About Reading Pictures

© Professor Joel Morgovsky


Since the early 1970s social scientists and photographic critics alike contributed to a growing awareness of the personally meaningful nature of photographs.

The psychological mechanisms that combine to infuse pictures with the personal, subjective experience of their makers are not particularly controversial. The selective nature of perception; the mental inclination for creating gestalten (wholes) from sensory fragments; the cognitive schemas that generate top-down processing; the projection of emotionality and non-conscious thought; constitute a partial list of basic psychological processes involved in image making that few would challenge. They operate in nearly all artistic endeavors.

There is much less agreement about how to extract the self-referential content of photographs. My first professional presentation on the process of Reading Pictures took place in 1981 at the 3rd Annual Conference of the American Association for the Study of Mental Imagery held at Yale University. But there are other approaches used by psychologists to employ photographs for related, but different, purposes that have appeared before and since.

A very early approach was that proposed by R.U. Akeret in a book appropriately titled Photoanalysis (1973). Dr. Akeret described methods for analyzing family photographs to extract indirect information they contained about interpersonal dynamics within the family.

A modern therapeutic approach called some variation of Photo Therapy by practitioners has two variations one of which continues on the path marked by Akeret. For example, Judith Weiser’s proprietary Photo Therapy is based on analyzing snapshots and other family pictures gathered in the course of everyday life as well as real-time photographic assignments carried out by her clients. Joel Walker, a psychiatrist and photographer, uses a set of his own photographs, The Walker Visuals, as projective stimuli. Both Weiser and Walker are Canadians.

Other variations are called Therapeutic Photography (Spence, 1986) and encourages the making of self-portraits which then become tools for studying body image with the goal of coming to terms with physical appearance and, consequently, self-acceptance.

Reading Pictures differs because it is a process in which the photographs under study are solely those made bythe photographer, contain all manner of content, and are used mainly for artistic and personal growth. While it is clear that personal information finds its way into photographs there is little to offer members of the general public who want a richer aesthetic experience when viewing photographs; little in terms of specific, systematic  processes for extracting that same information. The analyses of family snapshots or of protocols in response to photographs by others do not address the need for a straightforward approach to  the psychological “ins” and “outs” that Reading Pictures was created to provide.

For the past 30 years, the techniques I have developed into Reading Pictures has been shared through a series of lectures and workshops for photographers striving to grow their vision toward increased personal expression and mature style. In March 2014 a complete course called PhotoPsychology, which includes Reading Pictures, was offered through the Princeton Adult School, Princeton, NJ. Some of those lessons are available here on this website. New lessons will be added froom time to time.

Doing the work of reading pictures is as much a set of attitudes or mindsets as it is a collection of specific techniques. Six fundamental mindsets essential to the work will be described here: OTIR, RNA, FA, AP, TA, and GSL

The first mindset I call Overcoming The Illusion of Reality (OTIR). Most people look at photographs and become engrossed with the things that are in them. Ducks in the park, the cute grandchild, the elaborate church each is related to as if they were actually present. In fact there is no park, no child, no church at all, there is only the two dimensional representation of those things, not the things themselves. Photographs are often transparent in the sense that viewers look through them to the things they depict. When the photograph itself is recognized as the relevant object, the looking process is transformed and placed on another plane.

The second mindset I call The Rule of No Accidents (RNA). In this frame of mind everything in the photograph is understood as being there on purpose whether that purpose or intent was known at the time the picture was made. Because we organize our visual inputs into wholes as part of the flow of conscious experience, the moment of exposure represents a decision that things appear exactly as we wish at that specific moment. When reading pictures this attitude should be maintained by the viewer.

The third mindset that needed for reading pictures is Free Association (FA). Used here, free association is a term to denote an attitude of openness, by the viewer, to the emotional content of images and not a reference to Freudian methodology. Frequently viewers express feelings of sadness, fun, awe, poignancy or other emotions when looking at pictures. If projection is conceptualized as the emanation of unconscious motives and emotions onto scenes and situations, then free association, taken in this way, operates as the reverse of projection.

Purposeful use of the Attribution Process (AP) as originally proposed by Fritz Heider and Harold Kelley is the fourth mindset important for extracting personal information from pictures. Attributions are guesses about the causes of observed behavior and are either dispositional or situational. Reading pictures capitalizes on this natural tendency. Speculations about the answers to questions like “What does it mean that a person would take this particular photograph, of this subject matter, from this point of view, using these methods?” can produce useful evidence for Reading Pictures.

Thematic Analysis (TA) is a fifth mindset useful for Reading Pictures. It is not unusual for work by a given photographer to hold close to a limited number of cognitive and emotional themes. Being alert and responsive to those themes is important for constructing a working model of the maker’s experiential world.

Genre and Skill Level(GSL) refer to other characteristics of photographs that can be factored into the work of Reading Pictures. Landscape, still-life, portraiture, documentary, straight, surreal, are examples of genre. Skill level is revealed by the degree of mastery over the medium and the sophistication of topics chosen for study. Higher skill levels signal clearer intent and greater eloquence.

Skill level opens the door to a related phenomenon I call Levels of Articulation (LOA). LOA refers metaphorically to the degree of eloquence encountered in sets of photographs. In the same sense that writers express themselves with words, sculptors with forms and painters with images, photographers vary in the degree to which their cognitive and emotional experience are expressed in their photographs. I propose that photographers become more articulate as they reach one of three stages of artistic development: Innocents, Amateurs, and Mature photographers.

Innocents is a term I use to refer to the millions of camera owners who take pictures on an irregular basis for chronicling family events, vacations and special moments. Innocents do not consider themselves photographers beyond a functional level. Innocents are often the least articulate photographers. Still, given sufficient numbers of images, the work of Reading Pictures can still proceed from the work of innocents.

Amateurs are people who overtly enjoy photography, who join photography clubs and societies, who read photography magazines and who analyze and discuss matters photographic. In large measure, amateur photographers have been my main audience for the last two decades.

Amateurs are generally more articulate than Innocents. Advanced amateurs are very sophisticated and talented. Even so, there can be obstacles in the way of getting to know amateurs through their pictures: these I call the Mask of Homage and the Technical Mask.

Since amateurs read about photography and famous photographers they are often inspired to imitate pictures they have admired in the work of others. Being successful at making pictures like those by Ansel Adams or Mary Ellen Mark (for example) amateurs are, consequently, less personally expressive. They are, in effect, taking someone else’s pictures; hidden behind a Mask of Homage.

Photography is also a technical arena. Cameras, lenses, light sources, chemicals, film types and now digital technology can become the focus of an amateur’s attention. The acquisition of a new lens, for example, can launch a photographer into a protracted period of experimentation that is more about technical mastery and less about personal expression. Under those circumstances the pictures that result may be less articulate because the photographer’s identity is hidden behind a Technical Mask.

Those I call Mature photographers consciously use the medium as a means of creative self-expression. They have developed individual ways of seeing, personal styles, which permeate most of their work. Mature photographers are the most articulate and reading just a few images by them yields fruitful harvests.

Borrowing from the twin realms of psychological practice and photographic criticism, Reading Pictures is a new way of looking at photographs that enriches the general experience, assists photographers with self-discovery, and offers new possibilities for professional application.

 Reading Pictures Lessons