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, and I’m not an expert by any stretch – 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.

Contribute to 35mmc for an Ad-free Experience

There are two ways to experience 35mmc without the adverts:

Paid Subscription - £2.99 per month and you'll never see an advert again! (Free 3-day trial).
Subscribe here.

Content contributor - become a part of the world’s biggest film and alternative photography community blog. All our Contributors have an ad-free experience for life.
Sign up here.

About The Author

67 thoughts on “An Experiment in Looking at Photographs – by Sroyon”

  1. I find that within a second or so of looking at a photo I make the decision to carry on looking at a photo or move on. This is often based on if I have an interest in the subject, like a place I know or a person. I find what makes the photo is the composition, lighting, tones and interest. Looking back, it’s often the black and white photos that are ‘stronger’ and thinking about it, it’s probably because they give a feeling of time gone by.

    The black and white photos that I spent a long time looking at, and enjoying, were Ron McCormick ‘How Green Was My Valley’ taken in the 1970s of South Wales valleys.

    The colour photos that I can’t stop looking at are ones taken by Saul Leiter, mostly taken in New York, and classic street photography in the early days of colour photography.

    Perhaps the best well known that grab my attention and can spend age looking at are by Vivian Maier.

    Analysing it’s probably looking back at the passage of time, the dress, cars, people, streets, subjects, that get the mind wondering what it was like back then and what became of the people or how things have changed.

    1. Bob, I entirely agree with the sentiment of your final sentence. Until time travel becomes a reality, if it ever does, photography is our only passageway to the past.
      Cinema can add some realism, but can only go so far back. But on this theme, this morning I came across a beautiful but somewhat eerie and spooky YouTube video here:
      To start the video, just click skip the ads button. I hope it works for you.

    2. Hi Bob, thanks for taking the time to comment, and for your mention of McCormick’s photo which is wonderful (and new to me). I guess one of the things which interests me is: how good are these split-second judgments that we make? To some extent, our hand is forced: when looking at an Instagram feed, for example, it’s probably not feasible nor advisable to spend a long time on each individual image. But it’s possible that an image doesn’t grab us instantly, but nevertheless has something to offer?

  2. Thank you for the interesting exercise Sroyon! I am an ambidextrous scientist + photographer + musician. I write left handed, play the guitar right handed, play drums left handed and use both a left and a right handed computer mouse. Never made the connection between short time = left brain and longer time = right brain, but I think it has a lot of truth. My best thoughts have always come from staring at something for an extended period of time until an idea just pops up.

    I’m going to try and produce more images that have both of these qualities, the Instagram left brain hit plus the enduring quality of the right brain image. Maybe that is what I am doing when I shoot film – costs a bit of money when I hit the shutter button so I slow down and look. From now on I’ll look for 2 minutes minimum before pressing the shutter button!

  3. I enjoyed this visual exercise, but must opine that 35mmc’s website template makes the experience sub-optimal on mobile devices.

    The pop-up ads make landscape mode essentially useless, while portrait mode makes landscape-oriented images too small to study in-depth, unless your mobile device is iPad-sized. And in Reader Mode you lose the pop-up ads but also the images entirely.

    I understand the economics of ad revenue to support this site, but your website template makes enjoying these articles in depth to be sub-optimal.

    That said, this was a great visual exercise, and thank you to Sroyon for re-reminding me about Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.

    1. I know, sorry it’s not ideal – honestly, I wish I could do without them, but it’s just not financially viable these days. I had some technical issues the other day that havent been fully resolved (I have had to set myself up a new user as a remedial solution – See I am called “Hamish Editor”). Even just trying to find the solution cost me many (many!) hundreds of pounds. And the site hemorrhages money at the best of times. There is just no other viable way to monetise a site like this in this niche. In short, it pains me more than it does you, believe me!

      1. Hamish, this is why we have laptops or monitors.???? Watching DVD’s/Blurays on my mobile is sub-optimal, too. This is why I don’t do it! Keep up the good work!

