The Nature of Photographs by Stephen Shore

These are my learning points from the book The Nature of Photographs, by Stephen Shore, Phaidon, London, 2007

1 Physical Level

Photograph, on paper, has boundaries, depth, inks, emulsions etc.

Will be dependent on the context in which it is viewed.

2 Depictive Level

Photography, inherently an analytic discipline.

Painter starts with blank canvas and builds a picture.

Photographer starts with the messiness of the world and selects a picture. Imposes order on a scene.

Imposes this order by choosing:

  • vantage point
  •  a frame
  • a moment of exposure
  • selecting a plane of focus

On depictive level – four central ways in which world in front of camera transferred into the photograph:

  1. flatness
  2. frame
  3. time
  4. focus

Flatness – photos have monocular vision – one definite vantage point, this creates juxtaposition

Monocular vision creates juxtapositions of lines and shapes within the image


Edges create relationships between these lines and shapes and the frame.

For some pictures the frame acts passively, it is wherethe picture ends. The structure of the picture begins within the image and works its way out to the frame.

For some pictures the frame is active. The structure of the picture begins with the frame and works inwards.


A photograph is static but the world flows in time. As this flow is interrupted, by the photographer, a new meaning, a photographic meaning, is delineated.

Two factors affect time:

  1. duration of exposure,
  2. staticness of the final image.

Frozen time – an exposure of short duration cutting across the grain of time, generating a new moment.

Extrusive time – the movement occurring in front of the camera, or movement of the camera itself, accumulating on the film, producing a blur.

Still time – the content is at rest and time is still


Not only does a camera see monocularlyfrom a definite vantage point, it also creates a hierarchy in the depictive space by definoing a single plane of focus. This plane, which is usually parallel with the picture plane, gives emphasis to part of the picture and helps to distil a photograph’s subject from its content.

The hierarchical emphasis created by the plane of focus can be minimised by increasing the depth of field. But there is still one plane that is in focus with space before and behind rendered with diminishing sharpness. There is a gravitation of attention to the plane of focus. Attention to focus concentrates our attention.

3 Mental Level

The mental level elaborates, refines and embellishes our perceptions at he depictive level; it provides a framework for the mental image we construct of (and for) the picture. Mental level honed  by decisionsmade at depictive level. Choice of:

  • Vantage point (where to take pictures from)
  • Time (when actually to release the shutter)
  • Frame (what exactly to include)
  • Focus (what exactly to emphasise with the plane of focus)

Mental Modelling

The mental level’s genesis is in the photographer’s mental organisation of the photograph. When photograpehers take pictures, they hold mental models in their minds; models that are the resultof the proddings of insight, conditioning and comprehension of the world.

For most photographers the model operates unconsciously. But by making the model conscious, the photographer brings it and the mental level of the photograph under his or her control.

Each level of a photograph is determined by attributes of the previous level. the print provides the physical framework for the visual parameters of the photographic image. The formal decisions, which themselves are a product of the nature of that image, are the tools the mental model uses to impress itself upon the picture.

Each level provides the foundation the next level builds upon. At the same time, each reflects back. enlarging the scope and meaning of the one on which it rests. The mental level provides counterpoint to the depictive theme. The photographic image turns a piece of paper into a seductive illusion or a moment of truth and beauty.

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