Photographic Dialectic


The photographic image has two sides it is necessary to recognize in order to be able to bring out the best of the medium: The outside and the inside. There is always an interacting force between the two, but we, as photographers, aren’t always aware of it during the capturing process. The outside being the visible world we capture with the camera, and the inside being the perceiving and shaping creativity of the photographer. Only when we understand the interaction between the two and understand the necessity to make use of it, are we able to create photography beyond mere reproduction.

Most photographs we take as if the camera was a notebook; we capture something so we are able to memorize the event, we collect memories like a dairy of images to share with friends or family, or just for ourselves. Of course, we still make decisions on composition, what to included within the frame, on perspective and technical settings, but mostly unconsciously. Usually we are not very aware of our own presence in the picture taking process. However, when we want to heighten the photographic expression to more than pure memory collecting or reproduction, we need to be aware of ourselves, what we want to express and, in so doing, find a balance between ourselves and the outside that makes the final image transcend both.

In his book Why Photography Matters, Jerry L. Thompson writes about the interaction between the two sides. He says: «When photography is at its best, I am suggesting […] there exists a balance between the outside and the inside. When photography is at its best, these two elements cooperate as in a dialectic: one side presents a proposition, the other counters it; a new proposition emerges, one also countered in a similar fashion, and on and on as a progressively refined result appears, something neither partner in the dialectic could have produced.»

What Thompson really says is that when we in the photographic process consciously make use of the balance between the outside world and our inside as we perceive the world, the resulting image is of a higher order – or transcending – what either alone could be.

The world exists with infinite possibilities without any hierarchy and without any emotions attached to it or even with any cause and effect. However, when the photographer captures a single event he or she imposes his or her vision upon the world. The photographer makes the elements of the world fit together. He or she creates some kind of order of the world – and attaches emotional values to the event being photographed. That is when photography becomes at its best.

This balance has many names. We talk about the photographer’s vision or we talk about intent; what does the photograph intend with her or his photo. When we start becoming aware of this, we start to negotiate this balance between the outside and the inside – and our photography start to emerge as stronger, more personal and more important.

Are you aware of this dialectic process when you photograph?

60 thoughts on “Photographic Dialectic

  1. This is a great photo – I love the image of the subject behind her which is not a reflection of her. I am afraid I am a bit of a snapper, so if I am creating the effect you describe, it is purely accidental!

  2. Yea..I agree wholeheartedly…Good article..for me there has to be ‘soul and depth ‘ to the photo, part of your emotions. We (in the UK! bless) are so often afraid to talk about our emotions and say something like: i feel!!! Takes a while to truly get in touch with your feelings..I know. Love your photo illustrating your article. Your question..answer is I think so!

    1. That is the perfect answer. 🙂 As soon as we are aware of our feelings, we don’t need to wrap them in heavy and explicit statements, do we. 🙂 Let the photos talk, so to speak. Otherwise, I think we Norwegians are quite similar to you Brits when it comes to talking about emotions.

  3. I think it is coming, and growing. The insight. Even if I’m not thinking about this in the moment of photographing – I can sort out the pictures where I can see and feel it’s in. At least that’s a progress. Maybe it’s easier when photographing people, because to photograph people I have to be interested in them and their doings. The connection and the co- work is more tangible.
    Interesting thoughts again – always opening your site with joy.

    1. I see you point that the connection is more tangible with people photography. But there is still something that made you respond when taking photos of nature. Keep progression – that’s all we can hope for. 🙂

  4. That is a really clever photograph Otto, and it illustrates your message beautifully. Any serious photographer brings his or her inside to the image, that is the true magic of the art. Even documentary photographers frame their art within the context of a message. Excellent food for thought!

  5. I think more than anything that’s what makes every photo different. Every person is different and sees the world in their own way.

  6. what a beautiful image to accompany this post, Otto. That is one thing I always strive for but feel I rarely accomplish. When it happens, it’s such a great feeling.

  7. Such a wonderful image to accompany this post, to make people stop and look again, to hold our attention, to puzzle over and to just plain enjoy. Thank you Otto for another thoughtful post.

  8. I like how you or her engaged in this picture. The reflection(?) in the back ground shows her eyes closed(?). I am not sure that was intended to be notice or not but it is very interesting.

    I think this is another thing that is difficult to do in practice. It is the one that could be missed completely or simply could not make any connection to the subject/event. Very hard to do.

  9. This post really made me think about the artistic process. I would add that in addition to the visible world and the photographer’s creative interpretation there is also the element of the viewers perception. Once a piece of art is released it the perspectives and ideas of those viewing it become a part of the complete creation. Thank you so much for continuing to share such insightful posts!

  10. I am not assured that I am as in tune with that dialectic as I would like to be! You’ve given me another reason to slow down and let the process take me somewhere different.

  11. Wonderful post! I agree with Claire as well. The viewer also has a role in the dialectic, even if it is after the fact. The artist might be able to learn something from the viewer to take to the next artistic endeavor.

