The Grammar Sequence

Photographs are created in an instant, but some images grab our attention and hold it. There may be a personal reason for that: the image may depict a place, a moment, or a person we care about. We may be attracted to the quality of the light. Or there may be a structural reason. Look at enough photographs and you will find some that seem remarkably ordered, as if the photographer were able to re-shape the world in a way that makes its image seem clearer, more profound and more fascinating than we are used to seeing it.

Many of the shooting assignments in these classes are based on the ideas in John Szarkowski’s The Photographer’s Eye and Stephen Shore’s The Nature of Photographs. Shore points out that in order to make interesting photographs, two things are necessary. The first is that you need to have a point of view: observations that are out of the ordinary, an identification of a noteworthy subject or an insightful engagement with your subject. The second is that you need to be able to express what you observe in a visual form. Often I hear photographers who are just starting out explain with words what they should be showing in their pictures. This indicates that they have yet to master how photographs communicate.

All images speak through light, color and the arrangement of forms, and photographs are no exception. As Szarkowski writes, the painter's problem is to create meaning and order starting with a blank canvas. Photographers generally face a different kind of problem. We need to find meaning and order within a world which already exists. For the photographer – where do I stand? when do I press the shutter? how do I arrange the subject within the viewfinder? – are questions answered every time a photograph is taken. These answers form a grammar of photography.  As we answer with greater specificity, our images say more. A photograph tells a story because the photographer stood here rather than there, pressed the shutter at this particular moment, or focused on the detail which symbolizes what cannot be shown within the frame. 

This sequence of 4 courses on composition and visual literacy for photographers develops students’ ability to see, makes seeing personal, and fuses personal visual style and subject matter. The end result is photographs that reveal and enlighten, made with a point of view.