Photography and Interestingness Part 3
I began thinking about the ideas in this series after reading a newspaper article with the title, “Humanity takes millions of photos every day. Why are most so forgettable?” In part 1 and part 2, I turned that question around, sharing some ideas about how to make your photography interesting for audiences you want to reach.
Photography and Interestingness
Photography and Interestingness Part 2
In this final part, I wrap up by doing some compare-and-contrast to explore what “interestingness” itself might be about. The fact is that no subject matter, technique or other recipe will make any photograph interesting to any random viewer. But if we know something about what underlies interestingness, we should be better able to introduce it into photographs for our audiences.
Popularity vs. Longevity
Recently, researchers Khosla, Das Sarma and Hamid published a paper, “What Makes an Image Popular?”The authors laid out some factors they used to create a metric predicting the popularity of a photo. These included image characteristics that can be analyzed by software, and the social media context of the photographer. By checking these factors against millions of Flickr photos during their research, the authors drew a few conclusions like these:
• Warm-toned photos are more likely to be popular than cool-toned ones.
• Photos with interesting foreground objects are likely to be more popular than those with clean backgrounds and few features.
• Photos featuring cheetahs or scantily clad women are likely to be much more popular compared to photos of laptops or spatulas.
• Photos shared by photographers with large social media followings are more likely to be popular than ones shared by people who have few followers.
Some of these seem obvious; many comments around the blogosphere took a shallow impression of the paper, and wrote it off with quips or a resounding “duh!” True, there’s more to understanding popularity than these simple conclusions. But it could be important to be aware of research like this because you can bet all of the big photo sharing web sites and digital photography vendors are putting a lot of effort into trying to predict what is likely to be popular. (Why? Presumably so they can make more money from popular “content”.) Research like this probably will impact anyone who views or shares photographs online.
Here’s the thing, though: being interesting is very different from being popular. Sometimes, interesting things are popular, but not always. In this era of mass media, the Internet, and many examples of viral trivia, clearly not everything that’s initially popular is all that interesting. There can be a thin line between aiming to put interest into your photographs and slipping into a popularity chase. The latter path can be shallow, slippery and fickle, as public whims come and go.
Now, I don’t want to come off sounding like a saint; in truth, the idea of even 15 minutes of fame appeals to me as much as to anyone else. Plus, who wants to be unpopular, right? But in this series, I’m talking about setting goals for why to make photographs, and how to make them truly interesting. Creating genuine interest is not just about catching a bunch of viewers’ eyes long enough to click +1, type in “sweet shot!” or even re-share a post.
As somebody with mostly artistic goals in my photography, and as appealing as popularity might be, I’m much more interested in the idea of longevity. More than wanting masses of people to instantly like my work, I care if an audience (however small) stays interested over a longer period of time. If I had to choose, I would rather have one person select a print for their wall and live with it every day for years, than have that same photo get a ton of likes on a social media site and then vanish off the radar. Photographers in many genres share a similar goal; photojournalists, portraitists, visual storytellers, commercial advertising and humanitarian photographers alike care about retaining their viewers for more than a quick glance.
A photograph that flashes in the pan may get hundreds of hits today yet be utterly forgotten tomorrow. Is a photograph really that interesting, does it really connect with viewers in a meaningful way? If so, I believe longevity, rather than popularity, is a much better measure of whether the photograph is truly interesting. Don’t lose sight that you’re making photographs primarily for yourself and your true audience. Unless you’re actually working in the mass media game, instant popularity ratings may be best left as a distant consideration. One of the definitions of a classic, after all, is that it stands the test of time. There are no flash-in-the-pan classics.
Longevity of interest from viewers comes from showing them something truly interesting in the first place. What is truly interesting? There’s no simple recipe for it, but it’s about putting a quality within the frame that goes beyond designing to be noticed. It’s about making viewers linger, engage, and return more than twice. It’s showing them something that sparks their memories and imaginations; that encourages them to ask questions, seek answers, or want to become involved. In a commercial context, it’s making customers not just willing, but happy, to pay for the work, and hopefully come back for more.
Longevity isn’t just about getting attention. It’s about holding onto it and turning it into some form of participation. To do that, a photograph needs something for the audience to latch onto.