    2. Thanks for your feedback, Joe, I see that Hamish has replied already. You can open the image in a new tab if you want to minimise distractions, which is what I suggested in the article, though I realise it’s not a wholly satisfactory solution…

  4. I had no problem in giving each image the required time, although with some the time slipped away more easily than with others.
    I did find myself comparing and contrasting to other images in the series though, so I guess I wasn’t quite fully engaged (at least at times).
    I’ve not read the other comments before writing this, so I’m not sure if I’m on track with others or not.
    For the first image I spent quite a long time trying to work out why the photo worked (given that the central subject’s face was not visible and the whole picture was way off level – I came to the conclusion that the eye was constantly led to the figure on the left, who was in an odd position compositionally. I think that photo was successful because it was disturbing. Same (ie successful because it is slightly disturbing) probably goes for the figure running towards the camera in the last photo. My favourite image was the portrait, because the subject was so engaging and the lighting was very good (although I guess that the closed eyes were not totally conventional).

    1. Thank you Bob for participating in the exercise and sharing your thoughts! Yes the image of the boxers is compositionally unconventional but (to me, at least) a compelling photo. The off-kilter framing gives me the sense of a hastily snatched snapshot in the thick of the action. And the sight-lines are so strong: the boxers’ eyes locked on each other, and the passerby looking at one of the boxers.

      1. I really enjoyed that photo too. It took me a while to figure out that the passer by makes the photograph, at least for me. Without the passer by, I don’t think it works.

        1. I agree! And it feels a bit like he’s mirroring us (the viewer) – another spectator observing the scene from the opposite angle.

          1. We can only see the muscular body of the boxer with gloves. The chubby boy whose companions are still frolicking in the sea behind him, looks into the face and stance of the boxer, admiringly. Vicariously through him, we see the boxer in the same light. There are variations of figures of “V” in the composition. Some formed by arms, hands, legs … and this is repeated in the trangulated positioning of the main three figures in the foreground. These are regular tricks in classical Western painting.

  5. Jeannine du Venage

    A fascinating article, and thank you so much for including my late brother Pierre Crocquet’s image of the boxers. I have looked at that image probably 100s of times, and for the first time, after the two minutes, saw that the fingertips of the youth walking by were visible in the armpit of the boxer with his back to the camera. I had never noticed that before!

    I’m now going to do the other four!

    1. Thank you Jeannine – and you know how much I like Pierre’s work 🙂 It’s funny how favourite works of art can continue to surprise us, long after we think we “know” them.

  6. Interesting thoughts. Need to go back and read the theory a bit more when I’ve played with the experiment (beyond the 5 photos you provide).

    Forcing extended viewing is kind of dangerous for me–where my head goes is identifying flaws, and if it gets really bad I start counting things. Now, identifying flaws isn’t all bad, especially if you can also assess how *serious* any given flaw is (in my opinion, I mean; no claim to be the universal perfect critic!). But it’s a suspect way to approach a new photo; I feel it’s better to approach with some sort of open hopefulness, and see where the photo leads you.

    I’ve been casually interested in brain lateralization studies forever, since I’m a right-handed left-eyed photographer who hardly does images in my head at all; my head is all words. (Also a mathematician with a higher verbal SAT than math).

    On this old laptop, I had to click through to the photo alone to see it all on the screen (it was taller than my screen, but when I click through to just the photo, Firefox resizes it to fit), and that lost the timer. I coped, but just mentioning it.

    1. “Open hopefulness” is a nice phrase 🙂 Sorry about the technical hiccups, but good to know you managed to make it work for you in the end!

  7. I had no problem looking at the images for the two minutes. I must say that as the images progressed it took more attention to get to the essence of each photo. The first image of the boxers was just so full of detail and interesting shapes and textures along with the implied action is was shocked when I ran out of time. The last was so simple in its content, but with steady attention I was able to sense urgency and even danger in the running man along with curiosity about what was the source of the highlights between the two sets of trees.

