Looking at photographs

When was the last time you stopped what you were doing and simply looked at a photograph?

When did you take time out to wander round an exhibition or look through the pages of a book of photographs? If you’re reading this I am guessing you are already interested in photography and so probably more than most people.

The question, however, struck me a few weeks ago when I was helping out at the Royal Photographic Society London Region Members Exhibition. My role was to greet visitors and explain the purposes of the exhibition to them, and answer any questions that I could. I was in the gallery for four hours and in between chatting to people I was able to spend time simply looking at photographs.

I would wander to one particular photograph, pause and stand in front of it, looking deeply into the image. Then, after a while I would move on and do the same for another picture. Sometimes I would end up going back to certain photographs more than once, maybe the ones I liked the best.

The length of time we spend looking at works of art in gallery is about seventeen seconds

Most of that time is taken up with reading the caption! Even the greatest artists’ works are afforded little time – the Louvre has found that people look at the Mona Lisa for fifteen seconds! I didn’t record how long I spent in front of each photograph at the RPS exhibition but I think it was a lot longer than that. Of course the length of time spent looking at a work of art, whether a photograph or a painting does not necessarily equate to the intensity of feeling – a single glance might be enough.

These days we are exposed to a vast number of photographs every day.

There are in adverts in magazines and newspapers (which many of us still see even if just in the newsagent) and there are on roadside billboards and the backs of buses. And then there are the adverts we see online. And I haven’t even mentioned social media. Nearly two trillion photographs are taken each year and many of them find their way to Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, etc. How much attention do we give to all these images? If Leonardo can only manage fifteen seconds how much attention do our posts on Instagram get?

Perhaps it’s time to pause.

Most of the photographs we see (or are exposed to – do we really see them?) are there for a purpose, usually to try and sell us something. But what about taking a moment to simply look at a photograph as a photograph? To view the subject, to look at the composition; the relationship between the objects in the image and the background. To look at the tone of the photograph; the light and shade. What can we see and what is hidden? If the photograph is a print can we look beyond the image to the texture of the paper it is printed upon? And how do respond to it emotionally? What do we feel about what we can see?

Diane Arbus used to display photographs (her own and the works of others) around her apartment so that she would see them regularly. Perhaps it is a good habit to get into, to take control of the images you see. Instead of being exposed to other people’s photos find the ones you like whether your own or other people’s. Maybe choose one photograph at a time; print it or cut it out and put it on your wall. Each day take time to look at it and think why you chose to put it on display in your own private gallery. Every so often choose a new photograph to look at.

Another option I have taken to trying is, ironically, another social media site. It’s called ClickaSnap and it encourages people to pause and look at photographs. It pays its members a small amount every time one of their photographs is looked at for over five seconds (rather similar to how some music sharing sites work). As a result I tend to spend more time looking at other people’s works there, zooming in on the image and scrolling around, and taking time to comment. Unlike on Instagram where I spend more time scrolling down the screen barely pausing at some photographs.

Pausing is a good thing, taking a moment to take a breath and reflect. As photographers it’s a great thing to stop and just take time to actually look at photographs. It can be good for our mental health and it can even help us take better photographs. When you get a moment (and try to make that moment) why not give it a go?

If you would like to find me on ClickaSnap go to https://www.clickasnap.com/stephentaylor

Published by Stephen Taylor

Freelance e-learning developer and instructional designer, photographer and cyclist

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