Style vs. Substance
The authors of the popularity paper had a key, unanswered question in their conclusion. They pointed out that their research didn’t distinguish between photographs that were instantly popular but quickly disappeared, and those that retained a steady level of interest with viewers. Their question pondered whether, if popularity could be evaluated over time, different types of photographs would emerge. Perhaps one type of photograph spikes quickly in popularity, but another type achieves sustained interest because of “some intrinsic lasting value” (their words).
In a recent video piece titled “What is Bayhem?” film critic Tony Zhou critiqued a Hollywood blockbuster film director’s approach. After deconstructing elements of the director’s signature style, nicknamed “Bayhem”, Zhou concluded that the style demands visual sophistication in viewers, yet also promotes visual illiteracy at the same time. That’s because the stylistic trappings often don’t serve the character, plot or other aspects of storytelling in the films. They’re technique-driven shots and cuts that are complex just because they can be, making the final result appear more epic without being more meaningful. “Every shot is designed for maximum visual impact, regardless of whether it fits,” said Zhou. In other words, style over substance.
The director’s films tend to be hugely popular with viewers, and almost all of them have been financial successes. However, few of them are critically well received, and most reviewers seem to feel the films will never be considered classics. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily; it depends on the creators’ goals and the appetites of the intended audience.
But in this article series, I’m showing my bias. There’s a dividing line between photographs that become classics and those that don’t – the classics indeed have “some intrinsic lasting value”, and that’s what I’m interested in exploring. Call it substance over style, making photographs that present something solid rather than ones that just tap into a current headline or fashion. I may look at pop photos, but the ones I think are really interesting are much more likely to have something substantial to them.
In a video interview I saw recently about developing what he calls “true style”, master portrait photographer Gregory Heisler had this to say: “Style isn’t like, ‘I use a beauty dish and a fill.’ Style isn’t, ‘I cross-process my film.’ Style isn’t, ‘I de-saturate the colour in Lightroom.’ That’s a technique. A technique is something that someone else could employ and come up with a reasonably similar result. Right? True style is a vision, and that’s something that is as unique as your fingerprints, it’s like your DNA.” By talking about style this way – “true style” and vision, that is – Heisler is trying to reclaim the word from meaning something faddish or trendy, driven only by technique just because it can be (like “Bayhem”). I’m calling this same thing the substance.
I’m not saying that style or technique is bad. I am saying that it should support and come from a way of making photographs that are truly interesting, at least for your best work. True interestingness is making more meaningful photographs that connect with the viewers for whom they’re intended. That’s the substance of photography. Is it easy to do by following a recipe, using the latest hot filter or trying to replicate other work that’s currently popular? Not at all.
So what is substance? According Merriam-Webster, it’s essence, a fundamental characteristic, “the quality of being meaningful, useful or important.” Substance is what contributes to longevity. It invites the viewer to engage more deeply, like a reader returning to a great book, or a movie-goer watching a classic film. Substance invites repeated experience, and rewards the viewer by revealing more each time. Substance is the steak, not the sauce; the cake, not the icing. It’s something worth chewing on, and it takes longer to appreciate and fully digest. When you give someone a gift, the substance is what they find after untying the ribbon, removing the wrapping paper and opening the box.
The most important question for this idea is, what is your substance? The challenge for each photographer is to find his or her own personal version of the essential nature of a subject, and incorporate it into the work in a way that’s genuine for the photographer at that time.
Novelty vs. Authenticity
Think of photographs that you can remember seeing in the past few days. I’m betting that some of the ones that first come to mind (though hopefully not all) involve subjects or visual styles that are unusual, exotic, or exceptional… in other words much different from what we normally see in daily life. I’ve seen discussions where photographers talk about making interesting work by pursuing something viewers haven’t seen before – some combination of special gear, remote locations, incredible subjects, rare conditions, challenging compositions or new visual techniques. I’ve also seen artist statements and promotional videos where photographers claim to be motivated by experiencing something completely new under the sun, driven to capture the essence of that “newness” in order to share it with viewers.
Whether consciously realizing it or not, I believe photographers going after whatever is new in a big way are at risk of attracting viewers who are interested in their work mainly because of the novelty factor. “Wow! I’ve never seen that before!” Such photographs must be interesting, right? There can be a reverse presumption, too – that if viewers think “Oh, I’ve seen that before”, then perhaps it’s not worth photographing or looking at. But it’s a mistake to think that novelty of any kind is all that’s necessary to create true interest, or to assume that the familiar can’t be of any interest. If the goal is to create work of substance and longevity, relying too much on novelty could be a crutch.