    1. That’s interesting – via comments plus private messages, you’re the third or fourth person who said they had no problem! Starting to wonder if I’m the only one with no ability to focus ????

  8. Thank you for reminding me of the need to focus…my mind settled as you said..and then I was saw aspects I would have missed such as the second door in Bhoot Chaturdashi. Less can be more! Thanks, cool exercise.

    1. Well thank you for taking part! At least for me, this “mind settling” is a rewarding experience in its own right 🙂

  9. Sroyon, I’m not for sure where I fall in the left brain,right brain analysis but I have a strong blend of both. I have always been analytical in nature but also have strong writing/artistic tendencies. I have been a photo retoucher since 1976 and I also create fine art photo realistic pencil drawings. The two fields have always seemed to blend and complement each other. As a retoucher I have had tens of thousands of images pass in front of my eyes. I had to engage with each one so as to enable me to see into them in a way that allowed me to then retouch to enhance but not disturb the photographers vision. No one likes to look at photo albums or photo books with me because I stay too long on each image. I’m not only looking at each photo to engage with the subject but also to learn something that might help me personally the next time I’m out shooting.

    I photographed a stairwell over an eight year period. Towards the latter part of that project my emphasis moved from shapes and patterns towards how to disrupt spatial cues that the eye/ brain uses to determine what was being photographed as well as each objects location/depth in the photograph. I think having insight into how we view the world around us can impact what we point our camera towards and why.

    Each person brings a different history to their viewing experience so I don’t believe there is necessarily a right, wrong or better way to view photographs or art in general. Specific knowledge can enhance a viewers experience but at the same time when a viewer is able to lay their own past experiences over a photograph a deeper connection may be achieved. Those personal connections may not be anywhere near what the photographer was intending. Does this mean that the viewer didn’t get it?

    I’m a detail person so the “The Lovely Ms Sinclair” was easy to linger on for two minutes. “Boxers Training on the Beach” was second. Thanks for shedding some light on the who and why of us as individuals not just photographers. On a final note I would say that the titles influenced my acceptance of each image as much or more than the content.

    1. Thank you Bill, I am intrigued by your experience as a retoucher – a real challenge to try and understand (and then contribute to realising) someone else’s vision!

      Just yesterday I was reading The Photograph as Contemporary Art by Charlotte Cotton, and she says Jeff Wall divides photographers into two camps, hunters and farmers – “the former tracking down and capturing images, the latter cultivating them over time.” Your stairwell project sounds like classic farming.

      I wondered about whether to include the titles or not. For what it’s worth, they are all chosen by the photographers themselves (except the first one may have been by Pierre’s sister Jeannine, I’m not sure…)

      1. Sroyon, Thanks for your reply and the comment about hunters and farmers. I definitely see myself as 60% farmer and 40% hunter with a blend at any given moment. Farming is long term and can be meditative in some ways but hunting seems more aggressive with a distinct goal in mind. I know that for me personally I feel more rewarded when farming and when hunting I feel more disappointment when I don’t get my prey in a photographic sense.

        On the retouching note I have an innate ability to get inside a photographers head and “see” an image through their eyes. I am a person who recognizes and is drawn to repeating patterns so as I work closely with a photographer their personal likes and dislikes start to create patterns that I can lock onto. The difficulty for me has been in discovering my own voice photographically. Working so close with photographers that have a distinct vision their thoughts and ideas can’t help but rub off on me in some way. I find myself questioning my choices and wondering if that is really me. Ultimately though I feel very fortunate to be able to help someone else realize their dreams for their work. A piece of me is in every individual work that I have helped to produce and that is rewarding in its own way.

