Stephen Shore: The Nature of Photographs

The aim of this book… is not to explore photographic content, but to describe physical and formal attributes of a photographic print that form the tools a photographer uses to define and interpret that content.
– Shore (2007 p.12)

Kenneth Josephson: New York State (1970)

Key points

Shore argues that there are three different aspects to a photograph:
— physical: the qualities of the photographic print.
— depictive: the image in the print.
— mental: the process of viewing the image.

The physical level

Flatness, edges, staticness, base, emulsion, pigments.

The physical qualities of the print determine some of the visual qualities of the image.
– Stephen Shore (2007, p.16)

The depictive level

Flatness, frame, time and focus.

These four attributes define the picture’s depictive content and structure. They form the basis of a photograph’s visual grammar. […] They are the means by which photographers express their sense of the world, give structure to their perceptions and articulation to their meanings.
– Shore (2007, p.38)

Flatness: monocular perspective. But image itself can be either opaque (view is stopped by the picture plane) or transparent (view is drawn beyond the surface).
Frame: edges, which determine the content of the image, the relationship between the elements within it, and its relationship with the world beyond.
Time: (a) duration of the exposure and (b) staticness of the image.
Focus: determines what gets our attention.

The mental level

The way we perceive an image.

You see a mental image – a mental construction – when you read this page, or look at a photograph, or see anything else in the world. Your focus even shifts […] But your eyes don’t actually refocus […] It is your mind that changes focus within your mental image of the picture…
The mental level elaborates, refines, and embellishes our perceptions of the depictive level.
– Shore (2007, p.97)


I found this book to be a very useful and effective explanation of the differences between a photograph and the image it depicts. This understanding is vital to an appreciation of photography as art rather than simply representation.

I was a little unconvinced by the final chapters on the mental level and mental modelling due to their absence of any consideration of the role of cultural conditioning. This was particularly surprising in view of Shore’s explicit mention of the fact that the perception of gestalt is a learned process and not an ability that’s present at birth. He does mention in passing the idea that cultural conditioning plays a role in the photographer’s mental modelling (p.117), but doesn’t address the issue directly, nor does he appear to consider the extent to which the viewer’s own cultural frame of reference will come into play. I actually wonder whether it might have been better to confine the analysis to the attributes of the photographic print and not extend it into the area of perceptual processing, which is of course an enormous subject in its own right.

Regardless of these reservations, however, I got a lot out of reading the book and it taught me to consciously understand and appreciate a number of things that I previously half-understood subconsciously.

References and resources

Shore, S. (2007) The Nature of Photographs (2nd ed.). USA: Phaidon