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Updated: Jul 9, 2022












We all want to understand the “meaning” of art, but telling someone how to arrive at that understanding is about as easy as telling someone how to understand the meaning of clouds. My concern with this is to be able to embrace both the “instinctive” reaction and the “studied” reaction, without having either exclude the other.

In other places and discussions, I’ve said that there are two kinds of people in the world: people who think about what they feel, and those who feel about what they think. This is just a device I invented for myself, to remind myself that neither one is subordinate to the other.

Looking at photographs, we are as likely to react in one of the above ways as in the other, except for being swayed by something in the moment. For example, it’s fascinating that an image that seems mundane on a table top suddenly seems very significant when picked up and positioned on a wall inside a gallery. It’s the same picture – but, what happened?

Said loosely but explicitly, the context of viewing the picture changed. We can do deep examinations of the image itself, but that is never sufficient without considering how it will get seen in display. Will it be presented with a foregoing introduction, or does it need no introduction? Will similarity to other pictures make it more accessible or instead obscure important differences? Does the viewer come to it with an “open mind” or with predispositions that feel necessary?

The potential gap between an expectation and a first impression can predispose everything that is noticed afterward. And the potential gap between a first impression and subsequent ones is what may make enduring experiences out of seeing pictures. Experienced image-makers are aware of both gaps and decide what (if anything) to do about them.

Saying that a picture gives enduring experiences is another way of saying that it can “have a life of its own”... But on that point, one of the key challenges a picture faces is how much the first impression commands the interest of the viewer.

The strength of that command may stem from anything between a fetish on the one end of a spectrum, and a necessity on the other. Or between taste and vital news; or maybe sophistication and naivete. Said yet another way, some images “work” because they are tailored to a certain first impression; others because they overtly fight against it – and what lies between may or may not require choosing sides.

The topic here: what makes people pay attention to pictures? What are they really doing when they do? And how does that wind up “making sense” of the picture?

As both a maker and viewer of photography, I evolved a practice of looking at the same work repeatedly to allow an understanding to kick in. It involves looking for different things each time, then finally “letting the chips fall where they may”. For me, this is not “seeing” the picture; it is reading it.


Each time we come to a work, we might treat it as an object held in hand; we might keep turning it around to look at it from different angles. By analogy, each of those angles – those points-of-view -- largely pre-exist in our minds, but at any given time many things determine which perspective we bring to the looking.

From the different viewings, the mind begins creating a composite idea of the image. That composite – whether it consists of many perspectives or few -- is, in effect, the “meaning” of the image that time.

Most of the time, most people do not read most images. Why? Because images—whether in an ad, a story, an Instagram post, or even an exhibit —are most often presented to us in a context that is already trying to tell us how to experience the image. We are supposed to buy, remember, click a heart emoji , or feel cultured. The image is offered as a product for a consumer – already finished, no work on it left to be done, functional.

Reading the image is therefore an intentional exercise. It gets rid of the default consumer attitude and shifts the attention from “What the maker wants the image to be” and "What I want the image to be" to "What the image wants to be." We allow the image to somehow speak for itself instead of us telling it what to do.

Now, I'm not saying that this must be done. I'm saying that there is a big difference between doing it and not doing it.

The first step in the exercise is to ask ourselves what knowledge we bring to bear from our prior experience, the instant the image comes into view. Let’s take an image of a bicycle. Do we own a bicycle? Do we understand a bicycle’s function? Do we grasp the mechanical aspects of a bicycle? Did we own a bicycle in the past? Do we have childhood memories of a bicycle? Because of our experiences, does the bicycle hold emotional valence for us? Is it a symbol—of athleticism, freedom, the simple life?

On the other hand, what if we’ve never seen a bicycle before? What kinds of things would predispose us to recognize what the thing "is," what it "does," what that might "mean"? If we have general mechanical knowledge, we might figure out that the structure of the thing will effect locomotion. But will we also deduce that the structure is for endurance versus speed, or riding in a city, or riding on a country road, or riding off-road? If we lack mechanical knowledge, is all of that interpretive potential even there? Clearly this affects what we think the image is showing us, and maybe even why.

Whether or not we’re familiar with a bicycle, the next questions ask whether the image imparts additional knowledge to us. Might the image actually generate an additional experience, whether that is a repetition of the familiar, a new possibility previous bikes have not dangled before us, or some new flight of imagination?