        1. That seems like a very cool ability too, seeing through the eyes of others. But on discovering your own voice… here’s another quote, originally from Robert Henri, The Art Spirit (1923), but which I came across in the Betty Edwards book; I found it heartening: “Don’t worry about your originality. You couldn’t get rid of it even if you wanted to. It will stick with you and show up for better or for worse in spite of all you or anyone else can do.” Happy farming 🙂

  10. Michael Matthews

    Being forced to stop and look for two minutes, I found myself observing my own actions as much as the photos. The boxers, after a few moments adjusting to the task, became a continuing cycle of moving from the figure seen in rear view to the eyes of his trainer, to the eyes of the passerby, back to the foreground boxer – then round and round with an occasional detour to some small detail. A similar pattern of circling around the face, earrings, dress detail, and back to the face , then circling repeatedly around the face itself occurred in contemplating the feeling being expressed by the woman in the portrait. The children lighting candles by the railroad track forced me to pinch-zoom in a bit to simplify the composition. And the person running toward the camera could only provoke the insistent question: “What the hell is happening here?”

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Michael, I practice meditation on and off, and I find that’s one of the most interesting things about it (and I guess looking deeply at a photograph is a meditative practice of a sort). The mind starting to observe itself, watching our thoughts come and go.

      Interesting you say that about Catching Flies, I first saw the print at a small exhibition where I also showed some of my own prints, but unfortunately missed meeting Mariya (the photographer) in person. I got to know her afterwards and we became friends, but so far I’ve refrained from asking her what the hell was happening… I enjoy not knowing 🙂

  11. A question: Could the detailed literalness of a photograph help the left side undermine the artistic quality it may have?

    If that is true, it confirms a behavior I’ve seen when visiting an art gallery; I have noticed viewers linger longer at images that were ephemeral than those with detail, even if the detailed images were surreal. It was exactly what I did here.

    1. I guess it could work both ways – I can conceive of situations where the brain (or L-mode, at any rate) struggles to make sense of an abstract/non-literal piece of art and therefore wants to quickly dismiss it and move on? And with a detailed and literal image, because there are specific, known things to focus on, I can sometimes spend a long time just “reading” or “naming” it in an L-mode way (“Here’s a boxer with his trainer. The boxer has sand on his back. On his left hand is a shiny glove.” and so on) without really slipping into R-mode. Perhaps it depends on the person…

  12. Hi Sroyon – really worthwhile piece, cheers! Do you want to know what I think? (Bad luck, here it is anyway) I think about this A LOT – my current thoughts are that good photos have their own timers built in, if you like. That’s what a good photo needs to do; grab you and turn on that timer, then reward the observation by revealing more and more. It can’t be the other way round; “here’s a boring shot that when viewed for an hour becomes great.” (you could try that as an exercise though) And I don’t think it’s a bad thing that Insta photos etc just grab your attention; that’s fine, but what elevates a shot beyond the mediocre to greatness is that continued giving that it provides as a reward for continued attention, and the way it sticks in your brain (like a good HCB, Brandt or Leiter for example.) I have really been fascinated by this since I immersed myself in the photos of the Venice Biennale in 2019 – quick thoughts on that here:
    I did try the Betty Edwards thing back in the 80s when it was pretty trendy and it did not really work for me, but I’m pretty heavily left handed anyway. But certainly worth considering. I do think we can train ourselves to have a more sensitive aesthetic sense – and it’s a lifetime’s work (but worthwhile IMHO.) All strength to your arm.

    1. Thanks David, I really enjoyed your essays – much food for thought and I will certainly revisit them, next time focusing more on the pictures. I guess a concern for me (personally) is that a combination of looking too much and not looking well enough may be breaking my internal timer, if that makes sense 🙂

      1. Cheers Sroyon – the essays are rather superficial and done as a quick response at the time of being there, but one thing that has really stayed with me is that the best images hit very quickly with a really strong aesthetic (for example with Zanele Muholi I overheard two art students talking later “I really liked the black and white photos of the black lady”) but then as you are drawn in you start to see the details that don’t quite add up and you notice the odd props, then you read that Zanele is not a “she” and it goes from there… As for the timer; I don’t think you can worry too much about that or beat yourself up that you’re not looking the right way. I think if you devote yourself to art and aesthetics, sure you need to do all you can, but at any time you’re just riding the wave of who you are at that point and need to trust that. And the fact that there’s no definitive answer means it will never get boring. Thanks again for the article!

