Photography and Interestingness Part 2
In part 1 of thoughts on photography and interestingness, I was spurred by the title of a newspaper article I read last year: “Humanity takes millions of photos every day. Why are most so forgettable?” Today in part 2 I explore the idea of curiosity (from last time) a little further, and give some perspective on an important thing about interestingness – the audience.
Want Interest? Add Curiosity
In part 1, I recommended being more deeply interested in a subject, to find out something about it you can photograph that’s more fascinating than the obvious. How can you do this? Channel your inner 4-year old, I suggested, by asking questions. I mentioned this almost in passing, but wanted to come back to it because I believe questions can be a great way to spur your creativity and add the quality of curiosity into your work.
Albert Einstein said, “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.” Who is more interesting in a conversation: the person with all the answers, especially their own answers, and the will to share them at length? Or the person who asks questions? I think it’s the latter. Questions engage us together in dialog, and often can fire up the imagination. They allow each participant to bring their portion of the answers. Emphasizing answers often simply satisfies a need for information, and can cause us to move on thinking that we’ve learned what we need to know about a subject.
I believe most kids are naturally curious question-askers, and that this is tied to an active imagination. But somewhere along the line, these qualities get put on the back burner for many of us. After I wrote part 1, I came across a few statistics. For example, a recent UK study found that mothers are asked hundreds of questions by their children each day. The peak average was 390 daily questions asked by 4-year-old girls, while even 9-year-old boys averaged 190 questions a day. The toughest questions according to the survey?
1. Why is water wet?
2. Where does the sky end?
3. What are shadows made of?
4. Why is the sky blue?
5. How do fish breathe under water?
Another study indicated that by their mid-teens, children are asking dramatically fewer questions. Once people are well into adulthood, they may ask only a couple of dozen questions per day. Many of them are short and factually-oriented, related to work or some other task at hand. “Honey, have you seen my cellphone charger?” or “How do you like my new hair style?” (Okay, I admit, some of these questions can be a bit tricky!)
Setting aside the risk of loaded questions from your significant other, if you want to make more interesting photographs, think about how you’re seeing the world around you right now. Look at those 5 questions above; how many like them have you asked today? Are you acting like a wide-eyed, curious child, or a busy, goal-oriented adult? Don’t you think questions like those above show sparks of imagination just waiting to go off? Now think about the questions you could ask of all the subject matter you could photograph, questions you can translate into interesting visual answers.
• What does this look like from below, or upside down?
• How would this seem if I saw it in the middle of a moonless night?
• Why show this standing still when it makes me feel like jumping up and down?
• Who would pay attention to this thing that most people seem to be ignoring?
• If I was to follow this path, where would it take me?
• What is that thing I see in the distance, only as a speck of red?
Even better, think about questions you can ask with your photographs that will stop viewers for a second look, and make them think about what the answers could be. In other words, what questions can you ask within the frame, without spilling the answers on first glance? Asking open-ended questions is a powerful way to trigger imagination. If you want to engage viewers, ask them something rather than tell them. The viewers will then have to bring something of their own to help provide the answers.
• Why does it look the way it does, what happened to cause that?
• What are those people looking at or reacting to?
• Why is this mismatched pair of things being shown together, what’s the connection?
• What is it about this that seems familiar to me?
• Who would have abandoned that, and why did they leave it there?
Interesting to Whom? Start At the Core
Speaking of questions, while discussing interestingness I’ve been begging a pretty important question – namely, “interesting to whom?” What audience(s) do you hope will find your photographs interesting? Not everybody responds to the same things, or for the same reasons. The old saying puts it, “if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” It’s worth considering what groups of viewers you expect to show interest in your work. This may give insight into where you’re going with your photography, as well as why and how you’re doing the work.
Start at the core with the first audience – you! Unless you photograph purely as an impersonal job, you’re probably doing it at least in part for yourself. The first person who needs to be really bought into your work is you – if you’re not that engaged in what you’re doing, believe me, it will come through. I say this even though it should be obvious, because in the age of massive online sharing of photos, there seems to be a lot of attention being paid to whether images are “liked” by others out there on the interwebs. But I sometimes wonder if each photographer pays as much attention to why he or she is really making and sharing those particular photos.
There’s nothing wrong with photographs that gain approval, but that’s different than making work because you think it’s what somebody else wants or expects to see. If you have paying customers, of course you need to serve them well. But even so, I’d recommend against being mostly driven by external expectations. Otherwise it’s not really your own photographs that you’re creating. Your heart may not really be in what you’re doing, and the quality of being truly interesting may suffer. In my experience, most photographers who see their work as a form of art are very self-motivated – they create for themselves first.
