How to look at photographs

By From page A5 | September 13, 2012

A photograph of a Death Valley sand dune can tell quite a story. Samer Alassaad/Courtesy photo

A photograph of a Death Valley sand dune can tell quite a story. Samer Alassaad/Courtesy photo

Check it out

What: Photography by Design: An introduction to experiencing the world in new ways

When: Fridays, Oct. 26 to Nov. 16, 10 a.m. to noon

Where: Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, 1909 Galileo Ct.

Cost: $45

Info: http://www.photoclubofdavis.org/PhotographyByDesign.cfm

By Samer S. Alassaad

We are constantly exposed to photographs in social media, magazines, newspapers, books and photography shows, either printed or in digital forms. When we see a photograph, we sometimes have the tendency to instantly determine whether we like it or not due to its subject or due to an obvious “wow” factor. We then could miss the opportunity to discover what would be a wonderful expression of a photographer’s viewpoint.

By knowing how to look at photographs, we can enhance our own experience and also the experience of those around us regardless of the subject. Three-steps have long been advocated to be followed when viewing photographs.

We first should simply describe what elements we see and how they are visually composed. For example, in the sand dune photograph, we see a sand dune and sky. The dune has a curving line and ripples created by the wind and has bright and dark areas created by side light. The curving line leads our eyes to the center of the image and at the same time separates the dark and bright areas. The sky, on the other hand, serves as a non-distracting background.

Secondly, we would interpret our descriptions; this addresses what our descriptions mean to us and how they make us feel. It is hard to feel loneliness around this sand dune although we are only surrounded by a simple element which is sand; the many shapes, shades and textures bring the sand alive in such a tranquil manner. The line defining the shadow is curving and thus could be soothing. However, its sharp edge adds tension, it is also a testament to nature’s ability to craft such crisp lines and thus is admirable. The harshness of the sunny area and of the dune’s texture is in contrast with the softness of the cool shadow. This interplay of harshness and softness of the desert life creates mixed feelings that could be fascinating. Interpreting photographs is slightly complex because we experience what is implied.

Finally, we can judge the photograph. Judging a photograph addresses its success by determining whether the elements and their presentation in the photograph support its purpose. For example, in the dune photograph, we would wonder if the photographer was successful in demonstrating the interplay of harshness and softness of the desert life and in communicating his feelings, which in this case could be solitude and serenity.

Looking at a photograph could be a journey of discovery similar to that of the photographer. It should not only be seen as a visual experience, but also as an experience of all senses. This would be possible when we let go of our preconceived perception of what a good photograph should look like.

— Samer Alassaad is a co-founder and past president of the photography club of Davis and a UCD-Extension Osher Lifelong Learning Institute photography instructor. Reach him at [email protected]

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