In the previous article, we distilled down the two components of an interesting image: subject and presentation. We looked at the theoretical implications of both; today we’re going to attempt to address practical application. It will be in a very limited subjective way, as there’s simply no way to do it at an absolute level; I suppose it will be as much a snapshot of my current state of interpretation of the purpose of photography as a medium as much as anything. I certainly would not have had this line of logic two years ago, nor will I probably agree with everything again in another two years. The more we see, the more we experiment, the more our own vision evolves together with the creative philosophy behind it.
It’s probably quite important to think about the personal part: I don’t think anybody will argue against it being almost impossible to make an image that’s universally interesting to everybody. That said, every image will be relatable to some degree or other: the question is, to what extent? As the ‘personal resonance’ increases, the audience shrinks. Ultimately, there should be an audience of at least one: the client. I use that term in a broad sense: commissioned commercial work aside, it’s going to be the creator (and ideally should still be the creator even for commissioned work).
I think there are really only two ways around this that still result in the production of an interesting image: either leaving a deliberate amount of ambiguity, or the sort of clinical precision/ perfection that may appeal unemotional and cold to some, but hits the target precisely for one person and one person only. That person should obviously be the creator, simply because it’s impossible to know the mind of somebody else to the same extent that one knows one’s own likes and dislikes*. Both approaches require a goodly amount of control, both from an artistic/aesthetic standpoint as well as a technical one.
*Though to what extent we really consciously know ourselves is another debate entirely.
The idea of deliberate ambiguity is quite simple: you allow enough uncertainty in the image for the audience to interpret and project into the poorly defined areas whatever he or she is expecting to see. This way, there is no disappointment or spontaneous opposing emotion; you see what you want to see and there is nothing to contradict that. It can be as simple as a huge amount of negative space – the content of the blackness does not have any form or shape, so there is nothing preventing your viewers from imagining the space inhabited with trolls or fairies or kittens or sinister men in black suits with sunglasses. The imagination of the audience is allowed the latitude to satisfy itself. Given a choice, this is probably why almost every one of my students will pick and produce low key images over high key ones; it’s important to understand why. High key images tend to have the inverse effect, suggesting innocence or honesty – everything in the shadows is opened up and exposed, leaving no ambiguity or place to hide. It’s probably why most product and bridal photography tends to be high rather than low key.
Not really intimate – the shadows suggest one thing, reality suggests another. But there’s that moment of ambiguity when you’re not really quite sure which is real and which is merely an artefact of projection.
Incidentally, this is also the same reason why the best horror movies are frightening: there’s only a suggestion of what might be lurking around the corner; the rest is filled in by the expectation of one’s worst fears. Precisely defining those fears would make it not scary at all – a beautifully lit static zombie in a bright gallery would probably bring curiosity and surface revulsion rather than primal fear of the unknown. It is defined in every way possible, removing the mystery.
In an image that leaves absolutely no room for interpretation, there is almost always the certainty of disappointment to some degree. You can only see what is presented to you; you might want to see what you expect, but your eyes are telling you something else; this dissonance creates all sorts of discomfort intellectually. Of course, the same dissonance can also be used to create philosophical challenges. If an audience goes in with an open mind and as far as possible, no expectations, these are the most interesting kind of images: the photographer has the potential to very precisely define an idea, and hope that it translates visually into the mind of another person. The more control you have over this process, the better that idea will translate. And the more control you’ll need to translate ideas of increasing complexity.
At this point, we go back to square one: you can’t translate an idea that’s ill-defined in even your own mind, because then nobody really knows what you’re trying to say – even yourself as creator. And we really need quite a deep understanding of human psychology and the way the subconscious mind processes visual information and makes associations with other memories or thoughts in order to seed a very complex or unusual idea. The strongest and most lasting translation is when the clues are presented in a certain order, but the viewer comes to the conclusion on their own.
