I have a bit of a problem. In fact, it’s becoming an increasingly large one. Put simply, I’m running out of words to describe the things I’m seeing and the visual concepts I’m trying to explain; and I don’t know if the vernacular even exists. I suspect it doesn’t, but then again, I’m sure there are English speakers with greater vocabulary than me for whom it does. A large portion of you probably think this is stating the obvious; it is. But we reach a point beyond which it becomes impossible to progress further without some sort of common baseline accurately and consistently describe what it is we’re intending to convey; or more specifically, to ensure that what I’m saying and imagining are the same things as what you’re hearing and seeing in your own mind.
Let’s take this image, and the first one in the post. Ostensibly, they’re both clouds; they’re even structured the same, with a dominating central cloud and some mostly empty sky around the outside. You could spend quite some effort describing both in a quantitative way – and come up with an ultimately inadequate description that nobody would be able to visualize. You could say they’re both a colour portrait of a cloud, one shaped like a fluffy jujube, and the other like an inside-out explosion. I bet the second pair of descriptions would’t be far off the mark. But the only reason this works is because there’s a lot of common secondary language here: we all know what clouds are, we have our own expectations of what a ‘fluffy cloud’ looks like, inside out is a concept we understand, and can translate into an expectation of lighting – but does everybody know what a jujube is?
And here we start to be on slippery ground: the more remote the allegory we use, the less likely our audience is going to understand it. And that’s just describing the visual portion – we haven’t even started on the structural or storytelling aspects of the image yet. Ironically, the storytelling portion is much easier: it almost doesn’t have to relate to the image at all; metaphor is the order of the day. But describing the structure of an image? That’s tough.
Part of the problem is that the same word can mean a lot of things, even in a photographic context. Take ‘Light’, for instance:
- Subjective quality of ambient luminance
- Quantitative measures of ambient luminance: amount, direction, colour, diffusion
- Quality or nature of contrast
- The opposite of dark, i.e. an abundance of ambient or subject luminance
- Visually uplifting
- Minimalist; the opposite of busy/ detailed
- Empty, but bright
- High key
- Equipment that has relatively low real mass compared to expected mass for its size or function
I think you can see the problem here already: depending on the context, the word ‘light’ can mean a huge number of things. And it isn’t always clear which one (or ones, I suppose) of these things we’re referring to. It’s very possible for an image to have good light and simultaneously feel light and airy; I suppose this would qualify:
Yet ultimately, it doesn’t tell you anything about the subject, the contents, or the colour, or composition. See what I mean about our language being insufficient to really discuss images in detail? I suspect musicians, painters, actors etc. all had the same problem at some point. They cannot easily discuss their work because they can’t describe it; so they invented new words to work around it. Even that is largely inadequate, because you’re trying to use a written/ spoken/ conceptual language to describe something that is fundamentally physical and actually quite precise, but at the same time not: a riff can take many different specific forms, but still count as a riff.
We photographers, on the other hand, don’t really have this: how do you describe the feel of a smooth tonal transition over a large spatial area mixed with high frequency detail over a small portion of the image? What if that’s predominantly high key? Or low key? Our verbiage is dominated by the technical; talk about sensor blooming or lateral chromatic aberration and everybody knows what that means. But the artistic is simply left by the wayside and ignored. And that’s sad, because photography is not about measurbating your camera: it’s about making images. Understanding your equipment is a critical part of that, but it isn’t the end goal.
An even larger problem we face is that most of the time, the two people discussing an image are not even looking at the same thing: even if you’ve got the same digital file, your screen calibrations and ambient lighting conditions are almost certainly non-identical. And we know how much that can change things: look at a file on a screen with poor brightness, relatively little contrast, a limited gamut and low resolution – and then on a properly calibrated, state-of-the-art wide-gamut 4K display. And then the same thing again on a retina iPad: they’re all different. Dramatically so. The only way to ensure we’re actually talking about the same thing is to look at the same print, under the same light, in person. That obviously isn’t practical, so we have to make caveats in the discussion and allowances for such variances; yet these variances can make an enormous difference in the overall impact and feel of an image. Even though there will always be subjective interpretative differences, at least you can minimise the overall range by starting out at the same point. What gives still images at least half of their magic is also what makes them very difficult to pin down and improve.
This brings us to The Disconnect: even if you can describe it in a way that makes sense to you, and perhaps others, does it make sense to me? What we need is some sort of universally – across photographers, at least – consistent set of terminology to describe at least common visual features of images; a set of building blocks, if you will. This way, if you can say something about the subject, the style, and the major building blocks, you should have a reasonably good idea of what the image might look like in person – perhaps not as condensed a description as saying a piece of music is a fugue and expecting it to follow a relatively fixed structure, but at least something that lets the viewer know what they’re in for – and subsequently allows us to discuss and analyse the images in a more structured way.
The disconnect is something that’s become increasingly apparent to me as I do more and more portfolio reviews for the Email School; I used to write the portfolio reviews, but I’ve long switched over to a video because it’s simply easier for me to point at the portions of the image I want to talk about. Then only once I establish a baseline set of vocabulary to associate with certain images do I revert to text. Video is of course not always practical, however; hence the need to find a more consistent solution. I have no idea how we go about this, but I’m willing to try, if there’s enough support. Such a wordset will not appeal or apply to everybody; much the same as there’s subject-specific vocabulary in every other pursuit. I don’t expect it to be widely adopted, because most people will simply have no use for it. But if enough people use it, in connection with images, hopefully it will become commonplace. So, over to the audience: any and all thoughts/ suggestions/ ideas in the comments please? MT
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