What’s in a Photograph?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the different values in photographs, lately (and wrote a little bit about it here). My photography teacher brought them up three different categories in one of his classes: personal, aesthetic and interpretation value.

You have the ones with personal value, like vacation photos or snap shots of your cat. I have a lot of those, and I love them. The photos I took in Italy last year means something to me because when I see them, they fit into a context for me, I have memories and emotions tied to them by default. However, even though other people might think they are nice enough pictures to look at, with no context or personal value, it is simply hundreds of pictures of picturesque facades and green Tuscany hills. A picture of my cat Sixxten is dear to me, but if you take me and Sixxten out of the equation, it’s just a picture of a cat. These are the kind of photos most of us want to take. We want great pictures of things that have personal value to us. Let’s call them photo album shots.

Then there are photos with aesthetic value, photos that are pleasant to look at, but don’t necessarily involve any specific meaning. Clean lines (like in an architecture shot), inanimate objects (like beautiful flowers or a steaming cup of coffee in the morning light), or a pretty landscape or sunset. There might be silhouettes of a couple in the picture, walking hand in hand in that pretty sunset, but we can’t see their faces, so they are an anonymous part of the motif. That is the point; these pictures are strictly about the motif. They could be framed and hung up on a wall in most homes. There is nothing wrong with that, of course, there’s a reason for their commercial value after all. Let’s call them picture frame shots.

I think almost everyone who owns a camera starts out using it for the first type of photos; for taking pictures with personal value. Some do it because it’s a sort of necessity, they want to have documentation of family members, birthdays and vacations, but that doesn’t have to mean that they find pleasure in the actual act of using the camera. That is completely fine. If you achieve your goal, whatever it is, go for it! Then there are people who not only want to document, but also are having quite a bit of fun using their camera, so they might take more pictures than necessary of relatives having Christmas dinner. I’m one of those people. I bring my camera to most family functions. I have plenty of grainy pictures that document almost every meal ever had on any family occasion (bad lighting, bad white balance, too high ISO). They don’t look great but they do the trick.

When you do start to enjoy using your camera more, you start to branch out, spending a little bit more time experimenting and taking those pictures that are more aesthetic than personal. Like the beautiful flowers and the clean lines of a cup of coffee in the morning. This is when you realise you’re a hobbyist photographer. You take pictures because you think its fun, not just because you need to.

I could safely say that I’m one of them. I have countless folders with pictures of pretty sunsets, buildings, interesting rocks on the beach, nicely shaped leafs, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. They don’t mean a bloody thing to anybody, not even to me. I just thought the motif/shape/colour/angle/light was nice and I wanted to try and capture that. They have a purely aesthetic value (if I’m lucky enough to get the shot I envisioned in my head).

One category does not exclude the other, though. Obviously, if you take photos with a great personal value that is also aesthetically pleasing to look at, you’ve taken your photography one step further. Also, the photograph in itself becomes more noteworthy. It’s a sort of synergy effect.

Then there’s that elusive interpretation value. Or maybe a story-telling or narrative value would be a better expression. When motif or composition leaves room for interpretation, there’s place for a story. This story is free for anyone. Some people might not see in one picture what another does, and vice versa. Some of them can sometimes feel very hard (for me, at least) to understand and interpret emotionally, since they don’t just depict or illustrate or serve as a documentary function. Since it’s not a written media or a moving picture, that one frame has to say it all (or at least more than a thousand words). These photographs are often found in museums or galleries. Let’s call them gallery shots.


The funny thing is, that the more you leave out, the more room you leave for interpretation, the more available the picture becomes. More people can relate to it because they get to fill in the gaps.


Trying to create a narrative photo, a photo with room for interpretation, feels challenging. I mean, a photo is what it is, right? The components in the photo are directly portrayed and how can there be more to a photograph than you can actually see? Since photo manipulation has been a part of the art form almost since the beginning, not even that is true, but that’s a whole other can of worms (like the iconic picture of Abraham Lincoln from 1881, with his head attached to John Calhoun’s body, or the propaganda photos from Russia in the 20’s).

So what adds an interpretation value to a photograph? Thinking about all this makes me feel like I’m being sucked down into my literature studies again, like Alice falling into the rabbit whole. Is it the things you leave out? Is it conflict and contrast? Is it the familiar versus the unfamiliar?

When you create something you often have a hunch what it is you want to express. In the end I’m faced with the same problem as when I’m writing a story: I know what I want to say, but how do I get that down on paper?

I think a photo with personal value is very important. I think that no matter who looks at the picture, if the subject has no personal value to the photographer it looses some of its glow. I think combining two of either categories means you have dared to step out of your comfort zone and created something. I think that if you managed to get a little bit of all three in there, then you have photograph that will get a life all on its own.

Ansel Adams says: “Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop”. I’d be happy if I took just one this year.

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