoke an emotional response to their photographs is to choose very specific background and foregrounds.


For example, Figures 6(Bonney Twice, 1942) and 7(Toni Frissell, 1942) both use this technique to invoke an emotional response. In Figure 6, only Twice herself is in focus. The entire background is a blur. This shows that she has conquered something. She stands out. Also, she is holding a camera. This is the item that she used while in the front. She isn't wearing much jewelry, so her medal stands out on her jacket. This photo, with all of these details, shows that she is in control of her environment.

In Figure 7, Frissell shows a foreground of barbed wire. The subjects are trapped. The war is like a cage. Escape is not possible. This photograph represents the entrapment that is war.

So, in the end, photographs are useful for storing historical data. This is the "what" of the photograph. In other words, "what" does the photograph show? This is concrete. The "what" of a photograph is not interpretable. However, you get into arguments when you discuss the "why" of a photograph. The "why" of a photograph answers the question "why was the photograph taken and developed the way it was?" When it comes to this question, there is room for a lot of interpretation. This is the way photographs are read. When you look at a photograph, you see the "what" of the photograph, but when you read a photograph, you see the "why" of it.

Table of Figures


Figure #


Figure 1

Pasadena, California by LUCIUS JARVIS, circa 1890

Figure 2

Pasadena, California by LUCIUS JARVIS, circa 1890

Figure 3

Logging and Lumbering in the US West by HARRY PIDGEON, circa 1895-1905

Figure 4

Gettysburg, Pa. Three Confederate prisoners by Matthew Brady, 1863

Figure 5

Pasadena, California by LUCIUS JARVIS, circa 1890

Figure 6

Bonney Twice Decorated for Military Bravery

[Therese Bonney wearing medal], February 1942

New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection, Prints and Photographs Division (14)

Figure 7

A Taste of War Life

Toni Frissell, [Red Cross Coffee Wagon], November 1942

Prints and Photographs Division (75)


Works Cited



"cwp94000207/PP." n. pag. Online. Internet. 19 Feb. 1997. Available


"Harry Pidgeon." n. pag. Online. Internet. 19 Feb. 1997. Available http://www.cmp.ucr.edu/collections/pidgeon/ca1.html

"Therese Bonney." n. pag. Online. Internet. 19 Feb. 1997. Available http://lcweb.loc.gov/exhibits/wcf/wcf0007.html

"Toni Frissell." n. pag. Online. Internet. 19 Feb. 1997. Available http://lcweb.loc.gov/exhibits/wcf/wcf0008.html

"UCR/CMP Lucius Jarvis, Pasadena, California. n. pag. Online. Internet. 19 Feb. 1997. Available http://www.cmp.ucr.edu/collections/upc/jarvis/default.html

Martin, F. David, and Lee A. Jacobus. The Humanities Through the Arts. New York: McGrw-Hill, 1997.