  13. “Mike Johnston, the man behind TOP, introduced the word bokeh to the English-speaking world”

    For which he should be castigated.

  14. Curious exercise. I thought I was going to have troubles doing the full two minutes, but that wasn’t a problem except for the last one.where I had the same reaction as Michael Matthews did and it went downhill from there. I found myself both examining the images and my thoughts wandering to places I’ve been or things I need to remember to talk to my wife about. Some of the thoughts I understand why the images triggered, others not so much.

  15. Hello Sroyon,
    Enjoyed the 10 minutes! I am habituated to look at images for long and coming back to one if my R brain found it interesting. I never knowingly restricted my self for two minutes per image till now though. TOP is my favourite site to go to everyday, so am happy Mike is getting mentioned here.
    All these 5 images created one common thing on me, I became more aware of those images without being attached to its data. I stopped thinking them as image OF a situation, rather I started considering them images FROM a situation. It is I believe, is very important for any image maker and viewer to do if the goal is to walk away from data based document called a photograph.
    So, the person in catching flies, boxers in the other, the child beside rail track, trees separated by frame then spoke to me. Actually I was speaking to myself on how I am writing my own story from images.
    And, I am sure, whenever will I comeback seeing any of these 5 images again, my story will be different then. That is the utmost joy of seeing.
    Because of many cameras, situations, images, paintings, websites including TOP ( Mike), I have now learned to see by the right brain… I want to continue doing that till I die.

    1. Thanks! I like what you say about the stories we bring to a photograph. Reminds me of this quote from Robert M Pirsig: “The only Zen you find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there.”

  16. Thanks for this, and whta a great exercise. I did cheat a little bit by doing it as a form of procrastination: I should be working right now.

    I have been struggling massively with anxiety and with concentration problems, and I thought this would give me a bigger challenge than it did. Only at the last picture did I start drifting away, and axtually getting anxious. It might be the nature of the photo, not just the look of classic horror but also the lack of detail and information to focus on. It actually made me feel anxious. That might just because it was the last photo, and my attention was stretching thin.

    I spent some extra time looking at the fourth photo, from Halder, and I kept seeing new things. To be honest, I’m not sure I’m completely finished looking at that photo, yet. Only at the end did I see the other lights on the pathway to the left. Or the little bridge on the rooftops.

    It also seems to be easier focusing on pictures with people, and facial expressions. You can try to read the person.

    And finally, Ido enjoy looking at these with a photographer’s eye, as far as I have developed one over the past year. Recognising techniques and skills that I now share with the photographers, but even more seeing the ones that are well beyond me.

    1. Oof Catching Flies should come with a trigger warning! The lights… on the night of Bhoot Chaturdashi the custom is to light 14 candles – so I guess each household did the same 🙂 Sorry to hear about your anxiety and concentration problems, I hope things look up soon!

  17. I found myself noticing things like formal elements of composition more than I ordinarily would, the tonal range involved, framing effects. Perhaps these would be part of my appreciation of the photo on a quick look, but being forces to stare made them explicit.

    1. Thanks Chris, I agree! Sometimes for me it’s the difference between simplistically liking (or disliking) something, and knowing why I like (or dislike) it.

  18. The problem is with most of these examples is and for that matter all online photography, we are looking at the image but not the photograph, a facsimile of the content but not the whole object. I think that was fine for the first image of the two boxers but the other four images would have greatly benefitted from seeing an original print. I think this is especially true for the final image, which to be honest I found a bit meh and was the hardest to observe for the whole two minutes however I’m sure I’d have a different reaction had I held a silver gelatine version in front of me instead of the screen shot.

