An Experiment in Looking at Photographs - by Sroyon

An Experiment in Looking at Photographs – by Sroyon

Most days I look at dozens, maybe hundreds of photographs, but I often look so quickly and superficially that it’s like I’m not really looking at all. The problem is especially acute when viewing photographs onscreen or online. Websites like Flickr and Instagram give us instant, easy access to billions of photographs, but also play havoc with our attention span.

The Experiment

Is there an antidote? Perhaps. In this post, I suggest a simple experiment. If you have ten minutes to spare – which is how long it takes to do the experiment – I encourage you to try it, not least because I’m curious to know what effect it has.

The exercise is simple. I’ve chosen five photographs – not by me, but by photographers whose work I admire (and with their kind permission). All these pictures, I believe, are worthy of extended contemplation. My suggestion is to spend two minutes just looking at each photograph, and see what emerges. Then move on to the next image, and repeat. Five photographs, ten minutes.

In the next section, I outline the purpose of the experiment. Personally, I think the theory is interesting, but if you’re impatient or busy, you can skip to the Photographs section which comes after. Even if you choose not to do the experiment, the photographs are well worth looking at.

The Theory

Betty Edwards on drawing

Besides photography, I’m also interested in drawing and psychology, and I was recently reading a book which combines the two: Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. First published in 1979 and now in its fourth edition, this popular and influential book draws on research by Nobel Prize-winning neuropsychologist Roger W Sperry on the lateralization of brain function.

“What’s this got to do with photography?” you ask. To which I say, “Be patient. What did I just say about attention span?”

Brain lateralization (simplified representation). Source: Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The basic theory – I’m greatly simplifying here – is that the left half of the brain is predominantly verbal (dealing in words), analytic and linear, while the right half is predominantly visual, perceptual and spatial. This is true for most individuals, not all, so Edwards refers to these two modes of functioning as L-mode and R-mode, no matter where they are located in the individual brain.

In general, L-mode dominates. Impatient with slower, more complex R-mode processing, L-mode tends to rush in and interfere with tasks – even tasks which R-mode is better suited for. When I see a photograph of a leaf, the verbal L-mode jumps in to name it: “It’s a leaf. Let’s move on.” If I try to look more carefully – I’m paraphrasing Edwards – L-mode grows increasingly impatient: “I’ve already named it – it’s a leaf, I tell you. They’re all alike. Why bother with all this looking?”

Edwards argues that we can get better at drawing – and I believe this also applies to looking at photographs – if we can access the more silent and reclusive R-mode. Her strategy is simple but ingenious: present the brain with a task which the left brain will turn down.

Apparently there are certain tasks which L-mode can’t or won’t do, because it finds them too slow, detailed, complex or simply boring. Accordingly, Edwards suggests drawing exercises which cause L-mode to “tap out” – tasks like copying the wrinkles on a crumpled piece of paper, drawing negative spaces, or copying an upside-down drawing.

Mike Johnston on reading photo-books

The Betty Edwards book made me think of a post I read a while back on The Online Photographer, popularly known as TOP (Mike Johnston, the man behind TOP, also came up with OCOLOY, and introduced the word bokeh to the English-speaking world). You can read the full post here, but I’ll quote two passages which are especially relevant:

Closure is what happens when you think you understand something well enough, and don’t think you need to understand it any better—so you stop trying … Unfortunately, photographs are among the things we reach closure on the fastest of anything … Advertising photographs, which are often designed to be slick but simplistic—the better to be immediately appealing—are designed to be “gotten” quickly and easily. And of course many images don’t deserve extended attention. All of this conspires to encourage our habits of early, often instant, closure. Like it or not, we can hardly help approaching pictures that way: scanning, appraising, closing down, moving on.

By the way, I think “designed to be immediately appealing” is a good descriptor of many Instagram photos too.

