By: Peter Carroll
There’s a story that when Michelangelo was asked how he created his incredible masterpiece David he responded that he saw David in the marble and just had to cut away everything that didn’t look like David. Regardless of whether the story is true or not, I love the idea behind it. A photographer has some different challenges to a sculptor but the goal is the same – effective expression. As photographers, we are visual storytellers. The first step in effectively telling a story within the frame is figuring out the essence of what will be the photograph. Michelangelo presented the essence of David… nothing more and nothing less. I like to think of essence as the heart of the matter. If you meet me in the field you might very well hear me humming a little of Don Henley’s song “The Heart of the Matter” as I am composing a photograph.
If we are to capture the essence of the subject matter we must begin with careful observation. We have five senses and good seeing is of course a huge part of making engaging photographs but we should connect with our subject matter with all our senses whenever possible. If creating travel photographs, taste the local food. If creating landscape photographs, smell the scent of the pine trees. If creating architecture photographs, feel the materials used in the construction. If creating family portraits, listen to the family stories and get insight into the personalities. Observations made from information gathered from as many of our senses as possible will reveal the essence of the subject matter. Once we know the essence, we see the statue waiting to be released from the marble.
When we identify what the essence of the subject matter is for us, we then need to decide how best to express it in a photograph. We need to appreciate natural design and use our knowledge of the principles of visual design to compose a photograph which communicates a clear story to the viewer. Lens choices, camera settings, accessories, point of view, post processing etc. are the tools in our photography toolbox. The story we want to tell drives the choice of which tools we decide to use and how we go about using them. One of the most common suggestions to photographers new to the craft is to get closer to their subject. The reason for the suggestion is to help the photographer more clearly communicate the essence of the photograph. The author Antoine de Saint-Exupery once said, “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” So the challenge to the photographer is to arrange the building blocks of the scene and eliminate all that is unnecessary to communicating the essence, the heart of the matter, to the viewer. If he or she is able to do that, then a clear story is told and the aim of effective expression is achieved.
It is important to recognize that essence is subjective. It’s not universal. My story will be different from yours. I think that’s not only something to be appreciated but something to be truly embraced when we go about creating photographs. The people in our lives, the communities where we live, the places we visit, and the experiences we have along the way are all threads that make up a rich life tapestry. All of it influences how we see the world around us. Tapping into that unique life experience and telling personal stories is how great photographers have always gone about creating a body of work which communicates their story of the world around them and in which a personal style reveals itself.
In this age of digital photography and social media, so many photographers succumb to the temptation to copy the work of others in the hope their work will get recognition and receive hollow accolades. The truth is that placing your tripod in the exact same spot as another photographer or copying a post processing style doesn’t allow you to tell a story much different from what has already been told. Digital photography has brought about an exponential rise in the number of photographs being created. It is said that more than 400 billion photos are taken now each year. Over 300 million photos are uploaded to Facebook every day. About 10% of all the photos ever taken have been taken in the last 12 months. Those numbers are mind blowing! We are surrounded by images on a daily basis, however much of it doesn’t register. It’s white noise. Imitation is a natural part of the learning process for many of us at the beginning of the journey in photography but if we are to develop as photographers, we need to then go beyond copying and make a commitment to ourselves to tell personal stories in our own voice. Viewers become jaded by the same visual stories over and over. They crave fresh interpretations of life. Personal and creative work stands out.
When I am creating photographs these days, I sometimes think of the television commercial which I saw last year during one of the major PGA golf tournaments. It was a commercial where Arnold Palmer was expressing his belief there is no one perfect swing which is necessary to copy for success. In the commercial, Mr. Palmer says, “Swing your swing. Not some idea of a swing. Not a swing you saw on TV. Not that swing you wish you had. No… swing your swing… capable of greatness… prized only by you… perfect in its imperfection. Swing your swing… I know I did.” I don’t think Mr. Palmer’s message was do whatever you want and par will come to you. For sure there are fundamentals to learn in golf and there is constant learning and finessing on the road to a low handicap. You won’t find many pro instructors teaching students to copy all the parts of an Arnold Palmer swing but the results that swing gave Mr. Palmer are there in the history books. Photography is no different. It’s essential to know the fundamentals of the craft and to know all aspects of your equipment but with all of that knowledge it’s vitally important to shoot your shot. Not someone else’s. Not one you saw on social media. Not one you saw your favourite photographer share in a recent book or blog post. Shoot your shot. It’s good to be inspired and get the creative energy flowing by looking at and appreciating the work of other photographers but in the end shoot your shot. Tell your story. Capture what you see as the essence of your subject matter. And like Michelangelo release the sculpture from the marble.
If you want to take your photography to the next level and work on capturing the essence of subject matter and telling visual stories, then consider joining myself and Royce Howland for a photography masterclass – “Storytelling in the Cypress Hills” running September 5-10, 2014. The purpose of the masterclass is to help participants set creative goals, and provide frameworks for improving their photography with a specific focus on visual storytelling. We’ll use seminars, field exercises and image portfolio review sessions to achieve these goals. With a small group, two instructors who work well together, and an intensive event plan, the group will be able to put a concentrated focus on creative development.
Workshop details can be found at blog.petercarroll.ca
Peter Carroll Photography