I was listening to an interview this morning with Paul Sanders of the website ‘Discover Still‘. Paul was formerly the picture editor for The Times newspaper in the UK. In his job he estimates that he was looking at at least 10-20,000 pictures a day and on the day of Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding over 100,000 pictures. That is a lot of pictures!
As photographers looking at pictures, being able to read them and then talk about them is an important part of our development. It is important to be able to move beyond I like this and I don’t like that, even more so if we are to critique our own work or that of others with the intention of making stronger photographs.
I have been looking for a simple framework that will allow me to move further on my journey of looking at and reading photographs. I was excited to come across the workshop in the video below presented by Eileen Rafferty where she describes the system that she uses. Take a look at the video below and let’s talk about it. How do you look at pictures? Do you have a structured process? Is it useful for you to talk about what you’re seeing and feeling in images?
I truly enjoy looking at other people’s images, mine drive me nuts, other people’s work I enjoy. It doesn’t matter to me whether they are photographs, paintings, drawings or some other way of interpreting the world. I enjoy looking at it all. As I’ve mentioned here before, I do feel as though in some work I’m missing the joke and so I’m working hard to be able to see more, to understand more clearly what was the intent behind the creation of the image.
This of course cuts two ways – it allows me to enter more deeply into the world that creator of the work has established and it also gives me tools to help bring my vision and voice into the world. In thinking about how I look at images – what is the light, how do the lines work, what is the role of color etc. I was reminded of some of the phrases that I’ve heard thrown around when people are both making images and looking at them. Variations on light, lines, moment such as Jay Maisel’s Light, Gesture, Color.
Since I’m easily distracted, with this thread to pull at I disappeared into the internet only to find that Jay Maisel has a new book out ‘Light Gesture and Color‘. I’ve been fascinated with Jay’s ability to find photographs in the most mundane places. After watching some of the videos of him at work such as the one below and looking at the resulting images I always feel that I could try harder.
This is the fluency that I am striving for – to not only be able to take to see and appreciate the image once captured but to see and anticipate the possibilities all around me.
After talking about what’s behind the creation of work and understanding where it fits into the universe of other creative works I started to think about how I look at images. It’s one thing to be told the secret and another to be able to unlock the secret yourself.
I’m sure that there are ways to look at images in a meaningful systematic way, I find that I’m systematic, I do the same things over and over again, but perhaps not meaningful. In essence I’m running through a mental check list, a process that happens quickly:
What’s this a photograph of? What is the photograph about?
Have a seen something similar before? Where? By Whom?
How was this created? What was the pov? What lens was used?
Any other creative effect? Filters? Shutter speed? Depth of field? Focus?
How has space been used in this image? Foreground, middle and distance?
What about balance? Where is the visual mass, how does this draw the eye?
What about light? How does it contribute to the information in, or impact of, the image?
When I’ve eventually exhausted the initial run through I then turn to what has been churning away in the background:
What does this make me feel? What are my thoughts? What associations does this image bring to mind.
How about you? Do you have a way that you look at images? What works for you? I’d love to hear about it.
Getting basic techniques down and being able to replicate photographs that others have made is all well and good. But how do you advance beyond that to make photographs that are unique, that express your unique vision.
Many people use the struggles and creative processes of writers to help guide the photography path. Skeptical? Take a look at Stephen King’s book ‘On Writing‘ and change his mention of writing for photography and you’ll see what I mean.
My development as a photographer has paralleled the way I learned to play the guitar. I spent many hours learning how to play songs and even more time how to play blues riffs. At first this was following along with instructional books and CDs, as an aside David Hamburger and Dave Rubin produced some phenomenal instructional books and CDs, and then later working out riffs for myself from the CDs that I had. This let me build up a series of phrases that I could be dropped into either my own songs or the songs of others, in many ways like learning elements of photographic technique that will later be pieced together to make an image.
For both writing and learning to play the guitar there comes a point where progression comes from studying the work of others. Either reading more in the case of writing or listening more when it comes to learning an instrument. The same is true for photography. We’re surrounded by images but I suspect that few of us take the time to really look at them, to really see. When was the last time you went to an exhibition of photography or painting? When was the last time that you pulled one of your coffee table photography books down and spent 10 minutes looking at a single image?
If you’re like me, more engineer than artist, perhaps part of the reason is that you don’t have the language to describe what your seeing and you could argue if we could use words we’d be writers. The very act however of simply describing the image in front of you is enormously useful first step in becoming comfortable with describing photographs and identifying elements within them that you could use in your own photography. The more time you spend looking at other photographs the more photographs you’ll see when you have your camera in hand.
So how to start? Start with a very basic description: What is it a photograph of? Color or black & white? Shape of the frame? Where was it taken? When was it taken? How was it taken? Then go beyond the basics: Why was it taken? How does it make you feel?
I’d be interested in your feedback and comments if you run through this exercise with the image above.