How we see photographs

In her introduction, Liz Wells (2003, p.1 ) raises the question 'What is a photograph?' And continues by defining the photograph as "...a particular sort of image, one which operates through freezing a moment in time..." 

This ability to dislocate time and space enables the photograph to be used in a variety of contexts. Photographers, curators, critics and relatives will read a photograph in a way that suits their concerns. The scene captured in a photograph could be interpreted as a memory, a document or a piece of art. 

Many photography books begin with this attempt to translate what a photograph is and yet the majority of people who take photographs know the reason why they take them. Photography fulfils their own need.

However photography finds itself questioning its own purpose and intention. The history of what photography is, is almost as long and complex as the history of photography itself. Following on from this Wells (2003) raises the notion of 'histories' of photography rather than a single timeline of events and development of ideas. This medium is so complex and diverse that it is impossible to begin to interpret it linearly. 

The context of how we view photographs will also determine how we see photographs. Whilst Wells (2003) considers how an image could be interpreted differently on a gallery wall as opposed to a magazine, she writes at a time before the upsurge of social networking. Facebookers upload photos to be shared and tagged, to communicate to their friends. Meanwhile, Apps like Timehop unearth and re-post old photographs on social networks, for the sake of nostalgia. To re-view images beyond the moment and audience they were intended for can arguably alter their interpretation. Subsequently, the reason for taking photographs alters. Photographs become pauses, reminders, in a fast-paced world. 


Wells, L. (2003) The Photography Reader. Routledge: London


Catherine Lutz and Jane Collins - The Photograph as an intersection of Gazes


Catherine Lutz and Jane Collins The Photograph as an intersection of Gazes

Lutz and Collins (p. 354) make the claim that 'All photographs tell stories about looking'. In many ways working through the coursework for P & P has enabled me to consider the gaze as photographer, editor and subject. The seven kinds of gaze that Lutz and Collins believe can be found in the photograph and its social context are:

1. The photographer's gaze

2. The institutional, magazine gaze

3. The readers' gaze

4. The non-Western subjects' gaze

5. The explicit looking done by Westerners who are often framed together with locals in the picture

6. The gaze returned or refracted by the mirrors or cameras that are shown, in a surprising number of photographs, in local hands

7. Our own, academic gaze. 

Whilst using the theme of intercultural relations, they refer to the camera as a mirror in which the gaze is returned by the person being photographed. The camera might also be thought to be a window that reveals the photographer's strong point of view.

The photographer's gaze

A photograph in essence tells us what the photographer is looking at when the exposure is made. What the onlooker is unable to see is the visual information beyond the frame that the photographer has either consciously or subconsciously chosen to ignore. The photographer has chosen the angle of view, aperture, and composition for a specific purpose (Geary 1988). 

During the photographic process there will often be the coming together of the photographer with those they photograph. The interaction maybe just for a split second, during which time both parties make decisions that may make or break a photograph. Lutz and Collins (1993) refer to Sontag's (1977, p. 10) claim that 'photographer's are usually profoundly alienated from the people they photograph. This view could be extended further to include the disconnection of the photographer from the context of the photograph. Very often when I take photographs at events, such as weddings, the need to take photographs is greater than the need to be photographed. 

Furthermore, when I am selecting photographs I tend to think back to my view as the photographer. Reading this article has made me think more about how others view the image, include people who may appear in the photograph. 

The magazine's gaze

Lutz and Collins (1993) base their views on how the National Geographic acquire images, having a preconceived idea that the photographer is required to replicate. Although the photographer has been immersed in taking photographs and developing an understanding of the location, it will be the editor who will "bring out the desired meanings, reproducing it in a certain size format to emphasise or downplay it's importance. This process is something that I have been lucky enough to experience. I was contacted by the National Geographic picture editor in Washington, who had seen my photograph of the Beau Rivage Hotel in Lausanne, Switzerland. I felt I had taken better photographs than the one they wanted, but the editor had a particular image in mind and that's all that mattered.  