  12. This post is less relevant to me just now, because I’m still very much concerned only with the “outer” — particularly, learning the workings of my new camera, and the basics of photography. I’m basically recording, for the sake of seeing what the camera can do. It reminds me of learning to sail. First come the vocabulary, the knots, the understanding of the wind. Only then is it possible to set sail, relax, and begin enjoying the process.

    On the other hand, I recognize the truth of what you’re saying. Steve Schwartzman, who comments on my blog, specializes in macro portraits of wildflowers. He posts a photo each day, and it’s clear that he’s moved far beyond simply recording flowers, as a botanist would. His ability to artfully present the flowers, sometimes in completely unexpected ways, is delightful. He’s combined inner and outer very well. Sometimes, I think about this dialectic in terms of craftsmanship and art. Having a firm grasp on the techniques of a craft makes art possible, but artistic vision elevates craft.

    1. I like your analogue of learning to sail with finding the balance between the outside and the inside in the photographic process. As you say, getting a grasp of the craftsmanship is one thing, but the vision – the inside – is the next step. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the subject.

  13. «Having a firm grasp on the techniques of a craft makes art possible, but artistic vision elevates craft.». I really agree with shoreacres’s statement. I know when I have a good shot when I get back home, save finding out that it’s slightly out of focus or micro-blurred because I had the camera set-up wrong. So, one could say also the opposite will do.

  14. I belong to that “notebook” club– who gets lucky with that “special shot.” But I also know I have enough material to work with my composites of photos, paintings and sketches– which is what I really enjoy as far any artistry goes. Nice informative post, Otto.

  15. Love the portrait! It’s an interesting observation, Otto. Without that interaction between the outside and the inside, photography ceases to be a form of expression.

  16. Great image for the post and certainly an important topic for photographers! I realized when I took pictures with interest and ‘understand’ the subject, the image is usually satisfying (according to my standards, of course 🙂 ). I remember I had burnt out in photography before, and everything I took was just wrong..showing how a photographer’s emotion may affect the end result of an image 🙂

    1. Absolutely. The photographer’s emotion certainly affect the end result. If your heart is not with you in the process it ends up less than satisfying. Thanks for sharing your experience, Indah.

  17. As ever Otto, an excellent article highlighting a very important balance and interaction. One of my favourite quotes is that attributed to Vincent Van Gogh ‘What I do may be a lie, but it conveys reality more accurately’. This really sums up for me the very essence of what you are describing. A man clearly very in touch with a dialectic albeit a painting rather than a photographic one.
    If Vincent merely painted sun flower facsimiles, they would not have conveyed the reality of a sunflower in the way Vincent’s stylised ‘lies’ do.
    It’s what I aspire to do with my photography, create an image that more accurately represents what I see and what I feel, and an image that is more real that the reality of any scene I photograph. I do not compare what I do to the creative genius of Vincent Van Gogh, of course not but his vision, encapsulated in this quote is certainly something I aspire to.

    1. I very poignant comment – and very much to the core of what I try to say. And van Gogh’s quote is really what it’s all about, isn’t it.Thanks for sharing the quote and your thought on the subject, Adrian.

  18. I’m more aware of this dialectic since taking your course, Otto. I try to make a mental note before pressing the shutter, but sometimes I get over eager or over excited by the moment and I fire away, then later wonder what I was thinking.

    1. I think losing control – or getting over eager – is the best that can happen. Yes, you want to make mental notes, but you also want to go with the flow. It’s a fine balance. Thanks for the sharing your experience, Linda.

  19. I am like the photographers you describe in the beginning…taking photographs for myself, trying to make them aesthetically pleasing to my own eye. I can’t say I’m ever conscious that I’m putting my “inside” into the “outside” of the images while I’m doing it. I’m not sure I even understand the concept. It’s like the idea that one must always photograph “with intention.” Perhaps I am just not that deep!

    1. By making photos that are aesthetically pleasing to your own eye, you do connect the inside and the outside in the process. I think. So maybe it’s just not necessary to use a lot of words to describe how you photograph… 🙂

      1. Thank you, Otto. Whenever I start feeling that I am somehow lacking as a photographer, you say something consoling that makes me feel better! 🙂

  20. I love this photo. First her face is captivating, but the fact that the view of her in the background is different than would be in a mirror is captivating in a whole different way. It keeps me looking for other points of interest within the image. Good job!

  21. I think you have really done a service here, getting the photographer moving from “taking a snapshot” of a scene wished to remember, to trying to capture the feeling of the scene by finding a unique perspective in which to take a photo. The photo you have opened this post with does a great job in showing how adding ‘feeling’ into a shot can make it unique and thus more interesting to many.

  22. A terrific article and photograph Otto. So often we see work that just appears soulless, little thought or understanding of the subject matter. A chance for a photographer to create an impact, a reaction without necessary understanding the consequences leading to what they may have been photographing or a photographer photographing a landscape without necessarily coming to grips wth their immediate environment . Thanks for the interesting article Otto and have a great week ahead. Sorry if I appear to be have had a rant….

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