Photo Notes

May 15, 2009


Filed under: Photography Communication — John Siskin @ 12:23 pm

constructionLast week I wrote about how we use photography as a language to communicate. Like a language there is an underlying structure that makes communication possible. As an example in English, Bob hit Bill is different from Bill hit Bob, because, in English word order is a critical part of structure. In Latin the word endings define which word is the subject and which is the object so word order isn’t critical. William Crawford wrote a fine essay on this subject in his Book Keepers of Light.

While some of what we might call syntax in photography might be so subtle that we could argue over it, some is pretty clear. There is a great deal of photographic syntax that is based on the technology of photography. So when you look at the work of Carlton Watkins you will see open shadows, hard flat water, and fine detail. These, and other aspects of his images, are characteristic of the large glass plates he used to make his images. The size of the plates captured great detail. The fact that the plates were only sensitive to blue light opened the shadows and the low sensitivity of his plates meant he could only make the very long exposures that flatten detail in water.

Clearly, digital technology has radically changed our photographic syntax. I think that the two most important changes are digital proofing and the zero per unit cost of an image capture. Both of these mean that we can take risks with digital pictures that we might not have taken with film. Since there is instant feedback on the camera back I can work on an image and know how it will appear. I used to spend thousands of dollars on Polaroid materials each year for the same information. And now, each picture has no cost, until I print it. Each image used to have a specific cost, and different types of commercial photography integrated those costs differently. Wedding photographers used to keep the number of shots low in order to improve profitability, while fashion shooters word make a lot of images in order to improve their profitability. I would guess that we will continue to see more and better editing programs as we integrate this new syntax into our photography.


  1. […] Here is the original: Syntax @ Photo Notes […]

    Pingback by Syntax @ Photo Notes — May 23, 2009 @ 10:14 am

  2. […] here and here. I’ve been thinking about visual communication for the last few days. I wrote about photography as a language back at the beginning of this blog. Images have been important to communication since someone […]

    Pingback by Photo Notes — June 15, 2010 @ 2:01 pm

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