    1. Thank you Philip for your comments. If you’re saying you have a personal preference to see photographs on paper than onscreen, I totally understand, and anecdotally, I think most people share that preference. But two of the photos are digital captures, so I am not so sure that we can confidently assert that a print of them is the whole object and an onscreen version is a facsimile. And two were taken on black and white film negatives, so again, a silver gelatine print would be one interpretation (and one medium) and a scan is another. And for better or for worse, this is a photography website, an online space, so online photography is what we get. But if you think the exercise is potentially fruitful, perhaps you could try it on a photo book (Mike Johnston’s original suggestion) or on prints or any other media of your choice, and hopefully you get more out of it!

      As for the choice of images, I thought all five are very strong and would reward extended contemplation, but of course, that’s just my opinion. And you’re entitled to yours, even if I have some reservations about your use of “bit meh”. But thanks for your thoughts and for trying the exercise 🙂

      1. A physical representation, whether it be a print or digital media, is a controlled representation. The problem with an online representation is that one cannot be certain it is as the creator intended, regardless of the capture method.
        Some images will not suffer greatly, others will.

        1. Well even with a physical print, it depends on the kind of light you view it in, at what distance, whether it’s matted or framed – and in many physical exhibitions the creator does not have full control (sometimes has no control) over how the image is displayed….

          1. All that is true. But in my experience, digital representation is far more variable. The analogy would be printed artbooks of paintings. If one compares a sample of reproductions of any given artwork with viewing the actual painting, almost all, if not all, are different to the original work.
            Given the vast variation of hardware, software and settings available on which to view an image, digital can be no better and almost guaranteed to be more variable. This is not to completely devalue digital exhibition, but to acknowledge its shortcomings.

  19. A very worthwhile experience. I found I was too long stuck in the analytical/L brain mode, perhaps in part by my current working through Tavis Leaf Glover’s tome on Dynamic Symmetry. Once I escaped from that, the most outstanding emotional content was in the domestic image (the sense of shelter and invitation to private/public places), and with it, the triggered remembrance of an interrupted taxi trip to the Mumbai airport in the blackness of the wee hours, when the driver stopped to socialize at a similar humble abode strung with “Christmas” lights

  20. I think the idea of spending some time viewing an image is a good one. However, the value for the viewer is highly dependent on what the viewer brings to the exercise. The reason adverts are designed to catch attention quickly is that is all the average viewer is bringing to the party. This is not much different to the average viewer of images in almost every format.
    Even when you weed out the more casual viewers, those with greater interest still bring a variety of levels of understanding, meaning extended contemplation is less valuable to many.

    1. Yes that’s true, but I would like to think that most people, including casual viewers, bring something to the image, and could get more out of it by extended contemplation than from a quick glance. I’m optimistic like that 🙂

  21. Great exercise SROYON. I landed here because of TOP. I had no problem carrying out the exercise and realized that had you not asked us to take the time I would have only glanced at them and maybe hovered a little over the “The Lovely Ms Sinclair” (what a beautiful portrait and model!) and”Bhoot Chaturdash”. What I find most interesting is that I consider myself to very different usually. Whenever I go to art or photo galleries/museums I am often accompanied by wife and/or daughters. My wife and one of my daughters usually “race” through the exhibits while I “spend forever” (their words not mine) studying each individual piece.

    What I have come to realize is that the mass of images available online has trained me to flick over them unless something grabs me. That is why I hardly spend any time on Instagram, Flickr, etc. and prefer to look at galleries put up by photographers since they have at least attempted to curate properly.

    1. Thank you Jon (and thanks again Mike)! I guess in a way it might even be better to do it that way, spend more time at galleries (or on good photo books) and “speed read” online. But I sometimes wonder if I’m sometimes missing out on quality online content (in the sense that even if I stumble upon a great image, I won’t recognise it, or give it the time it deserves) – and quality online content is certainly out there. And also if my online habits are carrying over into the “real world”. But as Mike also said in his post, that is a Big Topic.

  22. Two minutes was no problem for me, especially the lovely ms sinclair, easily my favorite of the five images. I generally prefer physical prints or photo books, as opposed to digital images, and I don’t know if that’s a left brain/right brain issue, or an old guy issue. Thanks for putting this together.