Mike’s post is about how to read a photo-book which you really want to digest. His remedy is to get an egg timer that counts off three minutes:

What you do is to use the egg timer to help you spend time looking at each picture … During that time, let your eyes stay on the picture. Your mind can wander if you want, but keep looking at the picture. After the time is up, turn the page.

Keep at this as long as you want to, he says, then put the book back on the shelf and come back to it later.

The gambit, I think, is similar to what Betty Edwards proposes. Let L-mode do it’s thing – “It’s a picture of two boxers on a beach.” “It’s a forest.” Resist the impulse to move on, and calmly keep looking. After a while, L-mode checks out, and we start to see the image in an R-mode way: shapes and textures rather than things with names – and drawing not just on analysis and reason, but on imagination, emotion and memory.

Of course, it’s not feasible to look at all images in this way. Besides, as Mike says, not all images deserve extended attention. But it’s an interesting psychological exercise, and when I tried it, it led me to a better appreciation and understanding of photographs. In this post, I propose that you try it too.

The Photographs

In this section I present five photographs which I admire, along with some basic information. I suggest looking at each image for two minutes (Mike suggested three, but I’m going easy since these are online images).

I should warn you that two minutes per image – ten minutes in total – doesn’t sound like much, but if you’re anything like me, you may well struggle to stay focused. As Betty Edwards says, “the left hemisphere is the Great Saboteur of endeavors in art.” But try not to jump to the next image, open a new tab or check your phone. If your mind wanders, which it probably will, don’t stress – keep calm and carry on looking. In Buddhist meditation they say, “return to the breath”; in this case, return to the picture.

Now if you’d like to try the experiment:

  • There’s a two-minute timer below each image. Start the timer. With your volume up, you’ll hear four beeps at the start, and four beeps at the end; silence in between.
  • To minimize distractions, I suggest opening the image in a new tab (on Chrome, right-click – or long-press on mobile – and “Open image in new tab”). Press F11 on Windows to enter full-screen (even fewer distractions).
  • Spend two minutes just looking at the photograph.
  • When two minutes are up, move on to the next image, and repeat.

Boxers Training on the Beach

“Boxers Training on the Beach” by Pierre Crocquet

“Boxers Training on the Beach” by Pierre Crocquet (courtesy of Jeannine du Venage)
Dar es Salaam, Tanzania (2002)
Nikon FM, Kodak Tri-X 400 film
Website | Instagram | Facebook

it felt like home…

“it felt like home…” by Ina Echternach

“it felt like home…” by Ina Echternach
Siebengebirge Nature Park, Germany (2014)
Polaroid SLR680, Impossible Project 600 Color Film (2.0 beta)
Website | Instagram

The Lovely Ms Sinclair

“The Lovely Ms Sinclair” by Beverley Nelson

“The Lovely Ms Sinclair” by Beverley Nelson
London, UK (2018)
Canon EOS 70D
Model: Beverley Sinclair
Instagram | Instagram

Bhoot Chaturdashi

“Bhoot Chaturdashi” by Parameshwar Halder

“Bhoot Chaturdashi” by Parameshwar Halder
Kolkata, India (2020)
Redmi Note 7 Pro
(In Bengal, Bhoot Chaturdashi is the night before Kali Puja/Diwali, when candles are lit to ward off evil spirits.)

Catching Flies

“Catching Flies” by Mariya Ustymenko

“Catching Flies” by Mariya Ustymenko
St Osyth, UK (2011)
Lubitel-2, Fomapan 100 film


If you tried the experiment (and can spare a few more minutes to comment), I’m very interested to hear your thoughts. Did you find it worthwhile? Was it easy or hard? What kinds of things did you notice? Did the images stir up any emotions or memories?

If you didn’t try the experiment or gave up midway, I’d be interested to hear from you too.

Finally, my heartfelt thanks to the photographers featured in this post (as well as Jeannine du Venage, who inherited Pierre Crocquet’s negatives) for letting me share their images and answering all my questions. My only photographic contribution to this post is the header image, but you can see more on my Instagram.

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