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On Reflection

An Essay on Seeing Photographically

Why do some images work and others don't? What are the ingredients for a successful photograph? Why is it so difficult to put into words something that we usually have an intuitive feel for? And if we recognize that feel, why is it so difficult for us to produce powerful and compelling images?

I believe that before one can effectively take photographs one must be able to know how to look at them — in other words, have something of an understanding of the visual language of photography.

Here are some reflections on the subject (pun intended), using the photograph below by way of example.

Reflection. Toronto, April, 2003
Canon S50 at ISO 100

Making It

This image was taken at a time when photography was the last thing on my mind. I was walking in the rain on my way to a dentist appointment. Not exactly an atmosphere or head space conducive to creativity. But I was literally stopped in my tracks by these reflections in a parked car's rear window. The geometric patterns were compelling and I immediately saw it as a photograph.

Fortunately I had a digicam in my pocket, the new 5MP Canon S50. It just took a moment to frame the shot and then continue on my way. But all through the rest of the afternoon the image stuck in my head, and whenever I had a chance I'd sneak the S50 out of my pocket and review the image on the LCD (What is that strange man doing Mommy?)

When I returned to my office and processed the image I was thrilled with the serendipity of it all. But as I was looking at a large print I started to ask myself — what is it about this image that is appealing, and what can be learned from it?

The Sum of The Parts

Let's look closely at Reflection above. You may wish to click on the image or here to see a larger version. Trying my best to see this as a critic rather than as the photographer that made it, here's what I see.

There appear to be some five layers to the content. The first thing that the viewer needs to do is to gain orientation. If one knows that this is a series of reflections in a car's rear window, that's a start. But if not it might take a few moments to orient oneself. When this is done the layers that become apparent are the glass covered in raindrops; the reflections of windows above that somehow appear to be beneath the glass, and the surfaces of the interior of the car. In addition, and on closer examination, there are reflections in the raindrops as well. Finally there are the red heater wires in the glass.

So much for what is seen. Now how does it make the viewer feel? My first reaction is that of disorientation. But this is quickly followed by some extended viewing, with my eye constantly roaming around the frame. It is only then that I start to appreciate the symmetry. There is no classical center of interest though. My eye flows across from left to right following the red lines, but then is captured by the sweep of the large reflections at the bottom of the frame. The strong vertical red wire leads my eye upward and then I find myself looking at and into the raindrops in the darkest upper left hand corner.

So, what is it that keeps the eye roaming and draws the viewer back into this image? Why is it something more than a mundane picture of raindrops on a car's windscreen?

Motion and Categories

I have to go back to the observation that the eye takes pleasure in motion, and the brain takes pleasure in puzzles. This image is more of a puzzle than most. People also like to categorize. Think about how when we see something new, and ask what it is, we are usually satisfied to simply have that object named. Just having a label is often enough. Here though we try and puzzle out the "meaning" of what we're seeing. What is it? What am I looking at? What's real and what's a reflection?

The motion aspect is created by having effectively no center of interest, yet at the same time several strong flowing graphic shapes that command attention by their sweep and curves. The eye almost can't stop moving from one to the other.

But is it Art?

Of course all of this begs the question — is it art? But, who really cares!? The important thing is, does it command your attention? Does it give pleasure and create any other strong emotion? If it does, then it is. If not, it fails. Maybe. Maybe not.

If you're interested in reading more about this subject a book titled The Nature of Photographs, by Stephen Shore is worth your attention.


This is essentially a straight photograph. No tricks. Just what was in front of the lens. I did use the Hue / Saturation slider in Photoshop to make the red lines of the heater wires in the glass slightly redder than they were in reality. Why? Because I wanted them be be a more effective part of the composition, also making the contrast with the predominantly monochromatic aspects of the image that much more evident.

If you'd like to comment on this image and essay; pro, con or otherwise, you can do so here on this site's Discussion Forum.

I have also placed three additional photographs online that you can use to practice your photographic "reading" skills.

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Concepts: Photography, Eye, Automobile, English-language films, Photograph, 1960s music groups, The Reflections, The Raindrops

Entities: Canon, Michael Reichmann, Stephen Shore

Tags: image, photographs, rear window, heater wires, raindrops, red lines, glass, new 5mp canon, puzzle, red heater wires, upper left hand, vertical red wire, viewer, intuitive feel, pleasure, parked car, compelling images, successful photograph, dentist appointment, visual language, larger version, closer examination, large reflections, geometric patterns, extended viewing, strange man, head space, important thing, large print, Stephen Shore, Saturation slider, strong emotion, No tricks, motion aspect, monochromatic aspects, graphic shapes, straight photograph, classical center, mundane picture, Discussion Forum