Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Really odd photos get all the attention

Art project in Beijing, China. AP photo
I had to look at the caption when I first saw this photo, featured in this week's The Week in Pictures. Ed Thoma, one of our page designers, often points out pictures that catch his eye for the slideshow. When he showed me this one I had no idea what I was seeing at first. Reading the caption only helped a little.

That's probably why I like it so much.

Ignore the fact that it looks like a giant box of Crayola crayons for starters (Have you seen the person yet?). Ignore that all you really see at first is the back of two young people's heads (no, not THOSE people). While you're at it, ignore the fact that you can't really see anything going on in the picture at all (yes, THAT person!).

Pay attention to the fact that you really have to see the picture before you figure out what (or who) you're looking at.

It's one of those pictures that grabs your attention because you have to spend some time seeing the picture. You have to study it a bit before you realize there's a third person being painted there. The photo is of Chinese artist Liu Bolin, center, being painted to blend into rows of drinks in his artwork entitled "Plasticizer," to express his speechlessness at use of plasticizer in food additives. A neat statement, and a striking photo.

The photo illustrates the difference between looking at a photograph, and seeing it. Looking at a photograph involves a simple physical act. There can still be appreciation, but in my opinion a viewer doesn't really get to enjoy the entire picture. It's like reading the first and last chapters of a novel. You get the point, maybe even enjoy the "book," but the subtleties are missed. To see a photograph is to read into its meaning, to grasp some of the nuances that make a photograph unique and appreciate those subtle parts of the photograph.

The picture, and the above statements, fly in the face of everything I was taught in journalism school that makes a good picture. Newspaper photographs should be a "quick read," I was told. A reader shouldn't have to stare at a picture to figure it out.

Well, maybe not EVERY photo should be a quick read. After all, they put crossword puzzles in the paper too, don't they?

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