There are Two Ways to Look at a Photograph

By Khara Koffel, Associate Professor of Art, MacMurray College

There are two ways to look at a photograph, at least that is what I tell my students.

The first way is to notice the technical aspects of the image.  What are the objects that are combined to make the image? Would the image look better if the camera had been held vertically or horizontally?  Are there any repeating patterns that make the photograph more interesting?  Are there any interesting lines that lead you around the shot?  How does the light affect the photograph?  All of these are great questions and they absolutely need to be understood by a young photographer before he or she can take images that are visually interesting.

The other way to look at a photograph is a little trickier and involves peeling the image apart like an onion, because good photographs have layers that combine themselves to tell a tale and make us want to understand what is going on before us.  Who are these people and what is their story? Where is that empty diner with the waitress whose apron is crooked?  Are those the dishes my mom used?  Where is that gentleman’s family and why is he staring so sadly into that coffee spoon?

When technical beauty overlaps with layers of meaning, a photograph can become something else entirely.  No longer is it a simple image on a piece of paper, but it is a slice of a moment suspended in black and white.   The proverbial planets aligned and for one second, she stood here and looked at the lens while the wind ruffled the fur of the stranger’s dog and the shutter clicked right when the light fell over their faces and forever they are captured.  In that image, they will never age.  Her hair will never gray and she will never grow tired of the polka dotted skirt she wore that day while walking her pup.

The MacMurray College Photography I students whose images fill this newspaper have learned how magical an image like that can be and have worked long hours trying to find their very own versions of it.  Some have found it on the fields of their grandfather’s farm while watching him clean the shoes of her favorite horse; others have caught it when a friend jokingly hoisted a set of deer antlers to his head.  They didn’t just pick up their cameras at the right moment and let their cameras do the work, they thought about what it means to take a striking image and they hunted them down.    They have then devoted countless hours in the darkroom, painstakingly developing their photos the old-fashioned way with chemicals sloshing in trays and the red-toned lights burning long past the time that their roommates have tucked themselves into warm sheets.

These students have committed themselves to taking images and developing skills that I am hoping will fill them with pride long after the semester ends, much like my pride in them will last for a very, very long time.

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