Photography is a conversation

_5R02199 copySearching for pearls of wisdom

For the longest time, I’d always thought of photography as a visual presentation. A single photograph should be a story, and that story is whatever you choose to present. A series of images should be a a complete epic narrative, with beginning, end and some drama. That is still true, but doesn’t really take into account the dynamic between photographer/artist and viewer: the truth is that no two individuals are the same, and even if one person in that relationship remains static, the other brings with them their own set of biases and expectations and associations. In that way, the story can told can never really be the same with each telling: it’s really more like a conversation.

The outcome of a conversation depends not on the subject but on the rapport (or lack of) between its participants. Via the medium of a photograph, how can one establish that rapport – or even open dialogue at all – when the flow of communication is entirely one-way? You cannot reshoot a picture depending on the preferences of the viewer. Perhaps we are dealing with something closer to a speech, a poem or an essay, then: the photographer says all they have to say upfront, and the audience makes what they will of it. There are some universal topics that elicit similar reactions – anything to do with human emotion, spectacular vistas, unusual events, love, suffering, bokeh, cats, test charts. Unfortunately, much like most speeches, written material or other dialogue, not everything that is said is worth listening to – much less worth contemplating to figure out if there are any hidden depths to plumb. So what can we do to leave thoughts of note?

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A message in hiding

I believe the first step is awareness. If the speaker or photographer has no idea what they want to communicate to begin with, there’s simply no way it can be possible to communicate it effectively. This can eliminate a lot of false starts – it’s really the equivalent of curation before capture. That said, if you know that you have said your elevator pitch within the first second or two of your audience viewing the image, then half the battle is won. You already know that you have to make that first impression compelling enough to invite further viewing and contemplation. It is extremely difficult to make an image that is both immediately attractive and dispenses some deep pearls of wisdom or encourages philosophical thought all within a few seconds; there are few topics of any sort even that can create that kind of response in a human. (Never mind the fact that anything that can be instantly grasped in such a short space of time probably isn’t that complex or interesting.) But if you can hold the audience’s attention long enough to study the details, there’s still a chance.

The framework of The Four Things is useful from a photographer’s point of view, but not an audience one. We are composing one level above what the audience consciously perceives: they notice the subject and the context/background and any stories or themes implied by the juxtaposition of the objects contained within. The audience sees – or should see – subject first, then idea, and that’s it. The rest – light and composition – are tools for the photographer to control the presentation within the image.

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Obscured truth

It doesn’t mean that quality of light isn’t important or that leading lines do not matter; they do – it’s just that for most observers, they do not register at a conscious level. We use those tools specifically because they allow us to control the way an image is read without being obvious and drawing unwanted attention to themselves. There are of course other ways of making your subject stand out – desaturating everything else, or a strong vignette, for instance – but these eventually land up being distracting because they draw attention to the technique used rather than allowing the audience to focus on the subject. To use the oratory analogy, it’s the body language: no fidgeting, confident posture, engaging with the eyes.

Distilling the idea down to its simplest form is the role of composition: consciously excluding the unnecessary and the distracting allows the audience to focus solely on the idea you are trying to communicate. It’s the same as speaking in precise, measured sentences without any excess waffling, ‘ums’ and ‘ahhs’, and being unnecessarily verbose. That is not to say that adding color to a story or visual texture to the context isn’t good – it just has to be used carefully and sparingly to avoid dominating the proceedings. Pauses are not a bad thing – I suppose the visual equivalent would be empty space – they allow a gathering of thoughts and an isolation of the ones that have already been.

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Into the deep end

Like any good dialogue, the audience should be left both wanting more and knowing exactly what you were trying to communicate. It’s a tricky balance, I think: how minimalist is too minimalist? How vague is too vague? What is the critical line and essence of a subject, the bare minimum required to instantly identify what we’re looking at? How much does one leave to the imagination of the audience – with the intention that any personal biases or expectations can be taken care of by the imagination of the viewer?

There are as many kinds of photographers as there are people, and as many kinds of audience again. It simply isn’t possible to satisfy everybody, so there’s no point in trying – you have to know your audience as much as you have to know what kind of photographer you are, and what exactly you want to say. Personally, I believe that it’s better to say something that shows some thought and is defendable by logic rather than shoot off your mouth; it’s that old adage of ‘best say nothing at all lest you remove all doubt you are a fool.’ I would rather bypass the instant gratification/ shock factor and make images that require some contemplation and thought to appreciate, but reward the audience for doing so. I’m sure I’m losing many with short attention spans, but I know that isn’t my audience anyway – both personal and professional. As always, curation is king: nobody can judge you on what you don’t show or don’t say. MT


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  1. Mosswings says:

    Fine Art photography is a certain type of conversation, perhaps. One in which not much is stated and far more implied, or inferred. It’s really more of a visual letter to the observer, one which the observer can do with what they will, including walk away.

