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:

From the Portrait Workshop: Inspired by Dan Winters

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Imitate. Assimilate. Innovate. — Clark Terry, jazz trumpet legend.

It is still the best way to learn art. And it drives the style of teaching I do. I don’t want anyone to copy anyone else, but rather to be inspired by the work of others. In the portrait class, we have looked at seven artists, all masters of portraiture in their own style. We have taken them apart to see how they work, and how they present that work to the world.

And then we get inspired to produce work that pays homage to the master, while hopefully forging our own style and essence into the image.

Dan Winters is a treasure for photographers wanting to learn what style is. His work has been featured the world over, and he has one of the most recognizable ‘styles’ in the business. The students spent two weeks pouring over his images, watching videos and generally discussing what makes the Winters image work so well.

And then they took what they learned and made an image… some images are direct homage, and others take what they learned and put it into their own voice. A voice that may be far from the inspirational, but also one that respects what came before.

I think the photographers did an outstanding job working with one of America’s most iconic shooters.

8 Week Workshop: Portraits Inspired by Herb Ritts.

The goal is not to copy, but be inspired by… Learning about a photographer like the remarkable Herb Ritts helps us to evaluate our own work, see it with new eyes and blend what we learn into our own mix. The photographers who study the past forge new paths into the future… not only for their own work, but for the art in general.

Congrats to these talented and very dedicated group of students.

New Camera Announcements from Canon

Some amazing new cameras from Canon. I don’t get involved in new gear releases, but this stuff is starting to get exciting now.

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Canon D5

PRODUCT HIGHLIGHTS

  • 50.6MP Full-Frame CMOS Sensor
  • Dual DIGIC 6 Image Processors
  • 3.2″ 1,040K-Dot ClearView II LCD Monitor
  • Full HD 1080p Video Recording at 30 fps
  • 61-Point High Density Reticular AF
  • 150,000-Pixel RGB+IR Metering Sensor
  • ISO 100-6400; 5.0 fps Burst Shooting
  • Anti-Flicker Compensation
  • User-Selectable Shutter Release Time Lag
  • Dual Compact Flash and SD Media Slots

 

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11-24 EF Canon F4L

PRODUCT HIGHLIGHTS

  • EF Mount L-Series Lens/Full-Frame Format
  • Constant f/4 Maximum Aperture
  • Super UD, UD, and 4 Aspherical Elements
  • SWC, Air Sphere, and Fluorine Coatings
  • Ring-Type USM Autofocus Motor
  • Internal Focus; Full-Time Manual Focus
  • Weather-Resistant Design
  • Rounded 9-Blade Diaphragm

 

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Canon EOS Rebel T6i DSLR Camera with EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM Lens

PRODUCT HIGHLIGHTS

  • 24.2MP APS-C CMOS Sensor
  • DIGIC 6 Image Processor
  • 3.0″ 1.04M-dot Vari-Angle Touchscreen
  • Full HD 1080p Video Recording
  • 19-Point All Cross-Type AF System
  • 5 fps Shooting & Extended ISO to 25600
  • Hybrid CMOS AF III & EOS Scene Analysis
  • Creative Filters
  • Built-In Wi-Fi Connectivity with NFC
  • CS100 Connect Station Support

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Going North – Taking a Photo Trek

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Every year I host a meet-up of Project 52 members. Part workshop, part social, full on fun. There is no fee for this, we share all expenses, so it is a very comfortable and relaxing time with the tribe.

This year we will also be doing a road trip to the north country. The itinerary is the same as this workshop that I planned last year. We have two 12-passenger vans, an aggressive plan, hotel rooms booked, and cameras ready.

Along the way we will be doing portraits, landscapes and still life. I hope to be able to post to the blog next week, and if I can it will probably be video. (I really need to do more video… so do you.) I will also hope that we can post some images from along the road. That week will be a mish-mash of posts, so bear with us as we try something new.

If you have ever taken a Lighting Essentials Workshop, or been a member of the Project 52 groups, you are welcome. I will post next years week when I get back. We will be going to Canyon Lands on that trip, as well as the Grand Canyon and Antelope Canyon. As I said, more to come.


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