Module 2: Photographic Communication

1 Posted by - June 3, 2014 - Courses, Photography Appreciation
W. Eugene Smith, Tomoko Uemura in her bath, Minamata, Japan, 1972

W. Eugene Smith, Tomoko Uemura in her bath, Minamata, Japan, 1972

In this module we begin our exploration of what photographs do and how they communicate. Both photographers and viewers construct meaning by exploring the relationship of the elements in the photographic frame. Cognitive science tells us that perception is based on the relationship of objects sensed, not just objects themselves. For example, a baby next to a rattle elicits a very different reaction than a baby next to razor blade. We exploit this relational perception in art through metaphor. We combine multiple elements (“All the world’s a stage.”) to create a new meaning (identity as performance, for one interpretation). As such, photography is about creating new meaning through the relational composition of elements in the frame.

Subject Matter and Subject

The key terms for exploring the relational nature of photography are Subject Matter and Subject. Subject matter is what is physically or literally in a photograph. Subject is the meaning or overall idea that can be derived from the visual relationship of the subject matter in a photograph.

The essential nature of photographs is that they transform Subject Matter into Subject.

With these terms in mind then, the essential nature of photographs is that they transform Subject Matter into Subject. When a photographer creates a photograph, he/she isn’t just recording the items in front of them, they are capturing and communicating the meaning, memory or idea they see in those things through photographic language. We will be exploring that process in depth throughout this course.

Question: What are the Subject Matter and Subject of the photographs in this introduction? Share your thoughts on at least one photograph in the comment section below. (Note: Top photograph is Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, 1936)

Module Content

With these ideas in mind, please read and view the following module content:

The Photographers Vision, pp. 6 – 23

Marvin Heiferman, “Photography Changes Everything”

The Genius of Photography, part 2 and 4 (video)

Featured Photographer: Edward Weston

Edward Weston, Pepper, 1930

Edward Weston, Pepper, 1930

Many of the ideas we explore in this module are epitomized by the work of Edward Weston. Read links about the photographer and his work here. While you explore his work, look at photographs like Pepper, 1930 and notice how he transforms subject matter into subject.


Read the Featured Photographer links and research photographs by the photographer. Then find and add your favorite photograph by the photographer to the Dropmark collection. In the description section, write a photographic analysis of the photograph that explains why it is an effective and masterful work using the criteria from “The Qualities of a Good Photograph” in The Photographer’s Vision. Use terms and concepts from the course in your analysis. Full Directions

Discussion Topic

Based on the information in this module, explain why “photography changes everything.” Include its most important attributes and effects in your answer. Cite specific information, using in-text citation, from the materials in this module. (200 words minimum) Also, respond to at least three (3) of classmates’ posts with additional information or perspective. Full Directions

Top Image: Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, 1936