Shannon Ebner’s forum comments on Charlotte Cotton’s recent “Tip of the Tongue” article sent me to revisit Stephen Shore’s The Nature of Photographs. This is a slim — no, lean — book that should be available to anyone who wants to approach their picture-making and picture-appreciation in a thoughtful way. It is a remarkable book not only in its direct economy but also in that it so deliberately and successfully provokes you towards moments of personal insight and reflection as you are reading it.
If you’ve never seen it, set aside the rest of this post, go to the bookstore or the nearest library.
Shore’s formal description of photography contains three basic layers: physical, depictive, and mental — with the depictive layer further described along axes of flatness, frame, time, and focus. For my own sensibility, I gently adjust Shore’s heirarchy by adding a fifth dimension to that depictive level: tone.
A shared attribute of all four of Shore’s depictive characteristics is that they present the photographer with boundaries, edges which the photographer can exploit (or push against) as depictive tools. A photograph’s flatness is a limitation and a fundamental part of its nature. So to are the frame edges, the contained aspect of photographic time, and the specificity of mechanical monocular focus. All describe restrictive attributes of the photographic window.
So too tone. Whether black and white, full color, false color — the tonal range is never truly natural, nor merely a physical attribute (as Shore has cast it). It is a tool of photographic depiction. We can push against it by altering exposure, rendering full blacks or whites (as do many of the sample photos in Shore’s book) — essentially framing the unbounded color range of the real world within the space of what a photograph can represent. Both in shooting and printing, we can choose the tones of objects realtive to one another to direct attention. Enhance contrast and saturation or suppress it (but never fully escape it, save by reducing the photo to a blank sheet).