As with my previous compare-and-contrast examples, my point isn’t that it’s misguided to try to create photographs that take a fresh view. But as I noted in part 1, billions of photographs are made and shared every month. That means novelty has a short shelf-life. If something is interesting because it’s new, then what happens when it’s no longer new? Anywhere you can think of going, any subject or gear you can get access to, any visual style you can dream up – even if you’re the first one doing it, you won’t be the only one doing it for long. Digital photography and online sharing sites have created a side effect: an environment of mass duplication of subject and style.
If making photographs mainly for the sake of their novelty isn’t the thing, then what is? It’s this: don’t worry about what other photographers are doing or not doing, create a body of work that’s true to your own character. Work intensely on making photographs rooted in a personal perspective on subjects deeply interesting to you – whether you think this is novel or not. What would get you up and out at 3:30 AM on a cold morning? What subjects would you return to over and over because you can’t escape your fascination about them? What questions are you compelled to explore with the camera? What place would you quit your job to travel to for six months, camera in hand? What would you photograph even if you didn’t get paid to do it? “Shoot what you can’t help but shoot,” Heisler said in the above interview, when giving advice about how to build a compelling portfolio.
Authenticity is the alternative goal I propose instead of novelty. We’re in an age of mass production, global sharing and duplication, instant everything and cheap knock-offs of anything. But I believe some audiences are coming to a rediscovery that an experience of something authentic can be really interesting, more so than the generically popular, stylish or even momentarily novel. As a photographer, what’s the primary thing you’ve got going for you? Is it new equipment, access to a subject, a secret location, some cool technique? No, pretty well all of those things can be copied by somebody else. What you’ve primarily got going for you is – you.
As you do your work, photograph after photograph, subject after subject, series after series, something distinctive will be created. It will be a portfolio of photographs that are grounded in an appreciation of what you find meaningful. You won’t push the burden onto one external scene after another, demanding that each be more popular, stylish or novel than anything viewers have seen before. Instead you’ll push inwards to discover your own personal way of seeing, responding and expressing with your photography. These qualities are yours alone, and you’ll bring them to everything you create.
What fascinates you, the details you include or cut away, the way you frame subjects, how you use light and composition, the questions you ask and the answers you come up with, the types of stories you tell – all of these will be molded into the way that only you could have created your work. An important part of your core audience will come to recognize this. They’ll value your work in part because it’s your work they find interesting.
Authenticity is a powerful way to make a meaningful connection with audiences who care about the way you see things, and why they are really interesting to you. If you’re true to your own vision, and evolve and refine it over time while making photographs your way, you’ll produce a body of work that ends up being unique after all.
The original headline read, “Humanity takes millions of photos every day. Why are most so forgettable?” Or, put more positively, how do you put interest into your photographs? In this series I’ve given some ideas that I hope will help answer that question.
In part 1, I recommended not just standing in front of more interesting stuff, but being more interested in the stuff you’re standing in front of. Make compositional choices that increase interest by combining your perspective with the available subject and light. Your photographs will be more interesting if they’re made from a point of view of heightened curiosity and imagination about the world and how you could make it look in a photograph.
In part 2, I followed up on the idea of curiosity by recommending that you channel your inner 4-year-old and ask a lot of questions about everything. Then respond imaginatively with how you put answers into your photographs; or even better, how you can use photographs to ask questions of your viewers. I also pointed out that it helps to think about who it is that you want to be interested in your work. The photographs you make need to spark the interest of yourself and your true audience; anyone else is optional. If you made the work you truly meant to make and someone doesn’t like it or get it, then perhaps they’re not really in your audience.
In this final part, I’ve used some contrasts to advocate ideas that I think contribute to real interest. Think about what you can incorporate into your photographs that will make them stick with your audience over time, rather than simply being instantly popular with generic viewers. Give your audience something substantial in your photographs, something solid to engage, not just an aesthetic form to look at. And concentrate on the authenticity of your work – make it why, what and how you truly believe it has to be, not just something for the sake of novelty.
In these ways, the body of work you create will become like a visual fingerprint, something that ends up being distinctive. Coming from a source of personal passion, and tapping into facets of subjects and stories that ring true for your audience, you’ve got a foundation for long-term interestingness. For an audience looking for something besides another stream of forgettable shots, I believe you’ll have meaningful photographs that connect with staying power.