Geary, C. (1988) Images from Bamum: German Colonial Photography at the Court of king annoyance, Cameroon, West Africa. 1902 - 1915. Washington D.C. : Smithsonian Institution Press

Lutz, C. and Collins, J. (1993) Reading National Geographic. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Sontag, S. (1977) On Photography. New York: Dell/Delta

Wells, L. (Ed.) (2003) The Photography Reader. Oxon: Routledge 

Peter Bialobrzeski

My tutor suggested that I take a look at the work of a German photographer, Peter Bialobrzeski. He captures scenes that encapsulates the surrounding area with a particular subject. For example, in 'Nail Houses' derelict buildings that have almost collapsed and viewed surrounded by a lively, fresh new backdrop. In this project Bialobrzeski is referring to people who refuse to leave their run-down homes, despite the offer of somewhere more suitable.

Meanwhile, Heimat presents the viewer with an alternative view of 'home'. It addresses the notion that having a home doesn't mean being rooted to the spot. The people in theses images are indistinguishable and insignificant compared to the vast settings they appear in, from large beaches to towering mountain ranges.

On reflection, my images tend to zoom in to closely to the people in particular places. I need to vary my perspective and consider the wider picture. This is something I will bear in mind for my final assignment.

Jerry Spagnoli

After digitally creating my own Daguerreotype, I wondered whether there were any photographers using the original photographic process today. Whilst searching on the Internet I came across the American photographer Jerry Spagnoli. In 1995, after familiarising himself with the technique that was invented in 1839, Spagnoli started his project 'The Last Great Daguerreian Survey of the 20th Century”. His project features views of the metropolis and historical figures. He also photographed Times Square entering the new millennium. Examples of his work can be viewed on his website.

Spagnoli's images have a rich, timeless quality with a subtle range of monochrome tones. The long exposure times that he would have needed illustrates the hustle and bustle of people passing in front of his Daguerreotype. I tend to rely on altering the aperture setting on my camera, but Spagnoli's exposures have inspired me to experiment more with adjusting the shutter speed. Maybe one day I'll have a go at making my own Daguerreotype!

Life's a beach for Massimo Vitali

If you're ever sunbathing on a beach near Lucca there is a strong possibility that Massimo Vitali will be somewhere on the cliff tops, capturing the scene for one of his beach panoramas!

Vitali has a very distinct style, producing over-exposed and often minimalist scenes of beach-goers. His panoramas offer an alternative view of what can often be a ciched scene of yellow sand and blue sky above burning sun-worshippers  below. 

Having asked Massimo Vitali for permission to use one of his images to illustrate my blog post! I was very excited that he was more than happy for me to do so and that he invited me to ask him about his work. This was such an unexpected opportunity, I took some time thinking about what I could ask that would be worthwhile to myself and others. Having studied Digital Photographic Practice I was curious to his reasons for the way he processes his images, so that would be included in my interview with him below:

Matt: I really like how you over-expose your beach images. Is this to emphasise the beach-goers, or is there another reason for using this effect? 

Massimo: It's to get rid of the blue shadows that normally haunt beaches in the summer. 


Matt: what was it that inspired you to photograph beach scenes?

Massimo: Although I stumbled upon the beach subject quite by accident, I later understood that beaches are a very good mirror of our society. 


Matt: Was the beach a place that you enjoyed spending time at when you were younger? 

Massimo: Of course! And still enjoy my time on the beach (when I'm not taking pictures). 


I was extremely grateful for Massimo Vitali taking the time to give me further insight into his work. It has helped me to understand more about photographer's intentions and choices.

Massimo Vitali is currently working on two projects, 'Disco' and 'Pools'. These are two more settings where human interaction can be studied photographically. I find 'Pools' a particularly interesting concept. The swimming pool can be a place where people's inhibitions are washed away. The uniforms of hierarchy and responsibility are concealed in the changing rooms, creating a society of equality in the pool. No one person stands out from another.

Massimo Vitali's recent work can be viewed on his website at