OK, enough of the bicycle. That is simply a subject, a thing in the image, not the image in its totality. The next part in the exercise of reading the image is to pay attention to how the image tries to show us what we see – how the image is "built."


As a viewer trying to sense the maker’s effort, mentally recomposing the image is one part of reading it. This consideration calls for noticing – even testing or arguing -- the vast array of decisions that the maker took. Could the picture have been built differently yet still have the same effect? Or -- for that matter –have a predictable other effect?

To test it, now we must mentally take the image apart and put it back together again – both its structure, and its apparent purpose.

This effort will NOT be the same for people who either have little experience of this type of image or don't know how to make images themselves. Their perspectives are simply too limited to start emulating the process that the artist used in making the myriad decisions that led to the final form.

But what all people can be told beforehand, regardless of their experience, is that every image begins life as a blank surface (a white page, a dark viewfinder). Over time, in the end, the artist has taken responsibility for anything that is left on the surface.

So what about how the image maker decided to use things in the image?

Mainly, it involves whether to include or exclude some object, or to play up or subdue any of a number of characteristics in evidence like parts or wholes, shapes, position, size, light, color, or empty space, when organizing the image as a final composition. Each of those choices at minimum is a decision to not use other possibilities.

Above: "old-school" image editing before printing, in the pre-digital Film era. Any part of a picture, or even the whole picture, would be examined for its fitness as part of a final presented image. Digital images make these decisions nearly trivial to implement in a composite image.

That is, think of the resulting construction as something cultivated from many options, “extracted” and brought together on the image surface. While the conventional discussion of this is called “editing”, I call this extraction "drawing", in the same sense that we can draw (pull) anything from the material or circumstances of a surrounding.

(Speaking as a photographer: to me, it goes by definition that available light is doing “drawing” as if it is a pen; while the eye, with the camera, extracts ("draws") what is meaningful from what is visible.)


This sensitivity to cultivating the arrangement of the image characteristics gives us better awareness that they generate certain intentional effects.

Logically, like the ingredients in a recipe, the effects in turn tell us how the image wants to influence us. Or said differently, they tell us how the picture wants to “Per-Form”.

This is of course what a picture’s very first viewer – it’s maker – is experiencing with the image.

But makers and observers, who are both viewers, can share most aspects of that experience.

As viewers, once we have a sense of what influence the image intrinsically wants to have, we next think about the “external” factors -- WHY and WHERE the impact of that influence might matter as a viewing experience. Things that stand out or that matter in one set of viewing conditions – the context – may not matter the same way (or even at all) in another one.

Let’s take a single given image, featuring, say, a dagger , In theory, that picture could serve any number of purposes, ranging for example from crime scene evidence to historical souvenir to marketing collateral to art gallery showpiece.

It's the same image in each case; but each respective viewing context immediately pushes the viewer to "read" it a certain way.

As evidence, the size and shape and apparent weight of the dagger might be most noticed, because of the importance of knowing that. As a souvenir, the image’s details that associate the dagger with its origin or location may count more. To a marketer, details of its style and visible suggestions of being in use could make it represent some story or other manner of being valuable. And so on…

This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-SA-NC


As an image maker, one might begin with attention to what will make a “good” crime scene image, or a “good” marketing shot, or “good” for whatever certain purpose is foreseen. The anticipated use of the image is the imagined context of its presentation.

In that case, the maker may favor certain characteristics – certain compositional choices – that are expected to be more compatible with the objective of using the image. Importantly, that purpose (a context) usually exists before the image does. The purpose does not care whether the image "presented" for the purpose is created in the heat of the moment or found pre-existing elsewhere and recruited to serve it.

If we take a given image and start re-purposing it across the multiple contexts (points-of-view), we may notice certain characteristics more in one context than when when we view it in another, but all the characteristics are in the picture all the time. And as we become aware of some of them here and others there, all the characteristics of the given image collectively become more explicit to us.

Reading the image includes mentally considering which of its characteristics are responsible for supporting an intended use of the image.

Having more experiences that way with images builds our familiarity with how effects and purposes match, and those associations become a “language” of the picture.

Language, of course, is an instrument specifically developed to allow communication to create shared recognition of a meaning. While we usually think of language in terms of words, visual language has the same purpose.

The experienced image maker understands this beforehand. Because of that, the maker can consciously choose – or at least instinctively decide – to select and arrange the effects in a rhetorical manner for generating an intentional influence.


