Photo Analysis Exercise

Posted on February 10, 2013



This is a photo taken by my classmate, Norwin Gonzales, during the class trip to Baler, Aurora. Unfortunately, I was unable to come because of reasons. I was deeply saddened because were it not for these reasons I would have gotten the chance to take in the beauty of Baler and take my own pictures, too. Seeing my classmates’ pictures made me jealous. I even cringed when I downloaded this particular picture from Norwin because it gives me a sense of doubled “surrogate possession”  (cue Sontag). This particular photo stored in my laptop is now a reminder of an event I never experienced. I have the proof, but the experience is not mine. According to Sontag, taking a picture of an experience is giving yourself a sense of surrogate possession. An illusion of possession. In my case, neither the experience nor the photo is mine. What I have is a mere copy. I am now looking at another person’s memory of Baler, a place I have never even been to.

Before I start with the analysis, let me state the basic facts about the photograph.

This photograph was taken by Norwin Gonzales, a student of the University of the Philippines Diliman. This was posted on Facebook as part of the album “Baler 2013” which was posted by Mr. Gonzales on the site on January 21, 2013. The photos on this album were taken (presumably) on January 19-21, 2013. This was the weekend of the field trip for Professor Flaudette May Datuin’s Art Studies 141, 142, and 245 classes.

For this analysis, I will use Alice Guillermo’s essay, “Reading The Image”. Here she states four planes of analysis.

Basic Semiotic Plane + Iconic Plane or Image Itself

John Szarkowski has five ways of viewing a photograph:

  1. The Thing Itself – the photograph as viewed in reality
  2. The Detail – details emphasized/focused on
  3. The Frame – the elements which the photographer includes in his image
  4. Time
  5. Vantage Point – whose point-of-view is being shown in the image?

Stephen Shore also has three levels of photograph analysis:

  1. The Physical Level
  2. The Depictive Level – flatness, frame, time, focus
  3. The Mental Level

Norwin’s photograph was taken with a soft focus. It was shot in semi-dead center, with focus on the outside world in the middle. It’s almost like peeking through a peephole. I think this was shot from inside a church, because I can see seats typically seen in traditional churches on the left of the image. There is contrast between light and dark, black and white/gray/whitish-gray. Emphasized in this image is the piece of the outside through the open door. There is  isolation and emphasis on the door. Included in Norwin’s frame was not only the door, but also the place in which the photographer is situated, adding a sort of mystique to the image. In terms of time, one can assume that the photograph was taken in a cloudy afternoon, or a cloudy noon. In terms of vantage point, this was shot from the back with a wide depth-of-field but with default selective focus on the open door because the rest of the elements were too dark and thus obscured. The image looks leveled or 3-D in a way that we can assume that the camera is at a point higher than the ground, as we can see suggestions of a floor below. Working with Shore’s Depictive Level of viewing an image, this image has a passive frame as it strongly suggests a world outside. The viewer is then intrigued with what is beyond the image.

On a deeper level, the whole image is suggestive of a world outside of darkness. An open door suggests freedom, emancipation, or openness. A church suggests tradition and conservation. The elements of nature outside might suggest vastness, a wide range of possibilities. The dark clouds give viewers a sense of melancholic solitude, and the darkness of the environment gives a sense of serenity and calmness.

Contextual Plane + Evaluative Plane

Lefebvre has three categories of space:

  1. Representational or lived space
  2. Conceived space (i.e. structures like museums)
  3. Perceived space, or spaces with sacred or societal meaning

Baler, Aurora’s history of Spanish colonization can be seen in many beautiful churches in the area, such as this one. Bodies of water such as the one depicted here have been used for was as well. Today, Baler has these for tourist spots. The students depicted here are the “tourists”.

The representational function of this space is for worship, as well as for tourist viewing. Locals earn money by guiding these tourists into the spots with majestic views, like this one.

Artisans have made this structure hundreds of years ago, this is the “conceived space”. Now it is also used by Baler tourism agencies.

The fact that this is a church makes this space sacred. Its rich history and the fact that it has been around for hundreds of years gives it a sense of majesty. After all, things (and places) increase value over time. The vastness of nature beyond the door also gives a sense of infinity.

In a way, the place has become a commodity. A business. But there is also a sense of sacredness that hopefully has not been lost by the tourism industry.

The punctum, which may differ depending on the viewer’s state of mind, is the open door. There is a suggestion of a world outside, suggesting life outside of the picture. That is what strikes me the most. Berger once said that seeing comes before words. I think I’m going to disagree. What we are thinking and feeling can be seen through our photographs. Our mind affects what we see. Some people might find this photo sad, some people lonely, some people relaxing. It all depends on who views it and how he/she is dealing with his/her mind at the moment. The mind, after all, chooses what it wants to see. Norwin modeled these elements, put them together, based on his own judgement. We, as viewers, give meanings to this photograph without regard to what Norwin wants us to believe.