How Can A Single Photograph Tell a Story?

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Recently Stefan Sagmeister posted a video in which he excoriates designers for using the word “story” in their descriptions of what they do. Whether you agree or disagree, it is a compelling video. Personally, I am not 100% on board with his statements. There are some merit, but it all seems a bit pedantic to me.

You can see the video here.

I will note that he was not talking to photographers, but the design community. However some photographers thought that he was referring to the growing cliche of photographer storytellers.

I don’t believe he was, but I thought it important to address what he said and defend the idea that a single photograph can tell a ‘story’.

Not a novel, of course. Nor a novella or an article or much of anything that is linear… that would take several photographs usually. We would have a beginning, middle, and end photograph to give that linear flow that stories – complete stories – have.

With one single photograph, we are looking for something that is not as linear, but more of an excerpt. We may have to intuit or create the beginning and imagine the end… or any variation there of, but we definitely see more than the simple flat representation.

I believe the vast majority of images made are not designed to tell a story. They are reportage, representational, pretty, or a form of social proof that one did something. A visual diary of an adventure – big or small – and a fascination with the power of context a frame can give something simple or majestic.

But there are a few images and image makers that work diligently to present images that inspire us to think story… at least snippets of stories. The power of the still image is that it can help us recall emotions and moments of our own lives that may have nothing at all to do with the image before us.

This photograph by Sally Mann is compelling in ways that belong only to the viewer. The image of a young girl with the candy cigarette and very serious face leads the viewer to moments in their own childhood… and what happened before and after this brief sliver of time is up to the viewer to fill in. However it is seen, it certainly is a moving photograph.

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Brian Sokol’s image of a cyclone victim is full of stories. We share context with this man, we share a known set of variables. We may not know the particulars, but we know what has happened. That is story.

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Bert Stern used the context of Buster Keaton’s slapstick humor to make this image connect. Those of you too young to remember Keaton may not see what the image was conveying, but those who share the experience of seeing his off the cuff silliness know. Stern used this to make an image that conveys a message far beyond “drink smirnoff”, and introduced another level of connection between viewer and subject. Story – no matter how brief or different each viewer’s experience is.

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What does it take to make an image that would be considered to tell a story? Wow… that would be almost as difficult as describing what makes a good melody.

Most of it would have to do with context I believe, and shared experiences.

Context is how the photographer frames his subjects, what the subject is doing in the image, and whether or not the viewer can see that relationship between subject and surroundings enough to form a glimpse into possible scenarios. Context is arguably the most powerful part of the image making process.

A flat surrounding may not offer any glimpse at all into the environment, and in that case the subject and how they are reacting to the camera would be the focus of the story. Scenarios that include backgrounds may use them to set cultural equivalencies that help us with our shared experiences.

A large silo on a flat landscape can say midwest, while cactus and canyons signify the west. Old row houses and fog may bring us the shared idea of New England even to those who have never been there. We’ve seen it, we share its characteristics.

We all know what a devasted town looks like. We may not be able to see the tornado, but we knew it was there… and now it is not. A single image reminds us of that fact… town = tornado = destruction = healing. The emotional toll is captured in a single frame, but the shared experience provides a narrative.

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In commercial photography it becomes harder to tell a story if all the client wants to tell in the photograph is that their coffee machine has bigger buttons than the competition.

But there are opportunities to create more compelling and narrative driven images and when given the chance, commercial photographers can use all of their skill at crafting images to help craft the narrative as well.

This photo by my friend Jan Klier shows us something we have probably not seen before. There is a narrative here, something that is driving the women to be in this position at this precise moment in time. However, we have no idea what it is… so we provide our own. I think one could tell an entire short story based on this image… go ahead. Give it a shot.

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A food shot by photographer Sampsel Preston tells a delightful little story of texture and color and design. This is not a novel, but we can see the context of the colors, shapes and textures, and deliver a narrative on what is happening here. Perhaps all we wonder at is the beautiful colors and exotic looking food in the containers. Fine… that wonder is a bit of a story, isn’t it. Not a long one, or one with lots of plot twists, but a very fine little tale that holds our interest.

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I love the still image, and I am constantly amazed at the stories some of them can conjure within the viewer. A few of my favorite photographers adept at telling little stories in their single, still images.