This is not just about the image "affecting" the viewer; the influence is the beginning of what most people think of as the "meaning" of the image. As viewers, we have a response to the influence; our response completes the sense of the “meaning”.

The critical issue in our response is a matter of balance. The balance is a result of whether our response is predisposed by something before we view the picture, whether the picture succeeds in directing how we respond, and how the co-incidence of those two things affects what we acknowledge and think the picture is doing (or as we conventionally put it, what the picture is “saying”).


The next part of reading the image is consideration of how it is “performing” in the purpose assigned by the viewing context.

Is this picture from a high school yearbook, a police file, an acting audition, or a magazine cover? When we look at a picture, we may already have a certain purpose or expectation in mind and it likely affects how we read the image.

In this case, the person shown (Lindsay Lohan) is a world famous actor and singer who is also a very expensive fashion model, a convicted lawbreaker, a business executive, and a recovering alcoholic. This image was created by a police department as a mug shot; but it is very “portable” across different expectations of different viewers.

The most likely situation is that people who did not already know what she looks like will read the picture in terms of why they are told they should see it. They will notice the characteristics that “fit” their expectation, and other characteristics will go relatively unnoticed. But if they are told to expect something different, the picture will seem different because other things will be more noticed.

A fashion photographer, conventionally, will make pictures of Lohan that include visual cues specifically to influence the viewers attention and interest towards glamour. Or in a step further, if a photographer intends to address an audience that is already very familiar with both glamour and Lohan, the photographer may aim for getting attention – with the first impression – by intentionally contrasting against those expectations, presenting the widely recognized Lohan to a fashion audience in a stripped-down look, and in that way arguing that the look is true to Fashion; Fashion is about making difference and change desirable.

In a different example, with photography, we might realize that a super-colorful microscopic laboratory image of bacteria, enlarged and framed, works well as a great piece of abstract art, not only as a scientific record. For one viewer, not knowing that it is showing bacteria may be important to the way the image can affect the viewer. But for another viewer, knowing that it is showing bacteria might increase the picture’s appeal by emphasizing that experiencing nature is very compelling or proposing that “nature is an artist”. Those are all types of “artistic experiences” that we have, knowing that something was not just found to be a certain way but made to be that way.

Bacteria (micro-organisms):



Artworks are made somewhere, in a studio, a spare room, on a piece of land, in a factory or some lab. Wherever, it may or may not ever make it out of that place of origin. Before it has an audience other than the maker, it must be exposed. Unless it is merely discovered somehow, we might call the work released, exhibited, or some other verb, but any of which means the work is presented.

Most deliberate efforts to present artwork include telling the viewer what POV to bring as an audience. Advertising pushes provocative or sensitive messages to “frame” a product's appeal. Captions appear in news papers or magazines. Wall labels at galleries and museums give mini-essays, or quite nearly instructions, on why something makes a work important. Typically, the Presenter, such as an exhibitor, seller, magazine, or other agent of exposure, has a vested interest in the Viewer agreeing with the Presenter's objectives. And of course, agreement validates the presenter’s effort as being valuable in some way. The question for the presenter is, what does it take to get the viewer to agree?

When the Maker is the presenter, the usual assumption is also that the maker intends for the viewer to have a certain experience.

That assumption makes a viewer’s knowledge about the Maker a part of the context of seeing the picture -- and therefore also a part of how characteristics in the picture are noticed. In effect, the assumption establishes the basis for experiencing virtual communication with the maker. This communication raises recognition of the maker as a go-to provider of the type of experience obtained.

Having a loyal audience is valuable to the maker. That loyalty increases the audience’s familiarity with the maker an raises sensitivity to how the maker has made choices.

However, a picture does not necessarily offer such communication.

We may read a picture with no knowledge of the maker or maker’s intent. That case simply means the context of viewing – the elements that make up our perspective and predisposition -- is different for us than for viewers who know the maker.

Further, when we read a picture, we may even conclude that it is essentially a new thing in the world that has no intended purpose other than to be experienced as a discovery, a catalyst, or an entirely new idea -- that is, an experiment with a potential of changing how we can experience things.


Because of what motivates a Maker, an awful lot of art has a dominant objective, which is to set the way you experience things.

The maker can consciously choose to work more with existing expectations, or more against them. This intentionality can take several different directions or modes. Modes are ways that the picture intentionally relates to the viewer’s prior experiences. Aside from a default “documentary” or “evidentiary” mode, there are three important other ones.

