Introduction to grammar for the language of photography

While photography and vernacular language share characteristics, it can be difficult to remain coherent when it comes to actually applying theories and practices between one and the other. This is due to the mistake of thinking that just because a comparison can be made, aspects can be transposed between them.

Despite the flaws in treating photography as a language, I find that there are some profoundly useful ideas to be found in the study of language as a communication tool that can be applied to making photographs that share the same goal of communicating.

If you want to work with photography as an expression or extension of language, the first hurdle you have to overcome is that you will have to offer a guide, not unlike a dictionary, to any context in which you want to be understood. A dictionary won’t tell you. how a word should be used; instead, it describes how a word has been observed to be used. Just as verbal meanings are constantly changing, visual meanings and relationships are constantly changing. An image that signifies one thing can have many connotations, and a photographer seeking to be an effective communicator will work to narrow these so that they are not at risk of being misinterpreted.

An example I often give in my lectures is the simple symbol of two intersecting lines, a cross. Anyone who has encountered Christianity knows that this is a significant symbol and that it represents a method of torture and death. But people can see it as a representation of hope, love, cosmos or peace. Some may see it as a symbol of oppression, violence, dominance and control.

It doesn’t matter which of these are “correct”, as they can all be, and many other possibilities as well, depending on the context. What matters is which of these ideas the photographer will use in their work and how they do it.

If we use the linguistic analogy, a simple photograph of a cross can have the same meaning as the word “cross”. In itself, it does not give much to an observer of that work. But in combination with other words and other contexts, you can convey your intended message with great clarity.

Here is a photograph of a cross, taken during a river blessing ceremony earlier this year. The shard is in the background, contextualizing the symbol in placement, but not offering much more than that.

How could I take this symbol and provide clarity regarding the various possible connotations I mentioned above? How can I make it about love or hate, hope or oppression? You could simply title the image “Hope” which would go some way towards explaining your point, but it’s not a strong visual, photographic solution, it augments images with text.

Solving it photographically I think would take two forms. Either I take a better photograph where the cross is in a different context than just being against London, or I find another photograph to place in sequence next to it. Each individual shot is still open to interpretation, but if you take the sequence as a whole, each shot exists in the context of what comes next, what came before, how the sequence begins and ends, and the flow throughout.

Here are some possible dytychs where the second image informs the first. Each of these contains a strong visual denotation; a military parade saluting a minister, a woman bent in prayer at the back of a church, and a young boy and girl dressed in fine clothes leading a procession.

The first image in each is the same and establishes the subject of the dytych: Christianity in London, and the others elaborate on this subject in very different ways. To take this further, we will introduce a third image, a fourth, and so on until we have a photographic essay that introduces an idea, expands on it, and clarifies a message the photographer wants to communicate.

By working in this way, we have introduced a kind of grammar to photography; by structuring a sequence of photographs in a way that refines the meaning as each photograph is viewed, you allow for the closest comparison between a sentence written in words and a “sentence” presented in pictures. The part of grammar that deals with structure is syntax, and syntax is very difficult to determine when it’s just one photograph.

The internal structure of a single image is usually more ambiguous than the combined sequence of ambiguous structures which, taken together, refine the meaning. Just as you can communicate without grammar in many ways (laughter has no grammar, and neither does a child’s cry, but the meaning of both is usually clear), you can present a photograph without clear syntax, but when the goal is clarity, then is this structure will be crucial to achieve this goal.

A single photograph can easily contain a strong idea or feeling. Linking individuals makes it possible to extract more linguistic characteristics and allows for a more coherent presentation of an idea. Once that sequence works, meaning can be derived from it as a whole, and then at the individual scale, rather than being a chaotic and interpretive experience throughout.

When a photographer puts together such a mosaic, that’s when their voice can really come through clearly, to have a certain intention, to leave a certain impression, to convey a certain meaning. Photography that articulates via the single image is usually not enough, unless that idea is already so big and vivid and iconic and recognizable that it can be summed up and contained within just that single frame. Even these will often be accompanied by a title or caption that offers some context.

This process was part of the considerations I have written about before, my thoughts on documenting and presenting a story about the military occupation of Washington DC in early 2021. I knew that what I chose to indicate in my images would be interpreted in many ways, so I wanted to make sure that when I put together the final book, it would be in a way that emphasized these symbols in relation to the wider project, and not just free association for all who look at them.

It is more difficult to apply ideas about grammar/syntax to individual photographs because the aesthetic and symbolic structure can change across each image in a portfolio. Although two photographs contain the same visual structure, they may not have the same structure in their meaning. When looking at individual photographs, I think a different system should be used, one closer to the guide/dictionary I mentioned at the start, which provides an understanding of each photographic “unit” at the individual scale.

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