Richard Avedon
Paul Caponigro
Stephen Shore
Helmut Newton
Guy Bourdin
Dorothea Lange
Peggy Sirota
Patrick Demarchelier
Arthur Elgort

There are many more. Many.

I think that the goal of telling even the smallest story in a single image is a tough one to achieve, but it is worth the struggle. Even if we are not totally successful, the image we work to will be more compelling than if we had simply clicked the shutter without a vision of our own.

Because our own vision, and its creation, can be a story in itself.

What do you think? Can a single still image convey a story?

P52 Member Alicia Bonterre wins Two ADDY’s… WOW

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Alicia Bonterre: Photographer, Trinidad and Tobago

Alicia Bonterre: Photographer, Trinidad and Tobago

CONGRATULATIONS, ALICA!!!

Alicia Bonterre started with P52 about two years ago. She wanted to up her game, create images outside of her comfort zone, and become better at commercial photography.

She just won two ADDY’s – A GOLD and a SILVER … so, we can safely agree she has indeed upped her game. The entire P52 gang are so very proud of Alicia’s progress and it is nice to see heer talent recognized in the ad agency world.

(The ADDY is the ad world’s version of the Academy Award, or the Grammy. It is one of the most prestigious awards a commercial photographer can receive.)

In Alicia’s own words:

PROJECT:
To photograph 12 images for a 2015 calendar for a local chain of supermarkets. The title of the calendar was “Grandma’s Remedies” and was to feature local herbs and “bush medicine.” The Ad agency gave me the list of herbs and the methods for their use, and I was asked to source, style and shoot. I met with the AD, the graphic artist and Account Executive to discuss the concept, layout, budget etc. Originally I was to shoot 8 of the 12 images with the other 4 to be sourced from stock, but after seeing the first set of images I delivered, they asked me to do all 12. I did up the story and mood boards for each and they were all approved.

 

CHALLENGES:
The first challenge was sourcing the items as many of these, although common, just weren’t readily available in my area or at the time. Because most of these were plants, wilting was a major problem as I could only get some of these from people’s yards and keeping the plant fresh after picking was a major challenge. In addition, I was only given this assignment a month before Christmas with the calendar needing to be in stores two weeks before then, so time was of the essence.

 

I spent 4 days sourcing which meant visiting the shops, my mom’s collection of antiques and novelties, friends’ cupboards, plant nurseries and the gardens of friends and their neighbors. Due to wilting some of the plants need to be collected just hours before they were to be shot.

 

Another challenge was that I don’t have a studio so I removed as much furniture from my moderately sized living room as I could and used there. This room is also very open with large windows on every side which is lovely for some images but for others it required a lot of flagging to shape the light.

 

THE SHOOT:
The shoot was completed over 3 days. I started with the items that I had on hand most likely to wilt. I shot tethered using Lightroom and would scale to view for accuracy of layout as the format was 9” by 12”. I had to make sure that everything would fit including a space for the fairly large date pad (approx. 25%) and the copy of the description and method of use for the herbs with a little breathing room for good measure.

 

Starting early, I would set up, shoot, edit,resize, and e-mail to A.D. for approval before breaking down the set. While waiting for approval I would set up and do another shoot, I would keep rotating like that averaging about 4 images a day. Some shots used natural light but I love the control I get from my strobes and flashes and often would bounce light off a large foam core board to create soft natural looking light so I could keep my ISO low while shaping the light.

 

CONCLUSION:
This was my first proper commercial job, but thanks to all the similar exercises done in Project 52, it was not new to me. I felt confident in accepting the job and felt I did a good job and the client was pleased. We are taught to shoot for our portfolios every assignment and this habit is now ingrained in me, so having to deliver that level of quality was not daunting.

 

That being said, I was very surprised to learn that my work gained the Ad agency Gold and Silver awards for Photography Campaign in the 2015 Caribbean ADDY. Up till then I had only a vague knowledge even of the existence of these awards so it was difficult for me to understand the importance of it. This has given me the encouragement to push further, learn more, want more, do more, be more. As a wonderful saying goes “If your dreams don’t scare you, they’re not big enough!”

Keep dreaming those big dreams, Alicia… they are working well for you.

