Photographs can be stimulating in different ways. A photograph can be informational, emotional, and/or intellectual.

At its base, a photograph provides visual information about the photographed subject. The subject can be a static object or a split second from a dynamic event (e.g., a photograph of cars racing on a track).

A photograph records the visual information available when light reflects off of a physical object; a photograph is informational. Of course, the way the the photograph is framed (what is included in the frame), the perspective, and what if anything is in sharp focus impacts what information is actually provided or communicated. Regardless, the photograph provides visual information because of its very nature. Whether that information makes sense or is of any use to a viewer is another issue and gets into the “utility” of the photograph for the viewer, which varies depending on the viewer. (It seems likely that the more utility a photograph has for a viewer, the more “informative” the viewer would judge it to be.)

Another type of stimulation that can be provided by a photograph is emotional.

These are photographs that appeal to the viewer’s emotions, and the subject matter can encompass nearly anything to which people have emotional attachments: people (babies, children, men, women, couples, nudes) , landscapes, nature, animals, sunsets, artifacts (objects associated with people), and so on. This is the primary category of imagery that photography enthusiasts pursue and to which the general population responds to and calls “good/great photography”. Strong emotional response is taken as a self-evident proof that a photograph is good, and the intensity of the affective response is the de facto measure of its greatness.

Most people do not recognize any other purpose or “effect” of photography beyond the informational and emotional; however, there is another purpose or effect of photography, and it has to do with intellectual stimulation.

It turns out that photography is a ingenious means for exploring and illuminating (sic) concepts and ideas..that are more “in the head” than “in the heart”. Even as I write this, I realize I should make it clear that in practice, it’s difficult to separate out the emotional, informational and intellectual; often some degree of two or more aspects are present in a particular photograph. The range is quite sizable, but there are clearly some photographs in the fine art world that have virtually no emotional component, yet are still quite compelling and desirable…some worth thousands or millions of dollars to collectors. These are the photographs referred to as “Deadpan” in Charlotte Cotton’s book, “the photograph as contemporary art“.

So the “two-dimensional” photograph turns out to have the potential for amazing complexity. There are informational, emotional, and intellectual components, each can be present to a different degree, and they can mix in various and sophisticated ways.

Anyone recognizing and appreciating the flexible potential of a photograph will be rewarded with an enduring and facile source of multi-faceted stimulation and exploration!

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