That photograph you made – does it still really grab you? If somebody said it was boring, would you stand behind it anyway? Were you somehow compelled to create it? Do you still have a fascination with that subject and feel determined to keep exploring it? I’m not talking about thinking that you have nothing to learn or improve. But if you say “yes” to questions like these, something has got your interest. Whether the work immediately connects with an audience or not, you’ve at least got a foundation to build on, and that’s your own passion.
As the core interested viewer of your photographs, you’ll want to explore more about your response to subjects, the things underneath the surface. Pay attention to details; look more closely, and from more angles. Revisit subjects in a variety of conditions. Try to read situations and anticipate something revealing, whether it’s the way something is lit, a specific moment in time you can see coming, or a blend of colour and shapes caused by motion.
In a videotaped interview, photographer Galen Rowell said it this way: “And once you have it, then you have a saturation of awareness of that subject. That’s the time to move in and use that feeling within you, that response to that subject matter, to do something even better. […] When you think it’s right, it can be even better. Just push it as far as you can.” Ask questions of yourself, and then refine your impression until it comes across as clearly as possible within the frame. This will add depth and interest to your photographs.
Not Grabbing Some Viewers? Maybe They Are Not Your Audience
The question of “interesting to whom?” may start and end with you, if your photography is very personal, especially non-commercial work. That’s perfectly fine. People write journals or diaries for themselves, sing favorite songs in the shower, and do all sorts of other creative pursuits without intending to share the results with anyone.
But you may have commercial goals such as paying clients or customers for prints. Or a non-commercial project involving other people – something like conservation or a social outreach message where you want to make an impact with viewers. Or you may be like many artists, and believe that art is meant to be shared with others any way you can. In these cases, “interesting to whom?” takes on a broader answer. If you have any sort of outside audience, it’s not necessarily enough for your photographs to appeal to you alone. Others also need to be interested enough to stick with your work once they discover it, and support your goals.
If you’re not sure how to initially grab interest from an audience, one way many photographers start is to look at examples of excellent work in a similar area, as benchmarks to shoot for. Not just the images themselves, but how they are produced, packaged, presented, priced, etc. The point is not to ape the existing work, and in fact it can be dangerous to trap your photography in some sort of convention. But look at masterful works that you find fascinating, be inspired by them, and see how they connect with their audiences. Ask “how can I create my own work so a similar quality or feeling will be there, and then get it in front of the kind of audience I’m seeking?” It’s critical to find your own voice, tell less obvious or more powerful stories that come from your perspective, and present your photographs how you want them to be best shown. After all, you probably want audiences to be interested in your work because it’s your work, not just a generic example of photography.
Be very clear in your own mind what kinds of audience you’re trying to engage. In particular, this will help you interpret feedback you may receive. For example, unless your primary goal is to be a photography instructor, fellow photographers’ responses to your work may not be the best gauge of how interesting it is over the longer term. Why? Because photographers probably aren’t your real audience. We look at photographs differently based on inside knowledge of the craft, our own individual approaches, and our biases about how it should be done. In a similar way, family and friends may not be the best barometer of interestingness. They know you so well that they may not be able to separate their expectation of you from what you’re doing in your photography.
Figure out and pursue your real audience if you’re compelled to put your work out there. Corporate clients, mothers-in-law or grandparents, advertising agencies, contest judges, art show shoppers, magazine photo editors, fine art collectors, gallery curators, graphic designers, non-profit groups… yes, even fellow photographers, or family and friends. Any or all of these, and more, could be part of your audience. Your approach to your work may be different depending on who you want to be interested and how you want to reach them. Make the best photographs you know how to make, put them in front of your audience, see where it goes, improve, and repeat. This can be daunting the first few times, but it’s the only real way to make interesting work that connects.
In both commercial and non-commercial situations, your clients or audience often have some type of connection with the subjects you’re photographing. Doubly so if the photographs include people. Are the photographs not only visually strong, but do they tell viewers stories they care about? Do viewers identify with what you’re showing or saying? Do the photographs ask questions that people want answers to? Do they provoke or entice the audience? If so, it’s much more likely that people will be interested in really looking at the work in a way that goes beyond a quick “like” on a social media site. You can balance making your photographs interesting, both for yourself and for your audience.
