Is Photography a language? : LUSENET : Large format photography : One Thread

Someone brought up this issue in the "What is Criticism?" thread. I've been thinking about it and came to some obvious conclusions after a few days.

"Photography" is not a language. it is more akin to pen and paper (or stick and mud or , well you get the idea) . The pen and the paper don't know or care what "language' is being used: japanese, english, it is all grek to the paper and pen.

But some genres, mostly commercial photography, but also some forms of art, documentary, stock, photojournalistic and even erotic photography, are more akin to languages in that there are specific tropes and metaphors and similes that are expected, that are very useful, even expected by the viewer, in communicating the intellectual content & intent of the image.

Think about this for a minute, with reference to "fine art photography": the type of subject; the usual choice of media (large format black & white); the dramatic range of deep blacks through richly atmospheric shadows, detailed mid tones, up to the stratospheres of delicate highlights -- codified as the "Zone System" -- even the type of framing of the subject that is found acceptable- near/far compositions, etc.

Commercial photographs are expected to be boldly graphic.

I'm sure we can look at any set of random photographs and without much difficulty sort them into categories based on some not so random characteristics. sure some images cross over genres, but these are the exceptions, and usually are allowed when the audience is unsure of what to look for. we want these visual clues, we want to know how to respond, how to see , an image.

-- Ellis Vener (, December 27, 2001



I have been guilty of calling photography a language,but upon further thought, it should be called a form of communication, as I believe the word language is reserved for forms of communication that can be spoken or written rather than placed upon a medium by the use of silver salts or organic dyes.

I think that in many ways, photography can be used as a substitute for the written or spoken language. In your own commerical work, you are many times producing an image that says to the viewer "buy me", and by the same token a fine art nude photograph can convey to the viewer the beauty (or ugliness as the case may be)of a person's body better than many words can convey it.

The problem, or perhaps the benfit (as I see it) with any form of communication is that it can never be relied upon to be totally concise enough to convey the exact message, because we all think and feel just a little bit differently. You speak of the great themes in photography, and we all see these themes and have similar feelings and thoughts about them. But similar isn't the same, and never will be. And that is one of the beautiful things about photography. As viewers we don't necessarily have to place the same meaning upon the image as the maker of the image placed upon it, or we don't have to have the same feelings about the image as the maker had. We certainly may have close to those same meanings and feelings, but we have the freedom to choose whatever we desire.

Then the next question, I suppose, is whether that image can stand on its own. Or, Is it art. After all, when you really get right down to it, photography is basically about showing things to other people because it is physically impractical to actually get people to go with you to see the things you might to show them. So we substitute an "image" of the thing, and we then have to decide if it is "the thing" that is beautiful, ugly, or whatever, or is it the image of the thing that is beautiful, or ugly, or whatever. When the image satisfies as a substitution for the thing,(i.e stands on its own) then in my mind it becomes art.


-- Kevin Kolosky (, December 27, 2001.

I had said in the 'What is Criticism' that Art is the highest form of Communication, and that's certainly what Photography is, one of the highest forms of communication.

Spoken and written language are abstractions that give you a ment al 'picture' of something, an image skips over the speech and writing and is more specific than language. It's not talking about something, it's the very image itself.

Just as abstract as a letter, but more evocative, even though a photograph is on a two dimensional piece of paper like a letter. Each individual mind interprets this image differently just like two people listening to the same conversation will hear different things. Far from nothing, that's the something I was talking about.

-- Jonathan Brewer (, December 27, 2001.

Ellis, good question.

Language is a verbal representation of things and abstracts. When I say 'horse' you think about a certain mammal. The sound 'horse' only refers to the animal, but obviously isn't the animal itself.

There are different languages in the way that when I see a horse I (as a Dutchman) say 'paard'. And there are different meanings of the word horse, as a wealthy girl thinks about riding, an old farmer about working and a butcher about meat. (I.e. the difference between denotation and connotation).

In denotation photography is quite a universal language. An image of a horse is a horse for every human being (who has ever seen a horse! Art is not that universal, one has to have learnt to interpret tow demensional images and have enough knowledge of the world). And no one who sees an image of a young unclothed girl thinks it is a boy (allthough the word 'girl' could denotate a boy in some African language). But the connotation of the image will differ wildly between a western man and say a Talib or a gynocologist for that matter.

So 'is photography a language' can only be answered if we first talk about what a language is. And what is photography? The molecules in the photographic paper, the way we record things, the way we communicate things visually.

I hope my English is good enough to say (or should I say 'express'?, or 'tell'?) what I want...

-- Wim van Velzen (, December 27, 2001.