    1. Hahaha I love this comment! Pretty sure it’s not an old guy issue; I know people of various ages who prefer prints, including a 9 year old who loves her Instax camera because the photo is a physical object.

  23. Given the number of responses, it is obvious that you are on to something here.

    I found this a hugely interesting and enjoyable experience. Indeed, I got so lost in the Ina Echternach images that no time seemed to have passed when the timer sounded. Returning to it afterwards, I spent over 5 minutes on them before becoming even vaguely aware of the “outside world”.

    In contrast to your comments, I try to bring nothing of myself to an image. Approaching it as I would a novel, looking just to go along with what it offers up, I try to see what the image is perhaps really about. I guess it’s that old Taoist idea that all people/objects/experiences are three things i.e. what we think they are, what others think they are and what they really are. This of course takes time, so thank you for reminding me to slow down!

    1. Thanks for your comments and that’s a very interesting approach too! …and equally valid, I don’t mean to be prescriptive 🙂 I was mainly speaking of my own limitations; it seems I can’t help bringing something of myself to a picture. Holly who also writes for 35mmc is currently coordinating a project where she is asking volunteers to look at a photograph which they are unfamiliar with, and describe in their own words what is depicted in the picture. It will be interesting to see how much of themselves those volunteers bring to the picture (or indeed, how much they can leave behind). It will be another month or more before it’s published, but I think it may be another article of interest to you!

  24. Great piece, Sroyon, and very thought provoking. I have no arts training, and my informal training is thin to the point of invisible. I think when I am presented with visual art my initial reaction is usually therefore emotional, rather than technical. That’s not to say it wouldn’t be verbal descriptive. What I found with these images was an immediate emotional reaction, followed by an analysis of why am liking this, which I mostly could not articulate. I haven’t decided if this lack of vocabulary makes me linger more upon this or less than I would if I had the vocabulary. The other train of thought is what is the narrative of this image. More usually what story is the image telling, rather than what was the story of the capture, though. With the busier images I found myself hunting for clues, initially with the focal subject/s, and then all over the frame. I found myself wanting to know what the photographers intent was, and how this might differ from my interpretation.

    1. Thanks Bill! I have no formal training either 🙂 The non-verbal mode of responding to an artwork which you talk about is what Betty Edwards describes as R-mode – at least that’s how I understand it – so I guess that’s the goal in a way. I wonder if we lose something when we are able to (or feel forced to) articulate. Perhaps you know about the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis?

  25. Hi Sroyan, I really liked the article and enjoyed the experiment. I did notice myself drifting away from the photo by Halder, but once I enlarged it I found more detail to explore and became re-engaged. I am very familiar with the Betty Edwards book, but have never thought of using the principles to turn off your left brain in order to really look at photos. I wonder if her exercise of turning a drawing upside down to copy it would work with photos? Turn the photo upside down in order to look at the formal qualities as opposed to what it is reperesenting in the real world? Anyway, great job!

  26. Daniel Stevenson

    First off, thank you. I enjoyed this exercise. I don’t necessarily feel I got everything out of it that I could have but it has certainly introduced me to an alternative way to view photographs.

    As a comment I feel Mike was right, I didn’t feel as if two minutes was adequate, but it was certainly a good introduction. I’ll read Mike’s post as well to glean some of his insights.

    Again, thank you. This was certainly out of the normal for many of the posts I read on this website. and I appreciate you for bringing something new to the table.

    1. Thanks Daniel, that was my hope really – that readers would feel motivated to try it with other photographs too, perhaps modifying the exercise to suit their own needs and what they want to get out of it 🙂

  27. I made it completely through the experiment, giving each photo the full two minutes. At first, I found my eyes wandering through the image. By the 3rd photograph, I began to feel more in the moment of the photos and could almost feel myself there amongst the subjects of the images and wondered what the “rest of the story was”. I found it to be a very telling experiment one which I need to do more often when viewing not only my own work but the work of others.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top