From the Venetian cinematics
As a simple example, the idea of a rainy day can be conveyed by a figure with an umbrella and some reflections off wet ground; we could leave the background blurred out or invisible and only the type of ground (grass, pavement, road, mud etc.) to suggest location. The figure in the image could really be wherever you want them to be; if you can’t see a face, they could be any age or race, too. Direction and amount of light could suggest during or after rain; if we see warm bright light casting shadows then the storm is probably over. Conversely, a highly defined image might be an ultraprint of a city in the rain in which raindrop splashes in puddles are visible, people swarm with umbrellas and there are landmarks on the skyline to lead you to specifically define the location.
Moving along the idea of definition, I find myself being increasingly drawn to two types of image: the first kind is where you seek as much clarity, transparency and definition as possible; these are for scenes that appeal to you in some way in real life, but perhaps don’t always translate into an image. I want to suspend the feeling of seeing a two dimensional print and make you feel as though you’re looking into the scene. A lot of times, this is not possible because of a lack of information: it may be other non-visual sensory cues, or it may simply because the output medium lacks resolution or dynamic range or color gamut. Ultraprinting addresses the latter to a large degree; a web image may have 0.01% the information in the print, which in itself is a further infinite reduction on reality (though perhaps reasonably close to perceivable reality given the limits of human vision). Fortunately, we do respond strongly to visual stimuli, which is good, because as yet we can’t reliably capture or print smells.
The second kind of image is the opposite; we exploit precisely the two-dimensionality of photographs, the projection of the camera and the way our mind reads spatial cues (shadows, light, perspective) into something that turns into what I think of as a visual discontinuity or non-sequitur. It is where we see juxtapositions and continuations where there shouldn’t be; the unexpected forces us to pause and think. Good examples here are the complete removal of depth cues, or the use of very wide angle lenses to create abstraction by holding them deliberately misaligned. The more unexpected and impossible, the harder to figure out, the better. Think beyond strategically placed balloons over faces, frozen motion in awkward positions and the like. Photographs are instantly recognisable as facsimiles of reality and representing real objects, which only adds to this confusion: as an audience, we ask ourselves ‘how can this be real?’ Yet it obviously is, because it was captured (presumably) without manipulation.
Both types of images serve one purpose: they offer the opportunity to see and explore a scene or instant at leisure that might otherwise have not been noticed or passed by and not fully appreciated because of the continuity of time. (There’s a third type of image in which there’s no real ‘instant’ per se that looks at visualising the continuity of static time – as opposed to long exposures that are aggregate time – which I’m exploring now, but it’s very early days yet.)
The more I shoot, the more challenging it is to commit to an image. This is not because I’m not seeing; it’s because I’m curating before I shoot, and I know that in order to make a more interesting image and something with a more complex or unusual idea, more elements need to come together in a very precise way. I prefer definition to ambiguity precisely because it allows for more complex ideas. There’s a large degree of experimentation and uncertainty; the more there is, the higher the failure rate. More so when none of those elements are in your direct control. I also recognise that this is going to produce images with increasingly polarised responses: it’s down to removal of ambiguity and room for interpretation. I spend more time now conceptualising, thinking, observing my environment and devising ideas to fit; it’s almost as though you try to drum these things into your subconscious because you want to recognise them instantly and react the moment you see them.
On the other hand, I’m also spending more time studying the behaviour and psychology of people: not as subject, but as audience. When viewing an image, it’s not just what’s said but also all of the things that pass through your subconscious to make you arrive at a certain conclusion. At a simple level, color temperature of light and brightness change the way we feel about a scene; at a more complex level, certain elements may invoke discomfort or other physical sensations like warmth, hunger, desire, intrusion or inclusiveness etc. Learning how these elements translate from the visual to the emotional arms the arsenal with yet another tool. Whoever said that a photograph says as much about the photographer as the subject was right; they should have appended it to include the response of the audience being rather revealing about the viewer, too. MT
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