    Conversation is far more immediate, filled with give and take, miscues and corrections, and words that become vapor almost as soon as they are said, but impressions that are deepened by the stream of words.

    Most photography these days is an attempt to augment our conversations with visual aids. Pictures fly back and forth and are gone almost as fast as they are sent and seen. Fine Art photography I see more as a lecture, an invitation to linger and ponder over a point. The very word you use in describing the process – curation – implies just this sort of deliberateness.

    Perhaps the very meaning of conversation has been cheapened with its ease and our lack of time. Decades ago, I would have embraced the word. Today, the process you call by that name I could call a discussion – a more formal, engaged way of talking. But lecture seems much more to the point.

    • Not all lectures are one way, and the lecturer still has to tailor it to the audience for them to get the most out of it. And not all conversations contain much of import 🙂

  2. Insightful words and ones that make me think in all your post, and great images as always. I strongly agree its important to know what kind of photographer you are and what your trying to say. Two things I’m working on myself. Far to often I find myself throwing things out without thought. Or shooting without proper planing. Hell I’m still learning the tools. And your post certainly help this amateur along. Seems like you have a great group of followers also with good commentary.

    • liramusic says:

      Ming, I wondered just know if you’ve tried or done a thread that was aimed at very abstract photography. I felt concerned that this thread seemed very aimed at realism. I have a hunch that highly-experimental, surrealist images would maybe not your cup of tea? I guess I just wondered. My very best, jw (Sometimes taking a thought way out to an extreme might add to a discussion)

    • Thank you. Yes, once I cut down the reviews we were left with a pretty serious bunch 🙂

      • John Brady says:

        Indeed. There’s a lot less trolling than there used to be. No doubt you get fewer hits and fewer comments, but I suspect the signal-to-noise ratio is somewhat improved!

        This is one of those posts that makes me think about why I shoot; that the techniques are always subservient to the idea. And how often do I actually shoot with an idea, rather than simply trying to capture an interesting or balanced composition? Not very often I suspect. And so the bar is raised again…

        • It’s improved massively – and that’s made it one of the best decisions to date 🙂

          However, thinking about the premise of and responses to this post again has made me think about the speech vs conversation analogy and what that means for image making: a speech is probably closer than a conversation to the nature of most photographs, but that really demands audience attention rather than participation – and it’s somewhat less satisfying than a give-and-take exchange. I think it’s very, very difficult to make an exchange out of an image when the creator is no longer present afterwards, but perhaps it just means we need to try harder 🙂

          • John Brady says:

            I like the analogy of a speech, particularly since the best speeches are rich in metaphor and aim to engage as well as inform – and unlike a presentation, don’t have a Q&A afterwards. Similarly, the objective of the speechwriter is to impart an idea, and all of the tools of the trade are subservient to that objective. There is perhaps one important difference; many speeches end with an explicit call to action. Photography typically does not, except perhaps in photojournalism when it is used to support a political point. Which raises the question of whether you’ve ever used an image to provoke an action rather than impart an idea?

            One element that isn’t mentioned in this post is the question of whether or not to title the images. I know that opinion is divided on this, but I personally like your use of titles. They provide contextual cues before (or after) I view the image. As the consumer of an image, I have very few cues other than the image itself:

            1) The name of the photoessay or sequence
            2) The expectations set by previous images in the sequence
            3) The title of the image

            I’ve noted that your titles often lead me to look at an image in a particular way, giving me a perspective I may have missed if I was viewing the image without that context. Perhaps the combination of these elements (curation, sequencing into an essay, titling etc) turns it into more of a conversation than it otherwise would?

            • All the time: the whole point of advertising photography is to get you to do something, or buy something, or feel a certain way about something – I’d actually say that imparting an idea is much less frequently used, if anything. It’s also harder to do because there has to be a certain degree of refinement to the idea, without which only the very simplest ideas may be imparted.