The award winning images below:

“What Do You Charge For? EBook

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Last summer I wrote four articles based on the five scariest words a beginning photographer can hear…

“What do you charge for…”

It ended up being nearly 20 pages, and it can definitely help you work through some of the myriad questions that haunt us when we don’t know the territory.

I invite you to download it here, my compliments.

“Protectionism” is NOT The Way of Professional Photographers

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The “Protectionist” Attitude Among Photographers

Well, not all photographers, but a considerable few. Enough that they can make a lot of noise and bluster.
I don’t suffer that attitude well, never have. The whining about how there are too many photographers and how we should NOT be helping them enter the business or ‘feeding them dreams’ or whatever, is simply a lame, self-serving sort of sod that never sits well with the facts.

Here are Five Myths of Protectionism in Photography.

If we do not teach the young photographers entering the market, they will flounder and get out.
Wanna bet. You cannot keep people from doing what they want to do. Not yet, anyway. And many people want to be photographers. They crave the craft and live every moment thinking about making images. Not teaching them the correct way to enter the market, and compete fairly, is folly beyond imagination. They will enter anyway, and have more chance to screw it all up than if they KNOW what they are doing.

And when did we photographers become so, well, mean. I have no appetite for watching people flounder and fail. I love it when they succeed and win. Creating winners amongst us is exactly what we ALL should be doing. To turn from that path is petty… and pathetic as well.

Training more people will hurt the industry because it will create a glut.
Wrong. There is and has always been a glut. Simply stated, that argument doesn’t work because it is putting a false parameter on something that has no parameters. There is no finite amount of work to be divided equally among the anointed players. Each photographer gets the work they get. It is either enough to sustain them or not. Artificially stating that there is some sort of ceiling is not logical.

There isn’t enough work to go around.
Well, maybe not for you. Or her or that guy over there. But there is a lot of work to be had out there. We know and follow too many successful photographers to even think that there is not ‘enough’ work out there. And even if that were true, and it is not, who is to say that the same shooters who are working now wouldn’t have those jobs all to themselves. The market picks winners and losers, not artificial quotas and protected participants.

Prices are plummeting because of the influx of talented photographers.
Yeah… so? Why would photography escape market forces. I paid $2500 for my Mac Classic in 1986. In today’s dollars that would be about $9,000. Anyone complaining about computer prices? Or memory? Or music? A single song on a 45 RPM record was a buck (I say single cause the other side was likely crap). And today at Amazon that single song is.. a buck.

However, I will say this. In 1984 I was getting day rates of $1500 – $2000 and those day rates have not gone up in any significant way since. (No, I usually do not charge day rate these days, but many do and I am pointing out the stagnation, not the method.) Was it because of digital?

Hardly. It was because things were changing and lots of photographers were entering the market. The market I wanted to be involved in. I had the choice to do that or get a job that no one wanted. I briefly thought about being the conductor for the New York Philharmonic… but the competition for that single position was pretty stiff… So I opted for competing for a lot of jobs instead of just one.

If we could somehow keep the beginners out, there would be more work for us.
No. There would be more for the folks that are already working. If you are not working and blaming it on the newbies, you will still not be working when the newbies are actually thrown under the bus.
Talent always wins when it is bundled with good business skills, marketing plans and a driven, nothings gonna stop me mentality. Thinking that somehow shutting off the spigot would stop those for whom photography is a calling, not just something fun to do would make ones life easier is simply looking past the problem into the face of a cure that has no merit.

I tell photographers who are complaining about how tough it is and how they can’t get work because of all the other photographers out there to take a look at the real culprit. Look right there…

In the mirror.

Protectionism, unions, state licenses and such are simply ways to garner income and keep out the competition, whether or not the competition has the talent to actually compete.

A photographer told me on twitter once that he was comfortable and loving being a photographer, but didn’t want any more people in the business because it was cutting down on his ability to get work. They were “talentless hacks” or something like that.

So what he told me in essence is that his work is so lame that talentless hacks were beating him out at his game and he didn’t want to actually have to improve above the level of talentless hack himself.

That was simply sad. I thought his work was pretty good, and that he should be doing well. Unfortunately, people with that mindset are usually not excited by the mornings, driven to make new work, striving to become better and better with all they create. Instead they brood and whine and look for people to blame for their own intransigence.

