For more than 20 years Stephen Shore, one of America’s most influential photographers working in colour, has taught a course in “Photographic Seeing” at Bard College in upstate New York. Students are advised they need cultivate only two skills in order to become good photographers. Firstly, they need “interesting perceptions”. Secondly, Shore says, they need an understanding of the “visual grammar” of the medium – the means by which “the world is translated into a photograph”.
To assist in the latter project Shore has written and compiled The Nature of Photographs, a primer designed to highlight the formal and physical properties that determine how photography pictures the world. Brief textual summaries are supplemented by generous portfolio sections that feature beautifully reproduced pictures by many of the (often American) canonical figures of photographic history: think Evans, Levitt, Arbus, Friedlander, Eggleston et al. And throw in Atget, Sander, Kertesz, Frank, Brassaï and the Bechers, Gursky and Struth.
The result is a fascinating exercise in the formalist analysis of photographs. Shore starts with the brute physicality of the printed image and suggests ways in which the material properties of the print (its flatness, boundaries, tonal range, etc) can shape some of the image’s visual qualities. Moving on to the “depictive level”, he examines how factors such as framing, plane of focus and vantage point form a visual grammar which enables photographers to structure and communicate their perceptions.
Two further chapters – the “mental level” and “mental modelling” – provide particularly suggestive and nuanced readings of how we respond to elements within the depicted image, and of how those responses are functions of the photographer’s mental organisation of the picture.
Discussion of the content or possible meanings of the photographs is conspicuous by its absence. But Shore is not proposing that formal properties are more important than content; his claim is that, regardless of subject matter, a photograph must first be “three-dimensional space projected onto this flat thing – a print”. And the formal means by which this is achieved constitute, for Shore, “the inherent language of photography”.
Criticism of this sort of approach usually suggests that – by purging both content and consideration of non-photographic factors – it promotes a highly selective, aestheticised understanding of photography. In a sense, Shore’s admittedly intelligent, witty and perceptive choice of pictures upholds such complaints: there is no reportage or bona fide documentary work, for example. Simply put, formalist analysis seems to work best on varieties of art photography that explore formalist concerns.
As he says, “I didn’t try in the book to be democratic and… I wasn’t making an attempt to represent all kinds of photography. I think that the formal attributes that I talk about apply absolutely to photojournalism. That the image has edges is as true of a magazine photograph as it is of an Edward Weston. That the image is a monocular projection of three-dimensional space on a plane is as true of photojournalism as it is of any photograph. But the exploration of these attributes is not often a concern of photojournalism… And so I tended to go for pictures where the photographer was more clearly demonstrating these concerns.”
The great strength of his book is its insistence on the specifically photographic character of the pictures. The images are not used as opportunities for digressions about their subject matter; nor are they treated as unreflexive “windows on the world”. His central point – as the finely honed prose and judicious picture editing make clear – is that all photographers, consciously or not, employ a visual grammar. By making explicit the means and effects of that grammar Shore’s work suggests ways of refining and enhancing “photographic seeing”.