Thinking Visually

The Structure of Photographs

By Russel and Wendy Kwan



•        One of the ways we instinctively organize the complexity of the visual world is to group similar looking things together.
•        The obviousness of the group members in their context is important – if the members are not easily seen, the grouping is easily broken.
•        Not only are similar looking things grouped by our minds, but often, a relationship between the things is implied, and the group itself is seen as a single entity.
•        This is an opportunity to show not only relationships, but the individuality of the group members.



•        Our idea of the actual shape of 3D objects is an abstraction, built up in our minds through visual perception.
•        The mental model of the actual shape of an object in our visual field is built up of a series of observations as we apprehend the object from many angles.  This takes some time to happen, especially for unfamiliar objects.
•        Photography, in its single 2D view does not allow this process to happen at all.  This creates special problems for both the photographer and the viewer:  the photographer has to somehow insinuate the true shape of objects solely with viewpoint, and the viewer must somehow interpret that view.
•        The photographer can choose to show objects in a way that allows viewers immediate identification (and gratification) or not.  This is an opportunity:


Sharpening and Leveling

•        No, this has nothing to do with Photoshop.
•        Sharpening:  accentuating or exaggerating salient features to distinguish a particular object from its prototypes (its normal or general form).
•        Leveling:  diminishing or eliminating distinguishing characteristics to make a particular object universal (abstracting it to its normal or general form).
•        Our minds use sharpening and leveling to help remember the visual features of individuals and classes – this is how caricatures work.
•        Our minds automatically do this – but cameras don’t.
•        This is a major reason that pictures often don’t turn out like you thought you saw them.


Buzzword Questions for Photographers

•        Grouping:  Do your pictures deliberately suggest relationships by showing obviously similar objects in the same frame?
•        Continuation:  Do your pictures deliberately suggest (or not suggest) the complete 3D form of the objects in the frame?
•        Leveling and Sharpening:  Do your pictures deliberately seek to make objects look more “general” (leveling) or more “distinct or individual” (sharpening)?


Take-Home Assignment

•        Choose a favourite subject.  Just one subject, please.
•        Explore that subject along the axes of the ideas we have presented today:
–       Continuation: Show your subject in ways that make it very easy to identify, and then show it in ways making it very hard to identify.  Do this exclusively with viewpoint.  Example:  Make a duck look exactly, unmistakably like a duck.  Then, make a duck look like anything but a duck – using no tricks, just viewpoint.
–       Grouping: Show your subject as a member of a group.  Make sure your viewers can easily identify the group members.  See if you can find ways to show the group as a separate entity.  See if you can show more than one group in a single picture.  See if you can show some aspect of group behaviour.  Example:  Show ducks as a flock.  Make sure the boundaries of the flock are clear.  Make sure we can tell who’s in the flock, and who isn’t.  Show some aspect of flocking behaviour.
–       Leveling and Sharpening: Show your subject in as simple, universal a way possible (leveling).  Show your subject as a special, unique example of its class (sharpening).  Example:  Show a duck as a supreme, perfect, idyllic example of its species (leveling).  Show a duck as an individual, completely identifiable and separate from all the ducks around it (sharpening).
•        Don’t choose “ducks” as your subject, just because we used them as examples.  Choose something that has personal meaning for you.  (yes, it might turn out to be “ducks”)
•        Choose 3 pictures to show the group on review night.  Be prepared to talk a little about what you discovered.