Tag Archives: ambiguity

Ambiguity in Photography continued

I was having a reread of John Berger’s essay “Appearances” this morning when I learnt of his passing. So sad to think that wonderful writing style has forever been silenced! RIP John Berger – the art world will surely miss you.

I’m still exploring the concept of ambiguity and as pointed out by a fellow student, Berger’s essay deals with this topic as only Berger can. Below are just some brief notes from the essay.

  • Every photograph presents the viewer with two messages:
    • a message concerning the event photographed
    • a message concerning a shock of discontinuity
  • Between the moment the image is recorded and the moment that the image is viewed or looked at is what Berger calls an abyss.
  • The ambiguity of a photograph doesn’t reside within the instant of the event which is photographed. The ambiguity arises out of the discontinuity.
  • There is a fundamental difference between images in our memory and the photographic image. Images that we remember are “the residue of continuous experience” while “a photograph isolates the appearances of a disconnected instant” (p. 57).
  • Meaning is discovered in the connections.
  • Meaning is a response.
  • Meaning and mystery are inseparable and neither can exist without the passage of time.
  • While certainty may be instantaneous, doubt requires duration. Meaning is born of the two.
  • According to Berger, all photographs are ambiguous. All photographs have interrupted a continuity. If the event photographed is public, then the continuity is history. If the event is personal, then the continuity is a life story. Even landscapes break a continuity – that of light and weather.
  • Discontinuity always produces ambiguity.
  • Appearances distinguish and join events.  To recognize an appearance requires one to remember other similar appearances. “One image interpenetrates another” (p.71).
  • There is an expectation of meaning attached to the action of looking at images. It is this search for meaning using our own cultural choices/experiences that differentiates the meaning of the image.

Photographer unknown, Man with his horse, date unknown

Andre Kertesz, A Red Hussar Leaving, Budapest, June 1919
Andre Kertesz, A Red Hussar Leaving, Budapest, June 1919


  • Berger likens this search for meaning in an image to a literary quotation. In comparing the two images above, it is very obvious that the amount of information one can glean from the second image (Red Hussar) is significantly more than that of the first image. “Looking at the man with the horse, we have no clear idea of what has just happened or what is about to happen. Looking at the Kertesz, we can trace a story backward for years and forward for at least a few hours” (p.75).

This difference in the narrative range of the two images is important, yet although it may be closely associated with the “length” of the quotation, it does not in itself represent that length. It is necessary to repeat that the length of the quotation is in no sense a temporal length. It is not time that is prolonged but meaning.

(Berger, p. 75)

  • The photographic event triggers an idea and this in turn, urges the viewer to dig deeper in his/her memory bank to build on the meaning. The event and the idea are actively connected.
Reference List

Berger, John. (2013). Understanding a Photograph. 1st ed. New York: Aperture Foundation


Ambiguity in Photography

A lively discussion about ambiguity has ensued on my Facebook posting where I had asked for feedback on my Assignment 2 rework. Although the discussion mainly involved the merits of ambiguity I thought I would do a little more research into what ambiguity is in photography. I always find it is better to create a solid base of understanding and then move on from there.

I came across a very informative article by Mien Thein that explained this very well, which I will summarise briefly. Thein states that photographs can be divided into two groups: a) literal and b) ambiguous. “The defining characteristic of a photograph (is that) it is a recognisable and relatively linear representation of reality, both in spatial arrangement and luminosity” (Thein, 2015). According to Thein there are three items that need to be considered when trying to make a photograph ambiguous:

  1. Resolving power: by using size, light and depth of field, one can render a subject small and insignificant so that one will not realise it is not noticeable; if it is dark, e.g. silhouette, one will not be able to discern any details; if it is out of focus our brain will have insufficient details to discern the object.
  2. Spatial arrangement: the edges of a photographic frame imply a limitation to the composition of the photograph. One is, therefore, forced to consider only what lies within the frame. “It is the spatial relationship between not just the elements within the frame but the frame itself that has implications on causality and story: forced empty space in the center of the frame suggests deliberate avoidance; proximity suggests collaboration” (Thein, 2015).
  3. Conscious exclusion: look around the frame and see what can be removed. Go for a minimal approach. “The fewer distractions there are from your main subject, the more attention your audience puts on your intended focus” (Thein, 2014).
© Lynda Kuit 2012

Images benefit from having several layers. Apart from the aesthetics of the image, there should be a obvious message to interest the viewer and also a more subtle one that is revealed through more intense study. If we provide too much information, then only one interpretation will be forthcoming. There is a very fine line between being “vague enough” and “too vague”. The ideal is to have the viewer engage with his/her imagination and keep them guessing.

Reference List

Thein, Ming (2015) Ambiguity [online] Ming Thein | Photographer. Available at: https://blog.mingthein.com/2015/11/11/ambiguity/ [Accessed 10 December, 2016]

Thein, Ming (20145) Conscious exclusion[online] Ming Thein | Photographer. Available at: https://blog.mingthein.com/2014/07/19/conscious-exclusion/ [Accessed 11 December, 2016]