Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Form vs. Content in Photography

In  order to communicate convincingly, it helps to have something compelling to say. 

An infant crying for a night-time feeding makes the point without articulating a coherent sentence.  A haiku poem can move the reader deeply without an exposition.  It's reported that Ernest Hemingway, on a bet, produced a short story in six words that has the impact of an entire novel.

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Conversely, shallow and valueless communication bombards us continuously over the television, radio and internet. It might make sense as grammatical statements, but it has little to offer us in content because it has nothing important to say.. 

Guy Tal recently asserted in a blog posting an apt analogy:  Composition is to photography as grammar is to prose.  He wrote:
Composition is the grammar of a photograph. Those who think that good grammar is enough will do well to remember the nebulous cowboy who flaunted longingly at the saucy gaze of a cream-filled platypus. In other words, you can use good grammar to create a perfectly meaningless sentence, or photograph.
Mark Schacter uses counterpoint in classical music to make a similar point.  Defining photographic composition as "the position of visual elements within the frame, and the relationship of each visual element to every other one," he likens it to the way Bach masterfully manages multiple mucal themes simultaneously in a fugue. "Whether in music or photographic images, competing, independent thematic lines excite the senses by creating harmony out of complexity." 

Using digital sampling, sound technicians can also produce contrapunctal "music" from environmental noises, bird calls, and even sentence fragments.  Pleasing outcomes can result from the most unexpected sources. Or the outcome can be boring repetition seemingly going nowhere forever.  It's the originality, creativity and skill of artist that make the difference (and the personal response of the audience to it).  The sounds are the just the raw material for the artist's product.

Brooks Jensen is yet a third voice on this same subject. He writes in his book, Letting Go of the Camera:
 It is as easy to make a photograph without content as it is to write a sentence that doesn't say anything.  Both are common, both are prevalent, and both are useless.
 For Jensen, it's the statement, and the ideas underlying it, that make all the difference.

I was recently reminded, once again, that photographic composition is the grammar, not the statement, when I visited a photographic exhibit at the High Museum in Atlanta.  There were hundreds of images spanning more than 120 years of photography.  Not all would be considered technical masterpieces.  Some were blurry,  Some had a muddy tonal range without any rich blacks.  But in most of these images, the content was what mattered.  A few left me wondering, "Why should I care about this picture?"  But most offered images and impressions that said something to me, the viewer, either in the documentation of a place or event, or in the storytelling.

Without a statement that's compelling enough for us to care to spend some time with it, a photograph is just an exercise in the use of equipment and technique.  Composition is part of the technique of constructing a photograph.  Lacking anything important to say, it can't carry the image alone on its back.

So, the next question is, "What gives a photograph that important, compelling, or engaging statement?"  I maintain this comes from the connection between the photographer and the subject.  How many portraits lack any palpable connection in the moment of capture between the photographer and the subject?   How many landscape images are totally forgettable?  How many street photographs are just words without a story?  Without emotional impact in the soul of the photographer coloring the interaction with the subject, there's always something missing.  The image shows when the photographer doesn't care about the subject.  It shows when the picture is just an assignment to complete. Though indifference, boredom, unengagement, disconnection are also emotions, do we want them coming from us and enfusing our images?  Maybe, but only by deliberate choice and design. 

Here's a photo I took recently at the Atlanta Zoo.  Nothing is in sharp focus.  One of the subjects is a complete blur.  But, for me at least, there's a story I wanted to tell and I attempted to communicate that through the medium of the photograph. 

The image is about its content.  It doesn't adhere to a checklist used in a juried photo contest. The tools should be at the service of the story, even though the 1/3 second exposure includes some unwanted camera shake. 

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