I love working with new photographers. After forty years in the business, I know I have stuff that can help, knowledge from the trenches that can answer questions – or even cause questions to be answered in the new world we find ourselves.

Be a mentor. If you can help a struggling photographer, do so.

What you give is so much more powerful than what you hold back.

Portraits Inspired by Yousef Karsh

This past week we looked at the work of Yousef Karsh. The students in the 8 Week Portrait Workshop are learning a ton and putting it to practical use. Here are their images from last weeks assignment.

Creating a Photo Portfolio That Represents Your Work

“What makes a photograph “Portfolio Worthy”

I want to talk about what makes an image worthy of your portfolio today, and have you think about your work in possibly a different sort of way.

What is your portfolio, anyway?

It is the repository of the work you have made, and limited to be the outstanding pieces from the volume of work created. It is the instrument you use to say “this is what I do.”

Whether it is a printed book, a ‘traditional portfolio’, an online gallery or your website, your portfolio is a collection of your best work. And hopefully one can see a style emerging from that collection.

A portfolio is not a congregation of your most popular shots, nor is it the ones your mom or boyfriend think ‘rock’. Those are great compliments of course, but the portfolio images should show more of another viewpoint.

Yours.

The images should be chosen with care and the knowledge that they reflect your sensibilities, with your unique vision stamped across them clearly.

In fact, they may not be the most popular shots in your collections. They may be a bit on the obtuse side, or more challenging in composition and design. They may show your more experimental choices or they may be the quiet nature of simplicity that you love so much. They can range from mild to wild, black and white to HDR, people to landscapes to interiors to food.

But they are yours. They represent the images you want to make, how you want to make them and with all of the parts genuinely yours.

Why? Because that ‘genuinely yours’ approach will help you as you begin to develop a style, a vision and a body of work that you will be proud of.

Shooting what other people like will make you madder than the proverbial hatter. There is no style in the world that will satisfy everyone. No matter what you shoot, someone is not going to like it. Changing your work to match their needs only means you will alienate someone else.

So don’t bother.

Shoot your work. Shoot it your way.

Find out what the images you love have in common.

Here’s a little assignment for you;

Put 20 of your favorite images onto a single large image… a collage. Photoshop can do that for you now (again) with a tool under the File menu.

File/Automate/Contact Sheet II

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Put the twenty images into a single folder and run the Contact Sheet II script. Choose the largest paper size you can print (or take to Costco/Sams Club/Walmart… whatever) so that all of the images are displayed together on one sheet.

This one is done on 8.5 x 11 and I used a setting of 12 images per page.

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Now take that sheet and look at it closely, with the intent of really seeing each image.

What are the similarities between your images?
What are the differences that jump out at you?
Which images, if any, look out of place in the selection?
Which images, if any, look wrong or not as good as the others that are similar?

Show the sheet of images to people you trust to give honest feedback. Even your mom, BFF, buds, and the guys you hang out with and discuss photography. As long as it is honest, it will be good feedback.

It is not a good critique, however. Critiques are done with intentions in mind, goals determined, and a frank discussion of what the images were created to do.

But feedback is good, and if you don’t know anyone who can give a good critique (yet) they are a good place to start.

The last thing to do is to analyze the ways the feedback made you feel about your work. Do you agree with their assessments? Do you believe they see what you shot the way you see what you shot? Does an image still stand up in your mind as being a strong image even if others say it was not their favorite?

Do this repeatedly with 20 images at a time. Find the ones that really resonate with you. The ones you want to show to everybody, everywhere, every day.

I’ll close with this quote by Photographer Bela Borsodi:

“If it touches you, if it excites you, if it makes you cry, if it makes you smile. A good photograph is something you cannot resist looking at. There might be a sense of surprise or discovery. something pleasant or painful. There is this quote by Oscar Wilde: “I can resist everything except temptation” In a way a good photograph is what you can’t resist and want to engage with. It doesn’t matter if you take photographs of your dog, or girlfriend, or whether you’re in a big studio with supermodels in it. If it speaks to you, then that’s when you know you have a good photograph.” 

(Thanks to Hiram Chee for finding this great quote.)