The Rhetoric of a Photograph

There's the exposure triangle, and then there's the rhetorical triangle

Over the past six months, I have watched at least a hundred webinars produced by photography superstore B&H, where professional photographers talk about their work and art, usually for about two hours. Anyone who wants to become a professional photographer or simply improve their personal photographs can benefit from listening to other photographers discuss how they solve problems, compose shots, and make decisions when shooting. After all, what makes photography an art is the eye of the photographer—the ability to see and choose from among an infinite number of choices.


When talking about their work and their decision making process, however, many of the photographers in the B&H series slip into a common rhetorical tic that is a pet peeve of mine: the second person “you.” Instead of saying something like, “What I wanted to do here was…” they will say “What you want to do here is….” They are giving advice to an audience of course, and so the second person “you” could be appropriate, but whenever someone does this I prefer they preface statements with if:  “If you want to do B, then I suggest doing C.”


Why do I think this is necessary? Because when offering advice or making recommendations many of us don't mention the underlying assumptions, goals, or purposes that inform our choices. For example, people often recommend gear to me and I read a lot of gear reviews online. I don’t take recommendations without first asking about what problem the piece of gear solved for the recommender.


For example, I needed an ultra-lightweight DSLR camera to take on backpacking trips—where weight is the overriding concern—and so I chose the 14oz Canon Rebel SL1, the lightest DSLR on the market. Weight was the problem that needed solving, not fast moving subjects that demand ten shots-per-second, and so forth. However, if my problem was grain and noise in large-format fine-art prints, then a full-frame camera would be the solution.


In the B&H series, individual photographers have different and sometimes contradictory assumptions, goals, or purposes, even though they may shoot the same subjects. As a result, their advice is often contradictory, and yet is usually couched in absolute terms: “Never do this… This is what you want to do….” Any artist, when talking about their work, should mention the rhetorical choices they made before ever creating their artwork. Here’s what I mean by rhetorical choices:


When taking a photograph, there are always three factors that inform decisions about subject and composition:

   1)  the intended audience for the photo

   2)  the purpose for taking the photo (aka the photo’s message)

   3)  the medium through which the photo will be seen.


Together, these three things form the rhetorical triangle, which is similar to the exposure triangle. In the exposure triangle of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, the modification of one affects the other two—each one tugs at the other. Raising the ISO, for example, will either push the shutter speed up or pull the aperture down in order to achieve a proper exposure. Similarly, in the rhetorical triangle a change in one element will alter the other two.


When I circumnavigated Florida in a kayak, I took about two thousand pictures with my Sony point-and-shoot. At the time I did not intend to share my pictures with the public—my family and friends were my audience, in addition to myself. My purpose was to document my trip, meaning the message of each photograph was “this was something I did.” The medium for the photographs was an album that sat on my bookshelf at home.


A few years later, I created a website offering tips and advice for other paddlers who wanted to replicate my journey, and I put some of my pictures on the website. When I did so, I did not modify or edit the photographs in any way—I simply moved them from an album on my bookshelf to a website, but this change of medium alone radically altered their audience to include all kayak adventurers worldwide, and their message changed from “this was something I did” to “this is something you could do.”


This should be intuitive to photographers. If our intended audiences are other artists, gallery curators, and collectors, then our medium should be a fine-art print, rather than say, a low-res image on Twitter. But if our purpose for taking a photo is to produce social change or provoke political action, then or an art gallery would be poor mediums while Twitter might be an excellent choice.


The famous photos in How the Other Half Lives would never have led to housing law reforms if they had been shown in galleries, where only art aficionados would have seen them, rather than politicians, political organizers, and social reformers. I could provide more examples (and I’m sure you can think of many more) but I won’t since the inextricable link between audience, purpose, and medium is so intuitive.


Maybe because it is so intuitive it seems obvious and not worth mentioning. In 100+ B&H videos I have seen only one photographer explicitly state their purpose for creating photographs, their audience, and their medium. Of course many times these are implicit — while watching a webinar by a wedding photographer, I know their purpose is to document the wedding, the audiences are the bride, groom, and their families, and that the medium will likely be an album or CD. But it isn’t always so obvious and it’s important because the intended audience, purpose, and medium inform decisions about subject and composition—what we point the camera at and how we take the picture.


Audience and purpose dictate that a wedding photographer would capture the vows and the first dance, but not the moment when the groom’s brother picked a fight with a guest and then smashed a window with a beer bottle. A photo journalist at the same wedding might have aimed their camera toward such a scene, however.


Because of differing unstated assumptions about audience, purpose, and medium, I see a lot of contradictory advice for nature photographers and general confusion about nature photography. There is a supposed division which separates fine-art nature photographers like Ansel Adams and journalistic/activist nature photographers like Joel Sartore at National Geographic. In my next post, I will discuss the rhetoric of nature photography and try to show that this divide between artistic photography and conservation photography is largely an illusion.


       --  November 2014