Roland Barthes postulated that photography is a "half-language". But don't ask me to explain... it's a hell of a long time since I read it. Also, I believe that John Berger picks up on this in Another Way of Telling (imho - one of the best books about what photography is)

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-- Tim Atherton (, December 27, 2001.


What a great question! I remember having quite a passionate discussion with a Teaching Assistant in a first year Communication class at Simon Fraser University about whether photography was a language with it's own 'syntax' of conventions. This discussion still informs my views about visual representation today.

An earlier poster defined language as verbal representation. It is accurate to apply this to photography and say that it is a medium of visual representation. A photograph cannot place someone in a particular place and time, it can only interpret that space/time moment and represent it two dimentoinally. Because photography is a form of representation there are descisions that the photographer must make about the scene in front of the camera. What lens/perspective/format to use? B&W or Colour? If colour what should I add or take away (filters, lighting etc.)? What should be included in the frame? What should be excluded?

In short, as photographers we make decisions - whether implicitly or explicitly about the construction of our images that inform the 'subtext' of the resulting photograph and create meaning.

Let's say that we were photojournalists assigned to cover a strike. The news editor is siding with big business and wants to villify the strikers. The photographer decides to shoot from below with a very wide lens so that the strikers loom over the lens, uses flash to give the faces 'monster light' and make the sky behind them look dark and threatening. That photograph is very different than if the news editor had asked the photographer to sympathize with the striking workers.

Big network national television news sets are constructed and lit very carefully to convey a sense of credibility. Generally they employ darker hues of green, brown, blue, grey etc. Colours that convey calm moods where logic and reason prevail over brash and bold sensationalism. Sensationalist and 'hypeish' sets use more saturated colours and more glamourous lighting. The yellow/orange sets of 'Entertainment Tonight' and 'E!' come immediately to mind.

I truly believe that photographers who are effective communicators are tuned in to the 'syntax' of visual communication and make decisions about how to represent their subjects based on the idea(s) they wish to communicate. I think if we really disect the media environment around us we will start to see a whole system of representation that we use to instantly set up relationships amongst the elements of our photographs.

Yes I believe that photography is a language; not as overtly defined as the spoken/written ones, but just as effective in the hands of a skilled practitioner.

-- Dominique Labrosse (, December 27, 2001.

In a broad sense, yes, photography is a language. It can communicate ideas ranging from the literal (The car hit the pole and the right front quarter panel is crumpled) to the emotional (Whoa! Look at those sunflowers! I've never seen anything so beautiful!) to the subliminal (Buy the new 2002 Mondo GT and the pretty girl in the front seat will have sex with you). These modes (and others) are often mixed and can display an astonishing variety of nuance.

Like all languages, it assumes that the sender and receiver are using a common set of symbols. Photographers and other artists often play with these symbols. We print the sky down to black or photograph the human body so that it looks like a landscape. Part of the fun is the ambiguity, in the surprise it offers to the viewer. Wow, a black sky! Feels kind of strange, but I like it! Even when we're being fairly literal, the viewer brings his own context and filters and often responds in ways the photographer could not anticipate. Everyone carries in their head an intricate and complex virtual reality simulation, no two of which are alike. When you think about it, it's a wonder we can communicate at all.

If you've got some time on your hands, check out two books by Stephen Pinker, "The Language Instinct" and "How the Mind Works". They're not about photography, but they are about communication, perception and consciousness. Reading them might not make you a better photographer, but you will come away with a new appreciation for the magic that goes on inside your head.

Good light in 2002, everyone.

-- Kevin Bourque (, December 27, 2001.

Is photography a language... language is a sequential, linear, left- brained form of communication; visual images, on the other hand, are communicated in a holistic, simultaneous, right-brained process that is very different from the way language is processed. So if photography is a language, it's a different kind of language than what we usually mean by language.

Someone said in another thread (I can't go back and look for the exact wording without losing what I've started here, so I'll paraphrase and hope I'm not too far off) that it's a mistake to try to read a photograph like a text, and I couldn't agree more. There was a review of John Cohen's work (I have to admit I'd never heard of him) in the NY Times recently; the reviewer said of a photograph taken from behind and above of a man walking down a dark staircase in an apartment building: "You wonder who he is, you wonder if his visit to the apartment he's just left was a success or a failure, you wonder where he's going next, you wonder.... etc etc" and I was thinking as I was reading this, no, I don't wonder any of those things. If I wanted a short story, I'd read Raymond Carver. I don't look for a short story, essay, or any kind of narrative in pictures, and I don't like the kind of pictures that seem to evoke narrative or require some kind of text explanation. In my opinion, visual images should communicate visually rather than through some text mediation; if they don't they are illustrations rather than images in their own right.