To sum up, to add interest, be endlessly curious about your subjects. Ask questions to create less obvious photographs, and use your photographs to ask questions of viewers in turn. Make sure you have a personal interest in the work you’re creating, and balance that with a view of what audience you’re seeking and why they may find the work interesting. If you can match engaging questions with the right audience, I believe you’ll make a stronger impression. As flashy and popular-looking as other images may be on the latest social sharing site, you can create work that has staying power.
In the third part of this series, I’ll give my thoughts on photography and interestingness by looking at a pair of contrasts: popularity vs. longevity, and novelty vs. authenticity.
Royce Howland is a fine art photographer and instructor based in Calgary, Alberta. If you’d like to learn more about photographing interestingness, contact him for information on up-coming events. This year, he will lead small groups to get interested in interesting stuff in Iceland and the Canadian Rockies. This Fall, along with Peter Carroll, he will co-lead a photography storytelling masterclass in the Cypress Hills, focusing on personal creative expression. For more information, go to blog.vividaspectphoto.com/workshops-events
“Love Me Some Broasted Chicken.” This is a Route 66 sign from the edge of a small Arizona town. I photographed it because I love old signs and memorabilia, but more specifically because of a childhood memory of broasted chicken. Most people don’t know what that is; it raises one of several questions about the scene. I used a vintage-looking B&W sepia treatment to go along with the nostalgia of the old sign. Exhibit audiences have enjoyed this type of work, based on feedback I’ve gotten, and it has sold as a fine art print.
“Gearing Down from Some Hot Work.” Here’s another vintage-looking B&W, this time of some machinery details at an abandoned Alberta coal mine. It’s more of an abstracted composition than the Route 66 sign, and raises more questions about what or where this is. But it has visual appeal and does tap into the interest of people who are familiar with working in industrial settings. I enjoy making this type of work, and it connects with audiences. It also has sold as a fine art print.
“Postcard from the Lake.” This is a standard sort of late summer-ish shot taken at Bow Lake in the Rockies. I use it as an example of how sometimes a shot doesn’t have any particular story to it, nor even a major visual “wow factor”. I.e. just a postcard shot. It’s nice enough, but not something I personally would consider a great piece of work. Yet it ended up being quite popular with viewers online. Has it sold as an art print? No, and it likely wouldn’t. But it may end up licensed as a stock mountain photo — different audiences.
“Pictorial Sunset.” Here’s another abstracted composition. This isn’t about details or any specific grand mountain location, but about murkiness, mood and some odd atmospheric colours at sunset. Even though this is my second-highest viewed post on one photo sharing site, it has received zero “likes”, “faves”, etc. Nor has it sold. For some reason people like to look at it, but it doesn’t click with them enough even to respond with a social thumbs-up. I don’t care, though, because I made it as a direct result of seeing a vintage Edward Steichen print of “The Black Canyon”. Google for it and you’ll see a hint of the inspiration. Steichen’s work has been very influential on me, so this is an example of a photograph I made for myself.
“Ghost of Server Present.” This is another photograph that I like a lot, and which people also seem to enjoy, but which went over cold in other circumstances. In a national judged event it wasn’t accepted, with the judging comment that there were too many distracting highlights and lines. Basically it seemed confusing, without a clear point. Would I change anything about it? Maybe slight adjustments to my treatment, but fundamentally it looks the way I want it to look. Who enjoys it? Exhibit audiences and people I talk to in presentations about storytelling. Kids also seem to gravitate to this image. There is a story and some visual questions in here, but you have to read the image to see them. I have hopes for this as an art print. Again, different audiences.
“Icing On the Cake.” On one social photo sharing site, this is ranked as my most “interesting” photograph out of all the ones I’ve ever posted. Others have been viewed more often, or “liked” more often, but the site ranks this one as more interesting than those others. Why? I can’t say for sure. I do like this photograph but I can also acknowledge it has some flaws; I think I could do better if I revisited the scene today. Sometimes an audience will respond better to a piece of work than the creator does.
“Devour.” Some subjects look good enough to eat, like the previous “Icing On the Cake.” I called this one “Devour” because there appears to be a figure in it that literally wants to chew the scenery. On a different photo sharing site, this image is ranked as the most interesting one I’ve ever posted. The golden larches, blue sky and so on would make a nice landscape scene in normal circumstances. But it takes little effort to guess that the factor that really sparks imagination is the figure in the sky. It’s whimsical, so perhaps it will have potential as stock… or as an illustration for an article about interesting photographs.