“Humanity takes millions of photos every day. Why are most so forgettable?” That’s the title of an article I read last year, and it made me think. I believe in the advent of mass online social media and sharing of digital photography, others are thinking about it as well. I’d like to put out a few thoughts on something related to this question – the idea of photography and “interestingness”.
Lots of Photographs, Which Ones Are Interesting?
Flickr was one of the first of the successful “social” Internet sites for sharing massive numbers of digital photos. At this point, depending on numbers quoted in different sources, the site hosts something like 6 billion photos. Social media juggernaut Facebook, meanwhile, sees that many every month, and has had upwards of 250 billion images uploaded. These are mind-boggling numbers. Within this flood of imagery, how does something interesting stand out?
Flickr enshrined their idea of “interestingness” in a software algorithm to bubble selected photos to the top of their Explore list. The cream of the crop supposedly appears in Explore; having a photo “explored” on Flickr is certainly a way to get it seen by many more viewers. Similarly, Facebook rates posts on their level of “engagement” – likes, comments, shares and so on. A more engaging photo is shown to more people, which triggers more engagement, leading to even more visibility across the site. The ultimate, of course, is to “go viral” and be seen by millions.
Is the idea of an interesting photo so straight forward that a software program can figure it out by counting statistics? Or is there more to being interesting than simply being seen, or even being “liked”? More importantly, with literally billions of digital photographs being taken and shared every month, can we make our own photographs more interesting?
Interesting Stuff vs. Interesting Perspective
There’s a quote attributed to National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson: “If you want to be a better photographer, stand in front of more interesting stuff.” This seems obvious, and it’s true. If what you’re photographing is going to bore everyone to tears, then you’re facing an uphill battle to drum up second looks at the work. Think about the photograph before (or after) you take it – is the “stuff” interesting? Can you say why? If not, perhaps you need to find more interesting subject material.
Here’s the interesting thing about photography, though – pun intended. It’s not enough to put all the burden of being interesting on what you photograph. Whether or not a photograph is interesting can come as much from your perspective – the way you see, photograph and present a subject – as it does from the actual subject. The photo is a separate creation in its own right, one that you make through your creative choices. You can make the photo interesting to a viewer, in a way that the subject itself was not.
In discussing the Richardson quote with some folks (on Facebook, ironically), I realized there’s a flip side to it. I suggested a variation of the quote to go hand-in-hand with the original: “If you want to be a better photographer, be more interested in the stuff you’re standing in front of.”
Elliott Erwitt said it this way: “To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.” I agree completely with Erwitt on this.
As I’ve noted before, there are three core things that make a strong photograph: subject, lighting and composition. Outside of a studio, you don’t have much control over subject or lighting – the subject is what it is, and the light is what it is, too. Of course, you do control how you choose, see and approach them both, and these choices are significant. However, the area of greatest creative control comes with composition.
You have a high degree of control over designing a photograph using the available subject material and lighting. In essence, you can design interestingness into a photo by the way you compose it, if you don’t simply rely on the subject or light to carry all the weight. Composition is how you build your own perspective into a photograph. The more fluent you are with composition and visual design, the more you can present an interesting perspective.
Using composition is at the root of approaches like abstraction, showing unusual viewpoints, and extracting details from the whole. Consider a household appliance or a garden vegetable. These may seem like totally dull subjects at first glance. Rather than pass them by, consider a close-up composition that abstracts the thing into a play of light, shadow, line, form, colour and texture. The result can be visually intriguing even if the supposed subject isn’t.
Just look at rightfully famous photographs by Edward Weston, such as Pepper No. 30, Artichoke, or Excusado. While Weston did many things in his approach to subject and light, critically, he used composition to take an unusual perspective on many so-called mundane objects. Doing so, he created photographs that have become classics.
So… what’s your perspective? How can you refine it, and use it to visually design photographs through your compositional choices?
Interesting Photographer = Interested Photographer
By all means get in front of some interesting stuff. There’s nothing bad about that – unless it becomes a crutch to the way you do or don’t attentively see whatever stuff is around. Learn to recognize and even create the potential for interestingness in what you see and how you photograph it.
Photographer Jay Maisel has said, “If you want to become a more interesting photographer, become a more interesting person.” I interpret a big part of Maisel’s point to be this: be more interested in the world around you, because your interests in the world are a big part of what makes you an interesting person. Find the potential for image-making in your interests, and the photographs you create are quite likely to be more interesting to others as a result.
I think all of us start life with an incredible curiosity about the world, but we seem to lose a lot of it over the years. Children are always looking at things with fresh eyes… because in most cases it is actually the first time they’re seeing whatever it is. They’re always asking questions like “why is that?” and “what happens next?” and “what if?” Children often fixate on a thing and want to know everything about it. They’re more likely to respond to something with imagination, and their imagination is almost as real to them as reality itself.
I think there’s a lot we can learn about how to be more interested in stuff by thinking about how a 4-year-old might view things. Exactly how will this translate into making more interesting photographs? For this article the primary answer I want to give to that question is – I don’t know, you’ll just have to find out. It’s not a formula or a recipe; creativity isn’t subject to predictable, cookie-cutter approaches. Nor is genuine interestingness just a matter of running some statistics. Just as children are often unpredictable in how they interpret situations, if you push your interest in a subject it’s probably going to take you somewhere off the beaten path. That’s the point of it.
To wrap up, both approaches can work – finding more interesting stuff, and being more interested in stuff. Having said that, sharpening the way you see and respond to the commonplace will help you make interesting photographs just about anywhere, with just about any subject. Hone your interest in things instead of just looking for things that are immediately interesting on the face of it. Over time your photographs will begin to stand out from the stream of millions of forgettable images.
In a follow-up to this article, I’ll further explore the idea of photography and interestingness. Who do you want to be interested in your photographs? And with billions of photos showing virtually everything under the sun, how do you show something new and interesting?
About the Photographer:
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 that will concentrate on personal creative expression.
Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik is a beautiful building. What really caught my interest was the play of sunshine over its geometry of glass and mirrors. Concentrating on this let me create a composition of patterned light.
Observing Blackfoot dances at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, my imagination locked on the energy of each dancer’s motion. Slowing down time to blur the colourful costumes, I was able to photograph something of the flow.
Icy Breath of the Frost Dragon
Looking for patterns and shapes while walking along the Cave and Basin boardwalk in Banff, I saw the outline of a dragon’s head. His breath was steaming in the extreme cold, just like mine.
A small, red pepper plant grew in a pot outside my front door. Perhaps it was dreaming of being a star; I was looking for something interesting to photograph and found something without leaving home. They say peppers can be addictive, maybe that’s why I dream of them.
The Elephant In the Room
A boring old tree stump in David Thompson Country came to life in a certain angle of light. People tend to see two different things in this image. I see an elephant head with trunk & tusk. Some people see something completely different; that is left as an exercise for the reader.
Secrets of the Ice World
Amazing, big vistas are plentiful in winter along Abraham Lake. Getting down flat on the ice (I won’t say how), and pressing my nose & camera right on the surface, revealed a secret world of tiny details within the ice.