On the other hand, pictures can serve as metaphors, so they can serve the same purposes as language sometimes serves, but I think in a different way.

By now my darkroom should be up to temperature, so enough of this philosophizing. My 2cents.....

-- Katharine Thayer (, December 27, 2001.

Peel away the veneer and the fact is that a Photographer holds his camera a certain way, fires the shutter a certain way, dials in a certain exposure, manipulates light, interprets what he sees and 'catches' that interpretation in his camera.

The image communicates suggestions about what the image the photographer took, and about the photographer him/herself, when we enjoy how the image was done, we've gotten 'something' about the message and the messenger.

You run into an old friend whose had a baby you've never laid eyes on, and you ask her to tell you about her kid. The minute she starts talking the baby, her demeanor, expression, voice, tells you not only about her kid, but conveys a message about her.

She's communicated everything she possibly can, but then you ask her if she's got a picture of her baby in her purse, so that you can get an idea of what the baby looks like, which cannot be visualized from spoken language.

-- Jonathan Brewer (, December 27, 2001.

If an individual has been blind since birth, there is no way someone could give that individual a 'mental picture' of a Rose or its red color, with a verbal description.

This individual can understand written and spoken language, but without his/her having experienced the Rose, the references won't give that individual an idea of what the object is.

A picture is an abstraction, a reference and communication about something, unlike language it tells you and shows you.

Now I'm gonna go play with my kids.

-- Joanthan Brewer (, December 27, 2001.

Yes, Photography is a language. Just as any other language or form of communication there are different levels of expertise & understanding.

-- Dan Smith (, December 27, 2001.

Certainly photography (or any art form) can be called a language under the definition, "...a systematic means of communicating ideas or feelings by the use of conventional signs, sounds, gestures, or marks having understood meanings," (Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition).

Now, I'm not sure what point you're trying to make. However, understanding that any language (verbal or visual) has a lot to do with the "understood meanings" portion of definition. For example, even the English language is rife with different meanings depending upon the person's background. In British English, a "bonnet" can refer to the hood of a car while here in the U.S. the word is generally used to reference a cap or hat. Even further, certain American Indian tribes cannot talk with other members of the same tribe because different dialects are spoken in different parts of the reservation.

So, now we get to sorting the random photographs. For whom are we sorting the photographs and where and by whom have the photos been made? I'm sure that a person from Mongolia would have a very difficult time trying to understand the language contained in a Ralph Eugene Meatyard photograph while they make perfect sense to me.

When I look at photos from all over the world, there are some I understand and others that I don't. But, in the end, it really comes down to whether the photograph is visually interesting or boring - that's the true language of visual images.

-- steve (, December 27, 2001.

Photography is not a language in the real sense of the word because there is no formal set of symbols or grammatical rules for combining these symbols together. Yes, there are expectations (ie. advertising vs. fine art) and deeply rooted styles but these are often changed and evolved in ways that would be impossible with a formal language.

We could certainly classify photographs into categories (landscape, portrait, commercial, fine art) but this is classification, not language. There is a difference between the two. Music is an art form that can be easily classified but also contains a language that has nothing to do with the classification system. For instance, a musician will use the same notation whether they are composing a classical piece or Britney Spear's latest gem.

I think the Zone System would *barely* qualify as a language, but it doesn't really say much meaningful (and many photographers don't use it, which rules it out as a starting point for developing a photography language). I don't think that a zone missing from a photograph would take much away from any message the photographer is trying to get across. Composition, then, is where the meaning is transmitted, and I think the same rules that are found in other visual mediums (film, painting) also apply to photograph in terms of angles, framing, etc. Also, how you exhibit your work and what other pieces are nearby will affect the meaning of your piece -- much more than the zone system. Photographs are rarely found by themselves, almost always accompanied by other photos that influence how you interpret the piece.

So, basically what I guess I'm trying to say is that since photographers tend to bend the rules a lot and don't always use the same techniques, there's pretty much no hope of establishing a formal photographic language where meaning can be inferred from anything other than composition and presentation. The visual cues we use to interpret images are shared with cinema and painting, they do form a language that is heavily influenced by popular culture and are not particular to photography.

-- David Leblanc (, December 27, 2001.

While the issue of whether a Photographic image is a form of 'language' may be problematic for some folks, there's no doubt that it's a form of communication. Steve is right, some images work and some fail as communication, same with Painting, Poetry, scupture, and so forth.

Photography...the ultimate 'show and tell', it can communicate and/or show what the spoken and written word can't. Bottom line is that it's all a play on words, since Photography 'speaks a language all its own'.

-- Jonathan Brewer (, December 27, 2001.