              Titling: I did actually discuss it in this post. I think titles can certainly help with either secondary information, or guiding thought in a direction that might not initially have been obvious if there are multiple or ambiguous interpretations to an image. In short: if used correctly, it’s deliberate. Whether the audience likes it or not is of course another thing entirely… 🙂

  3. liramusic says:

    I think that the entire conversation can be the material of the work itself. The artist can have that intent in mind or it could happen without he intent of the artist. The artist may take on the role of a philosopher, for example. I think herein is where photography has a peculiar edge over painting since the starting point was a scene that actually existed for a moment in time. Then irony takes over with chance and point of view, choices about some things but not all. There’s sort of a strange voyeuristic quality but then there is this reactionary aspect that includes elements inside and out side of the frame– such as the secondary viewer, if the photographer was the first “viewer”. Then far outside the frame is culture or maybe some mystical something. Yeah… as rose is more than just a rose.

    • liramusic says:

      That sentence was tricky to word. “…the material of the work can be conversation,” as opposed to just the photo and nothing else being the material. It seems hard to word that.

      • Do you mean the original scene itself as opposed to the image, which would be both the artist’s interpretation of it and their own stylistic injection?

    • Doesn’t every artist have to be a philosopher to a certain degree? Aren’t we all trying to express ideas, be they questions or hypothetical situations we created ourselves or something of life we observed and felt might be of interest to our audience?

      The photographer definitely has to be the first viewer – whether they are viewing a scene they created themselves, or merely noticing it and bringing it to public attention for the first time.

  4. Bill Walter says:

    As viewers of photographs, we all have a lifetime of experiences that bring different preferences and biases. It’s impossible to how any given person will react to a particular photograph. I like your statement… ” It simply isn’t possible to satisfy everybody, so there’s no point in trying.” This is why I feel it’s important for the photographer to please only himself. One you are satisfied with your final result, your job is done. Whoever views your photograph can interpret and judge it any way they see fit.

    • Bingo. That said, there are some things we all have in common – the ability to recognise trees and people, for instance. The common vocabulary is small, but still quite flexible.

      And unless you’re shooting for a client – and perhaps even then – pleasing yourself is certainly the most important thing, otherwise we land up with an image that is half baked and doesn’t work for anybody.

  5. Niklas says:

    This should be required reading.

    Also, thinking in these terms, you realise how nonsensical it is to critise someone for not using “proper” technique or not following “rules”: if it helpd to say what the photographer wanted to say, it is the “correct” way by definition.

    • Thank you. Although it seems reviews are more required reading these days!

      I agree: there are no rules because there’s no fixed structure defining what we must say. I suppose to a certain extent the same is true of grammar; but we can always work around that to make the words have the meaning we want (and by extension, the visuals).

  6. Richard P. says:

    Hi Ming,
    Very interesting topic! A number of thoughts come together …
    1. Like all forms of art, with photography some images are spectacular at the surface level (ex. landscapes) – there could be a message but it is secondary. Other images, could, on the surface, seem unremarkable but then reward the viewer’s effort in study with a message. You can draw parallels to music – pop vs jazz vs classical. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
    2. The conversation we are having is on the surface one directional – photographer to us. There is the message that you intend for us. But there is perhaps more? HiA site like yours (images + prose) opens windows to you and your world and enhances the conversation to the point where we, the audience, feel (think) like we are getting to know you. Of course, this aspect of the relationship is also one-sided. And this interpretation of you is based on our own individual perceptions, which could be close to the mark or very far off.
    3. And finally, sometimes, is not a rose just a rose … 😉

    Richard P.

    • 1. Most certainly. Again, talking about something the audience cannot understand or does not appreciate is like barking at the moon.

      2. I wondered about this too – whilst it seems like a speech on the surface, not all images are presented in isolation – the photographer is often there to add commentary or additional insight during the presentation following the reaction of the audience.

      As to whether I am who you think I am from my images, I can’t answer that for two reasons – firstly, everybody has a certain separation between public and private faces; to an extent we make ourselves who we want to be and then sort of grow to fit those shoes. Or we may want to keep some things hidden or simplified or just feel they’re not relevant to the audience – whether I like fried fish, for instance, isn’t relevant to a landscape. I think we need to call in our good resident psychologist again…

      • Richard P. says:

        1. Agree with your statement but my reference to music was along the (generalisation) lines that some pop music while musically simple become huge hits, while some classical music (more musically complex) may take more study to fully appreciate. Each case has its merits.
        2. Yes, as a celebrity you do have a public face and you show grains of your private life. My point is that your images tell the viewer something, your writing tells us more, your responses to posts tells us even more. Over years, I imagine all those who have not met you in person must have formulated an idea of who you are. But this idea is also, in part, a projection of their own personality. And doesn’t this have the potential to influence the photographer’s original message?


        • 1. Fully agreed – my mistake.
          2. Agreed also – I wonder what people make of me when they meet me in person, though there’s no way to objectively assess or quantify that, either 🙂


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