Let me start off by saying I’m probably the wrong person to write about this topic, but that’s also precisely why I need to. My critics are always fond of saying my images are too cold, too precise, too unemotional, too lacking in soul. There are no right or wrong absolutes when comes to art and photography, only subjective preferences; this of course means that there’s probably a nugget of something legitimate in there. I’ve spent some time contemplating what this last bit might actually mean: what is soul in an image? Why do some images have it, and others don’t? I will also say that whatever I put forth after this point is pure conjecture on my part (more so since I apparently don’t know what soul is), and I’m sure there are as many definitions as there are photographers. So, feel free to add your two cents in the comments…
My basic premise is that soul in an image is related to emotion, and the evoking of an emotion in the audience by the photographer. There are many ways about this, and I think few are universal because they may rely on specific cultural or local references that don’t always translate. There are some that are universal, such as color, or high key/low key, or human faces displaying emotions like sadness or happiness; or physical ones like smiles and tears. But note how these parameters have everything to do with subject/content and not presentation: you can present a portrait of a person in anguish in stark black and white or in muted color – it doesn’t change the subject matter, and probably affects the impact on the audience less than the actual subject. This is like because the subject is strong enough to overcome the stylistic presentation – though of course a sympathetically reinforcing style would further heighten impact of the image as a whole.
The part I have trouble understanding is why examples of images ‘with soul’ tend to be predominantly a) dark; b) monochrome; c) contrasty; d) grainy; e) technically imperfect; f) wide angle; g) shot at close range; h) frequently depict human suffering or homeless people. Perhaps I have taken one step too far into the street photography cliche. I don’t think technical excellence and soul are mutually exclusive. I don’t see why they have to be: surely, being able to control the presentation, composition and execution of an image means that you have a much greater ability to influence the audience in the desired way? There is a big difference between images that are deliberately a)-e) and images that are made to be a)-e) to attempt to cover conceptual shortcomings.
Note that I have excluded f)-h); wide angle is a storytelling choice and makes a lot of sense because it allows control over prioritization of subjects, and the establishment of a narrative flow because elements clearly take on an implied sequence based on prominence. Placing the primary subject in the near foreground is almost a necessity of wide angle work unless you have an exceptionally clean background to avoid losing the subject entirely. Negative emotions are far stronger than positive ones – we don’t have trolls who leave compliments – and human suffering is perhaps the easiest way to evoke this. I suspect the prevalence of images of the homeless is because they’re everywhere and an ‘easy’ target. There is something ethically wrong and borderline exploitative about this, but I leave such moral discussions for another time and place. The bottom line is that a)-h) are an easy way to evoke an emotional response: because when used carefully, it’s easy to create a mood, narrative and associative emotions with subject matter.
This leads to the obvious question of whether it might be done another way: surely an image can be soulful without having to adhere to this formula; emotion can be evoked in a different manner? Is the definition of ‘soul’ inextricably associated with the idea of anguish, suffering and conflict? Does a happy movie have soul, or only a dark one? Moreover, is it possible to make an image of an inanimate object that still has soul, even though it may be difficult or impossible to associate human emotions by anthropomorphosis (I’ve always thought o this as ‘Pinnocchio syndrome’)? If so, how can we do it without falling into a cliche besides pulling the usual levers of dominant color, quality of light and subject matter? Is there more than this, or perhaps certain specific triggers that work either way – overly skewed horizons or precisely aligned geometry, perhaps?
The images I’ve chosen to illustrate this post are my attempt at picking images which I feel carry some emotion for me – this may be because of associative experiences, or the subject matter. And they’re probably a far more telling insight into how my brain works than is healthy. But I’ve also tried my best to avoid picking cliched presentations or subjects; this is about the most variety I can muster. Perhaps they all have soul; perhaps none do. There are also inanimate objects in here – which ones do you feel work, and which don’t? They all work for me, but this is not representative of a general audience – and I feel the creative photographer’s job is to balance keeping the audience interested with their own unique twist; if you have no audience, then it doesn’t matter how good the image is.
Addendum: I don’t think increased resolution or technical perfection change the image enough to make a difference; it doesn’t specify the idea to the extent of eliminating imagination and alienating some of the audience. Why? Because I’ve always presented images on the site at the same 800 pixels wide, regardless of capture device. Why, then, am I told higher resolution cameras lack soul? This makes no sense. The only explanation I can think of is one of changed personal artistic objectives that may alter with the tool used, but certainly alter to reflect one’s own stage in life at the time of capture.
To a large extent, I feel the answers to these questions depend heavily on the individual doing the answering – and any attempt to find universality is going to land us back at the same place as before. But if we don’t ask those questions to begin with, then it becomes difficult to evolve one’s art in a non-repetitive way. If anything, the visual answer to ‘what has soul?’ is an interesting window into the mind of the photographer – it much about their interpretation of the world because presumably they would not capture an image that does not affect them in some way – there has to be some emotional pull to take the photograph in the first place; even if we do not necessarily understand it as an audience. Ideally, what I’d like to be able to do is understand what a wide audience finds emotionally evocative and ‘soulful’ so that there’s some way of referencing and using these elements consistently in a way that allows me to communicate my ideas in a more consistent way. I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this way, so please feel free to add your two cents in the comments. MT
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