Reading photographs

Every once in a while I’m asked to run workshops on photography and I’m always happy to say yes . . .  as long as they don’t want me to talk about exposure and how to compose for the rule of thirds. Don’t get me wrong, I’m up on the technical side but it’s not the aspect of photography that interests me most. For

For me photography is a way of talking about something; what I think, what I like and what I dislike about the world around me. In short, I photograph what interests me and I do so in the hope that other people will find it interesting too.

If I’m successful then maybe they’ll see things in a different way. You could call it storytelling. You could even call it art. But I’m just going to call it photography.


To break the ice at the start of a workshop I like to run a little test on my students. I show them a series of photographs from some great names, past and present, from the world of photography and for each one I ask them to say something about how the image makes them think or feel. I don’t want them to tell me it’s ‘nice’ or to describe the technical aspects to me. I want them to to go beyond the surface and read it out loud.


It’s not easy, I can tell you, and there are some long stretches of silence. Not because the students are particularly shy, but I think because they’re just not used to reading images in that way. If the silence drags on too long then I’ll offer some of my own thoughts. I’m not saying these thoughts are right or wrong or that they reflect the intentions of the photographer. They are simply my personal reaction to each image. What I really love about this is that the students often light up when they realise that photography can have meaning and content that goes beyond the technical or the beautiful. This realisation can actually change their relationship with photography and give them the motivation to start making more personal and more meaningful work.


My point is that photography is a visual language and like any language we need to be able to understand it before we can speak it.


We need to read before we can write.

If you want your images to say something then first you need to have something to say (which is not easy) and then you need to know how to say it. So what I want to do here is present some images and ask you to look and think about them before reading my own comments. In the workshop I present some really interesting work made by great photographers. I can’t do that here so I’m just going to use some images from my own archive. At the end, I’ll ask you to try it with some of your own.


Ok, let’s go. Remember, there’s no right or wrong, it’s just an exercise in slowing down, looking and thinking.

Picture 1

I’m going to start you off with an easy one. This is from a series I made in the local woods where I carried a large grey panel with me to separate single elements from the background. We’re looking at a young shoot growing just a few inches from the ground. As it grows it has pieced a leaf that was left from the previous autumn. So we have the cycle of nature in delicate balance. New from old, that sort of thing. I like the simplicity of it.


Picture 2

Let’s try something more complicated. I shot this nearly thirty years ago as part of a reportage on a small community living in the south of England. It’s an image that has stayed with me over the years so there must be something there that keeps me wanting to look at it.


I guess it’s a portrait, although the identity of the person is not clear. In fact identity is the word I always have in mind when I see this image. The way the subject’s profile is framed within the canvas behind him draws obvious similarities to the technique of Silhouette Portraiture which was popular in the 17th and 18th centuries before the invention of photography. It always surprises me how much you can read from a simple profile like this. The ‘blank canvas’ also brings to mind the philosophical question of how we each construct our own identity.


But there are other elements here that come into play. Look at the painting of the mother and child in the centre. Notice the relationship between that painting and the silhouetted figure. There’s a certain tension created between them.


The final element that ties it all together is the girl peeping over the canvas above the silhouette. It’s by chance of course, but she seems to be looking at us, almost knowingly. For me she completes a triangle that links the different characters. But it’s a link that exists only in this photograph, not in reality. And that’s a quality of photography that fascinates me.


Picture 3

This one is from a series I made at night around the local roads here in Italy. The idea came while driving though Yosemite National Park in California some weeks earlier. I was returning to camp at night after shooting some landscapes and as I drove I was very much aware of being cocooned in my comfortable car while outside miles of dark wilderness surrounded me. The only thing I could see was what my headlights happened to sweep over on the twisty road through the forest. I was there, but I wasn’t there.


It was a strange feeling. It made me realise how much technology removes us from our immediate environment. Even in remote areas we feel safe as long as we stay in the car and follow the road.


When I returned home to Italy I wanted to try to recreate that feeling. The images I made, like this one, describe a certain relationship between ourselves and the nature around us. Look at the area of darkness that extends beyond the street light. There is something threatening about it, but it also draws me in.


Picture 4

I happened to see this on a wall in the city of Genova. It would have been easy to miss. Photography has the habit of giving things importance for the simple reason that they have been identified and framed. In this case it becomes a piece of abstract art. The pins in the wall must have held some signage back in the day. In themselves they are quite interesting and beautifully lit.


The handprint shouts out ‘human’. It reminds me of prehistoric cave paintings and our continuing need to say ‘I was here, I existed too.’ The fact that this hand print goes right over one of the pins adds a tactile quality to the image. We can almost feel the pin under our own hand. We exist too.




Picture 5

Here we have a lady waiting for a bus. An ordinary enough situation but her surroundings are obviously not ordinary.


This image comes from a series I made to mark the 10th anniversary of the war in Vukovar, Croatia. The city was destroyed in a siege, during a war between Serbs and Croats following the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. I spent some weeks there to look at how the community was recovering ten years after the event.


In making these images I wanted to offer an alternative to the drama of photojournalism, to try a slower and more considered approach. So I worked with a medium format film camera and photographed quiet details and people standing still in places related to their daily lives, their work and their home.


The lady here is dressed in black. I will assume she is a widow but I can’t say more than that. Her appearance is composed and dignified despite the destruction and abandonment around her. I wonder what she lived through in her quiet corner of town during the war. And how incredible it must be, after facing so much change and turmoil, to be able to simply stand on the roadside again and wait for a bus.




Picture 6


I admit to having an obsession with chairs. It started many years ago while studying photography at university. I wanted to see if it were possible to describe a community without showing the actual people that lived there. So I decided to focus on the chairs found in its public spaces. In a way the chairs become the people.


To be honest, the room is just as important as the chair. Our eyes look for details to understand where we are and what might take place there. But what really fascinates me about this series is that although the images are seemingly banal, their interest and importance will grow over time. What looks normal to us today will become an historical document in the future as details within the image describe the materials, the technology and even the social relationships of the day. The way we read this image will change over time. I like that idea.



Picture 7

Ok, here’s the last one. I do enjoy landscape photography but not in terms of beautiful views and dramatic skies. I’m more interested in our relationship with the environment and our impact upon it. Look at this image quickly and you will recognise the delicate complexity of trees in the winter.


Look closer and you’ll realise that the background is solid concrete. It’s the supporting structure of a motorway bridge. That adds a different layer of meaning to the image. It becomes terrible but remains beautiful. For me it’s a conflict that I find interesting but difficult to resolve.




Now It’s Your Turn


Try to describe some of your own photographs in the same way. But be careful. Don’t exaggerate and don’t look for meaning that’s not actually there. If you’re honest you might realise that there are not many images that have enough content to be able to speak about in any depth. That’s completely normal, don’t worry. Not every photograph we make is important. But we should be able to recognise the important ones and express their meaning to ourselves and to others.


That is the first step towards making interesting photographs rather than nice photographs. I hope it can inspire you as image-makers to improve your own fluency and confidence in the language that is photography.



Colin DuttonOther articles by author

Born in London, 1966. After taking a Degree in Documentary Photography at the University of Wales, Colin moved to Italy in 2002 where he lives with his wife and children. A professional photographer with clients worldwide, he is specialised in interiors, editorial and advertising on-location. Beyond his commercial work, Colin continues to develop his own personal projects for books and exhibitions and he presents talks and workshops on photography.

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