On Reading of Photographs


When looking at photographs by legendary photographers, sometimes I am in awe of them, and at times, I just don’t get it. What am I doing wrong?

Answer by: Nrupen Madhvani, Editorial and Conceptual Photographer

There is no simple answer to this question, but one thing is certain, you are not doing anything wrong when you question visual content.

It is wrong, however, when you are judgmental and dismiss an image because you lack the ability to process it at an intellectual level, or worse, at an emotional level. This may be a bitter pill to swallow, but yes, there is a whole bunch of creative people out there who are doing fine visually, but they lack emotional intelligence. That said, being awestruck is a familiar feeling to us all. It should not, however, prevent you from being objective.

The initial reaction is to place all the images shot by the photographers you love, on an alter-like pedestal, but in the long run, the ability to critique an image will allow you to grow and then go out and create some magic of your own.

To make it clearer, take cricket as an example. It is often said that the great batters look at the ball, not the bowler. Some deliveries require a tactical approach, and some just let go. I have immense respect for the legendary photographers who have inspired me, but that doesn’t mean I have to like all their images.

You must look for what speaks to you in a photograph. Then look at it again, after a suitable interval. Does it communicate something different from the earlier viewing?

Curiosity is an important part of being creative. Usually, questions lead to clarity. Sometimes, they may also lead to confusion. That’s part of the journey. It will help a lot if you understand that you do not have to get it right, all the time.

Some images are easier to understand because the message is universal, and some are misunderstood because they deal with issues that are radically different from
our own experiences. For example, when I see a photoessay by Sebastião Salgado, there is an emotional connect. His work transcends boundaries.It’s about the human condition. I am able to empathise, even though the situations depicted are alien to my own life experiences.

On the other hand, when I look at the abstract images by a photographer like Jerry Uelsmann, I can see that they require some thought. They have a surreal quality. Another photographer that comes to mind is Cindy Sherman. Her work is gendersensitive. It is also about stereotypes from the female point-of-view, perspectives that are as relevant today as it was when she conceived them. She expresses this through self-portraiture. She disappears into her work.

We often say that art is subjective. No doubt it is, but our job, as artists, is to do a bit of reverse engineering. This process enables the transition of an image from a two-dimensional state, into the third dimension. After all, a photograph is a sum of its parts. As photographers and artists, we need to continuously search for our identity. We add more meaning to our lives through our visuals. It doesn’t matter if the pictures are constructed or intuitive. It doesn’t matter which genre or generation they are from. There is one unifying factor—a common ground—and that is to communicate.

Here is my final thought on this query. Legendary photographers don’t think about the historical value of their images when they are making them. They just immerse themselves in the task at hand. It’s about being in the present. Had they thought about the future, do you think they would have been where they are now? Legendary images don’t have to shout. Sometimes they just whisper a sweet something. Whichever way you look at it, it’s important to have a dialogue. That is the big picture.

This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of Better Photography.