In Artistic Photography I noted that, “In poetry, the poet strives to transfer his emotion as directly as possible to the imagination of the reader.” If we translate this to the realm of photography we could write, “In photography, the photographer strives to transfer his emotion as directly as possible to the imagination of the viewer.”
The vast majority of pictures floating around social media these days are simply “taken”. We’ve all seen it (and probably done it); the tourist bus stops at the viewpoint, everyone piles out, points a camera at the scene, presses the button and gets back on the bus – job done. However, in this essay I want to explore the process of “creating” a photographic image in a more structured way. In An Approach to Critique, I wrote about the characteristics of a picture: its design, subject, narrative and emotional reaction. If that is a sensible structure to critique a photograph, it might also be a structure for thoughts about creating an image.
As we stroll around the – street, park, landscape – taking photographs, there are certain moments that suddenly capture the imagination. I’m talking about those two or three moments in a day that make you stop in your tracks and say, “wow – yes, that’s it”. This might be a case of seeing something new – a deer that appears in the woodland. It might be the fall of light that illuminates a familiar object or scene in an extraordinary way. It may be a humorous (or disturbing) scene, a person or an arrangement of colours and shapes. Whatever it is, there is a moment of engagement – an emotional moment – “this is what I brought the camera out for today”.
In the realm of poetry, the subject may be as humble as Wordsworth’s “Daffodils” or as dramatic as war – as long as it touches the poet’s heart. The poet’s task is to translate that emotion into words, while the photographer’s task is to translate the feeling into an image. Now our poet would sit down with paper and pencil and jot down the elements of his/her poem – the key points, the adjectives, the metaphors and so on. As photographers, we can probably dispense with the paper and pencil but we can still go through this process of exploring how to express our emotion in a (visual) narrative.
Narrative – Add and Remove
Antoine de Saint Exupéry, the French writer, famously wrote, “Il semble que la perfection soit atteinte non quand il n’y a plus rien à ajouter, mais quand il n’y a plus rien à retrancher.” “It seems that perfection is attained not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to remove.”
Antoine de Saint Exupéry invites us to explore our subject and identify the essential elements that generated our interest and emotion. Can I take this out? Is that part essential? If we try to cram too much into our small rectangular image, we risk creating confusion and our audience may miss the point. In a portrait, do we need the person along with their environment, providing context – or should we isolate just the figure, or the face, or just a hand? Which is the element that encapsulates the narrative?
On the other hand, take out too much and the story will be incomplete. In many cases additional elements beyond the key subject will be needed to provide context and add depth and interest to the picture. But every element should be there because it tells its own part of the story. In his website, the US photographer and teacher John Free suggests looking for three or more elements to build the narrative around the main subject. We might think in terms of “main subject”, “supporting narrative” and “context”. In landscape photographs, we often find a main subject (perhaps a lake), a supporting item of foreground interest (a tree, a rock…) and the background context (the hills or skyline beyond).
Composition / Design
If our “narrative” is the selection of the essential elements that will be included in the picture, then our “composition” becomes the visual arrangement of these elements in the frame. Finding the best design involves both physical and mental engagement. Physically, we can probably walk around the subject and explore how it looks from different angles. How do the textures and colours differ as we move? Does it look better from above? Or from street level? How does the background change as we move about? How the light falls on the subject is all important. Do we want the light from in front, side or behind? Where do the shadows fall? Do we want to reveal or hide texture? And so on.
Most articles or books about photography explore the rules of composition: leading lines, rule of thirds, negative space, and so on. This is a vast subject – but also one very well documented elsewhere. Suffice it to say here that composition is the choice of how we place the narrative elements within our frame.
Of course, all the elements of our narrative might not be under our control and we may have to wait for the story to unfold in front of us. We may need a person to walk into that shaft of light, a boat to pass under that bridge or the shadows to grow longer at dusk. Henri Cartier-Bresson, the French humanist photographer, described the importance of creating a frame and then allowing people to move into the frame, taking the picture at the decisive moment when both the narrative and composition where complete. Our choice of subject, our composition and choice of timing may all interact. These may be under our control to some degree – or not.
If we are serious about our photography, we will probably want share our images with others. In this case, the viewer will not have been there and they will have to read our image.
In An Approach to Critique I suggest that as viewers we first see the design / composition of an image and react to that. We then identify more about the subject – and, as we explore the image further, the narrative grows in our minds leading to an emotional engagement with the subject. Hopefully, the response that the viewer feels reflects the emotion that the photographer was trying to express.
When creating an image, the same elements of design, subject and narrative need to be thought about. While the viewer’s emotional response comes at the end, the photographer starts with an emotional response. The photographer then needs to identify the essence of the subject and choose which supporting elements will convey the story. Composition can then be considered as the placing of those elements within the frame and within the light, waiting if necessary for the elements all to come together at the decisive moment.
Thus while the viewer’s timeline is: design > subject > narrative > response
The photographer’s timeline is: response > subject > narrative (elements) > composition (arrangement) > timing