About the Author:
Royce Howland is a fine art photographer and instructor based in Calgary, Alberta. Contact him if you’d like to share ideas or learn more about photographing interestingness. 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 on these events, go to blog.vividaspectphoto.com/workshops-events
“Body Needs Work, But Doesn’t Run At All”
According to Flickr’s interestingness metrics, this is one of the least interesting photos I’ve ever posted to the site. But I have a print of it hanging on my own wall, because I love it. I’ve also sold prints of this to people who have seen it in my home as well as online. Purchasers tell me they love the colours and the nostalgia of this old truck in the tall grass. Why Flickr viewers didn’t connect, I’m not sure… but I know a colourful, warm-toned photo of a rusty old vehicle can be sold, and sold repeatedly over time. So I’m happy with it regardless of Flickr’s stats. Know your audience.
“Old Hospital Steps”
I made this photograph during a visit to Peace River. It wasn’t a major production, more of a casual composition for me while exploring part of town near the remains of the old, shut-down hospital. But I felt a response seeing these steps leading up to nowhere, and I’ve learned to trust my instincts if I feel there’s something in a scene. Once again, Flickr stats indicate this is one of the least popular photos I’ve posted. But the piece made a significant emotional connection with someone in town with whom I was in contact, and I was happy to present her with a print of it as a gift. 2 years later, I still hear about this photo from that contact. I find that making a connection with my audience is more satisfying than general popularity.
“He Went Thataway”
There’s a lot of technique that went into this shot — multiple frames for HDR and focus stacking, black & white conversion with warm/cool split-toning and so on. None of that matters because I’m not trying to show technique (a.k.a. “style”), I’m trying to show something that tells a story. Out of all the photos that I took on this particular visit to the Saskatchewan Great Sand Hills, most of them big landscapes, this one creates the most interest and appreciation among audiences when I show it in presentations. That’s because there’s a neat little story of life in the sand dunes captured in the frame. My stylistic choices would mean nothing without the story.
“Fall at Abraham Lake 2”
There’s no fancy name for this composition, and the gear I used to make it wouldn’t pass muster on Internet forums today. While I used a 3-shot sequence for HDR exposure blending, mainly due to the limitations of my old Canon 5D and under-appreciated Sigma 12-24mm lens @ f/16, I deliberately kept the colours and tones from shouting “Look! HDR!” This is still my autumn print with the most sustained interest. I believe it’s because of the pleasing mood conveyed with the setting. The subject I was able to portray has lasting appeal beyond the apparent shelf life of obsolete equipment and digital techniques du jour.
“Glowing In the Dark”
When I was interviewed for a photography podcast some time ago, the host asked me if I’d like to have a small portfolio of images placed on the podcast site. Naturally I agreed, because it was a good opportunity to broaden the reach of my work. I assumed what would be requested would be a set of my grand landscapes, or examples of technically accomplished digital post-processing work, or something like that. Instead, the host asked for a set of my floral closeups. I was surprised, and asked why. He said it was because they interested him the most and showed something about the way I approached particular subjects, using light and lines. I appreciated that input, and I’ve kept it mind going forward as a piece of insight about what makes my work “my work”.
“Sunbow Over the Bow”
When searching for novelty and wow factor, there’s often a tendency to overlook the backyard. When I was last working a “day job” contract in downtown Calgary, I made sure to always have a camera with me and would go out exploring with it several times a week. Even at mid-day, though some conventional wisdom says it’s impossible to take a good photograph around noon. When a combination of stormclouds, atmospherics and sun light created this bright sunbow right next to The Bow building, which is quickly becoming one of our iconic skyscrapers, I was there and made a really fun photograph. I used a Panasonic point & shoot, which again wins no style points… but “the best camera is the one you have with you.” If I steered clear of photographing familiar locations, or turned up my nose at photographing if I didn’t have my “professional camera” with me, I’d never capture something like this while on lunch break from the office. Oh, coincidentally it became one of my most popular ever posts on Flickr, Facebook, 500px, etc. I haven’t sold a print of it yet, and may never do so; but it has developed some interest in my architecture work, and in it I found some hallmarks that I plan to work into a project going forward. Do your own work, and do it your way.