When the picture is used to present an alternative but identifiable experience, I call this the Philosophical mode. It expands your knowledge by giving you a way to have an unfamiliar experience of something thought to be familiar.



(c) Copyright Cindy Sherman



There are two other primary modes: the Celebratory and the Analytic.

The Celebratory amplifies the experiences already being brought to an image by the viewer. For example, we are accustomed to scenic images that reproduce and emphasize the sensations and moods we may have in the environment.

Similarly, portraiture of famous people or coverage of events aim to convey our direct experience of the subject, not just the recognition. Even a still life qualifies here.

Famous Movie Star

Famous Athlete

The Analytic critiques, deconstructs, or otherwise subverts prior experience without providing a replacement; it just wants to break all your habits and free you up to create or recognize new experiences beyond what you already desire or know. The newness may or may not persist as much for one viewer as for another but that is not an issue for the maker.

Twiggy “Heroin Chic” vs. "beauty" conventions

Guy Bourdin vs. fashion tableau

Jan Groover still life

Picasso portrait

These modes (evidentiary, philosophical, celebratory, analytic) are not the same as “genres”.

In fact, they do not predict what the picture will finally look like, because as intentions they are more influences on the maker’s decisions than they are required final outcomes. And, in making a given picture, they are not mutually exclusive.

The importance of them in reading the picture is that they can make us as viewers more sensitive to our predispositions – those experiences that we bring with us to the viewing of the picture. But reading a picture gives us a conscious opportunity to consider holding or relaxing our predispositions as we allow the picture to show its characteristics to us. In that way, we more actively participate in a real-time re-creation of the picture in our mind.


Finally, then, we must talk about those other parties who mediate between us as viewers and the image, who deign to tell us what the image means. We arrive at the respective functions of the Reviewer, the Collector, the Critic, the Curator, and the Editor -- all of whom operate beyond the origination of the image by the Maker and mediate the relationship of the Made to the Seen.

· The Reviewer may say to some audience, "Hey, this new show has pretty good work for people who like x, y, and z."

· The Collector says, "I gotta get one of those; in fact I want the *best* one."

· The Critic says, "Here's what the artist was trying to do in/with this piece, but here's what actually happened."

· The Curator says, "Works done by artists trying to do X or Y vary in how they got it done, but despite the variations the commonality among the works is evident."

· The Editor says, "Some of the variations are much more important than others to defining and refining the maker’s effort. But I have a particular situation in which I need to display pieces representing my own POV on what matters."

Those roles are not mutually exclusive in practice. An audience may attend to more than one of them at a single time or over time. And of course some individuals practice multiple roles concurrently.

But most audiences are easily confused about the differences of the roles and are cowed by the “authority” of their pronouncements. Many presentations basically tell the audience that we don't need to differentiate between the roles, and we don’t need to read the image on our own, either. Because, they say, "We're gonna tell you why to appreciate something,” or “We're going to price it the same, regardless."

The important matter here is that when we as viewers pay attention to the differences between these roles – these various types of mediators -- we realize that they become part of our experiences and part of the predisposition that we next bring to seeing pictures – in counterpoint to what the maker may intend. or to what the picture de facto shows.


Reading an image mainly means actively considering the variety of ways that our perception of the image is affected by the will of the maker, the presenter, and our pre-disposed selves as the starting point of forming a full experience of the picture’s presence.

This more intensive involvement with the picture does not mean that there is a right way to understand the picture. Instead, it means that there is a higher probability of noticing ways that the maker may be distinctive, the image may be unique, or that the impact may be special, even if the picture initially seems uninteresting.

Naturally, if not always, we enjoy the desirably familiar; we’re curious about the unusual; and we appreciate becoming more sophisticated. Loosely parallel, then, the three modes of images – celebratory, analytical, and philosophical – readily offer value to us as viewers.

And while this next thought is not the main point of this discussion, there is also something to be noted about how our relationship to images changes over time due to reading them.

Reading images creates an experience of them that, through repetition, we can easily find desirable and familiar (that is, celebrate). But because we are reading, we may also investigate (analyze) that prior experience, with the result being an expansion of what we discover is possible to experience (that is, “come to know”, or philosophy).

So it is from that process that fully engaging our experience of viewing echoes the key ways that the image may individually influence us – but moreover, this: that celebration can become more sophisticated; that analysis can become more insightful; and that philosophy can likewise become more enriched; overall, making images more powerful as we increasingly learn to really “see” what we’re looking at.

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