Hi Ellis & Others,

When we describe Photography as a language we speak metaphorically. To validate my point, permit me to quote the Oxford English Dictionary:

"Language: 1a. A system of human communication using words, written and spoken, and particular ways of combing them; any such system employed by a community, a nation, etc. 1b, (transferred) A mode of communication by inarticulate sounds used by lower animals, birds, etc. 1c. (transferred) A non-verbal method of human communication , as gesture or facial expression, hand-signing, etc.; a means of artistic expression, as dance, music, or means of artistic expression, as dance, music, or painting. ...."

By extension we can safely include photography under 1c. although it is advantageous to keep in mind that in the dictionary's description of 1b. & 1c. as 'transferred' they infer that the use is metaphoric. Quoting again:

"Metaphor: 1. A figure of speech in which a name or descriptive word or phrase is transferred to an object or action different from, but analogous to, that to which it is leterally applicable; an instance of this, a metaphorical expression. 2. A thing considered as representative of some other (usu. abstract) thing; a symbol."

Many of the responses in the thread have been ponderings and circumlocutions exploring the semantics of the expression: perhaps unnecessarily when, by definition, photography can be considered a language.

To say that the "Zone System" itself is a language, on the other hand, is possibly taking things a little too far. I prefer to consider the Zone System akin to Calligraphy, Hand Writing, Penmanship, etc. The visual effect of a particular application of the Zone System may influence the revelation of the narrative depicted in the photograph just as the choice of the script, or font, of a text may place that text in a 'setting'. Both the Zone System and Calligraphy are simply mechanical processes that provide the vehicle through which our metaphoric language finds realisation. They are neither vocabulary nor grammar.

Peace, health, wealth and happiness for 2002 ... Walter

-- Walter Glover (, December 27, 2001.

Ever see someone in person or in a photograph that had an expression that was indescribable? Or hard to describe? If you attempted to put such an expression into words, it would take a lot of thought and a lot of verbage. No matter what you put into words about the expression it would probably never equal what you're seeing in person or in a photograph.

That's why you can say so much one photograph, and why it takes a pretty thick book to do justice to the work of somebody like Edward Weston. Photography is a form of communication that is unspoken so it doesn't have any of the structure of English or Spanish, and that's why it can transmit so much in one image(or exprression).

A blind person since birth gets some miracle operation that restores his sight. He'd always wanted to know what a rose looked like. A friend shows up to take him out of the hospital, and tells him, 'by the way here's a picture of a rose'. That image(a straight and unstylized shot) of a rose would give him a fairly good idea of what a rose was, as opposed to his friend giving him a poem about flowers.

Each individual Artform can express/communicate things in ways the other can't. Is it a case of several threads in this post being circumlocutory(Websters Collegiate Dictionary 1. The use of unnecessarily large number of words to express an idea. 2. An evasion in speech)? Or is it going to be hard coming up with words when talking about an Artform that can be inscrutable.

Circumlocution! I tell ya Walter, I love that word.

-- Jonathan Brewer (, December 27, 2001.


An aside to your formerly blind man and the photo of the rose - I recall reading years ago a study about primitive peoples and their perception of photographs.

In short, we are conditioned, probably from early childhood, to identify the subject of a photograph as a representation of that subject. In field studies, however, it was found that tribal Africans who had never seen a photograph could not identify the subject of the photograph but only a rectangle with tones and marks on it. This was done with photographs of animals and plants readily known to them. Similarly, a cat will show fascination with its own image in a mirror but cannot relate at all to a photograph of itself.

It would be an extremely interesting study to determine the initial perceptions of the formerly sightless to all visual matter and especially to photographs. Are there any clinical research scientists on the forum that might steer us in the appropriate direction?

Isn't the potential of the WWW great?

Happy New Year ... Walter

-- Walter Glover (, December 28, 2001.

Walter.....Yes, given those cultural circumstances for those individuals you are right. I wouldn't be familiar with any cognitive studies regarding this, I am familiar with African culture.

In Africa you run the whole gamut from Africans who live close to a primitive existence off the land or off cattle to Africans who live in a urban envirement. I would just add that while some African farmers and/those that raise cattle, while being technilogically primitive, many have very sophiticated/advanced social systems.

There was for instance a Tribal/group in Africa whose language had no word for 'thief' or 'stealing', because they could not conceive of those kinds of things. So what you're alluding to is probably true if the group you referring to could not conceive of what a photograph does.

I would also add that African sculpture, works of gold, 'masked rituals' whose origins come from the culture/religion of the Yoruba which is over 5000 thousand years old, which encompasses much of Africa, allows for the concept of the metaphor.

Now that you've mentioned it, I would be curious to see some studies along the lines you've mentioned.

Happy Holidays

-- Jonathan Brewer (, December 28, 2001.

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