Maybe the best place to start a blog “all about photography” would be to look at the reason any photograph is created while, at the same time, that reason may be one of the least considered in our every day use of the medium. And that is the underlying Idea behind the creation of a photograph.
In yesterday’s post I did make the suggestion that “idea” is the beginning of every photograph as well as where the photographic process ends. In fact, it is the idea for our photograph that should be the basis for every decision we make in the process of creating as well as completing an image. To some this might seem to be a bold proclamation, so let’s take a look into this thought.
We have all heard the cliché that “a picture is worth 1000 words”. What this drives home is the fact that our photographs are a form of communication, visual communication. As a form of communication, they should, by definition, convey some idea to the viewer. The question raised by the Ansel Adams’ quote: “There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept” is just how well, or clearly, did we express the concept or idea embodied in our photograph.
Before we get into the meat of this though, I will admit that when I have suggested to others that every photograph starts with an idea that it isn’t unusual to get some confused looks. Let’s face it, we are often just responding to something we see and not thinking about any particular idea, right?
But there is a reason we responded to what we saw, took the time to pick up our camera—or phone—and then made the exposure. Even when we just “thought” it was cool or would be cool to photograph it or it was something strange or odd and we “thought” it would be interesting to just document it, there was a thought that provoked our response and that thought is, in fact, the “idea” behind the photograph. There is some idea why it is, or would be, cool!
Then, when we evaluate even these quick images, don’t we judge their success by how effectively they communicated that “coolness” or how well we “documented” what caught our eye—how well did they convey the “idea” behind our creating them? (Of course, there is always the question as to the value or importance of the idea expressed, but that is maybe a different issue for another time.)
These same considerations do carry over into times when we are out photographing in a more serious way as well—you know, those times we have gone out to purposely create photographs, whether to some local destination or into the studio or off to some remote location. Most likely, just what was behind our decision to go here or there is based on some overall idea of the type of images we want to make. Maybe even the specific images we want or hope to make.
In “The Idea Part 2”, I will be exploring where the “idea” behind our response to a subject comes from and how idea works on different levels when creating images. This will include all aspects of creating an image, including what we do after the exposure is made.
Until then, please feel free to comment on, or ask questions about, what I have presented above–or below. There is so much to be learned and clarified from healthy discussion.
For now though, let’s take a bit of a longer look at the images I have posted here.
Fig 1: This image demonstrates one of the common fails in photographs, let alone snapshots. A first impression might suggest that this image isn’t really about anything other than maybe to document that corral-like view point. Of course, the presence of a person will always draw our attention. The fact that this person is near the center, posing and facing the camera, suggests that this image was either supposed to be about this person or this person in this landscape. But neither the person nor the landscape are prominently featured.
Fig 2: (Maybe we should tag these the Great American Food Shot or “GAFS” !) There is certainly some clarity to this image’s intent, to show my breakfast. So, while the idea is clear, we might wonder how important this is as an image. As part of the series it is attached to–click on the image to get to it–it might be of more interest or value in its supportive role in telling the story. Also, if one realized that the coffee cup is advertising the local brothel, maybe the image becomes all the more interesting!
Fig 3: I included this snapshot, because I think it very clearly expresses its idea: to show the little boy in his cowboy outfit. I also know that the photographer, my mother, would not have been thinking in terms of an idea, but rather was responding to me (yes, that’s me) out playing in the yard in my new cowboy duds (even though I was only 5, I still remember bidding for these at the church rummage sale auction). One of the primary Principles of Design/Composition is “Emphasis” By isolating me in the foreground, rendering me as relatively large within the frame and then placing me in the middle (a very strong point for emphasis), we have no question as to the intent/idea for the image. But there are issues here and you might notice how flat this image feels, with the background pulling forward. This is caused by, most prominently, the top of the hat being tangent with the top of the wall, which pulls those background elements forward. Tangencies will generally bring a background object forward to meet the plane of the foreground object it is tangent with. With the trees appearing tangent with the roof on the right (they don’t extend above it), the distant background is also pulled forward. Had my mother changed her perspective by kneeling down, not only would these tangencies have been resolved, thus creating more depth, but it would have also increased the presence and strength of her subject. I am willing to forgive her failings here….
Fig 4: This image actually is the result of two levels of “idea”, as we will explore in part 2. When I pulled out my camera(iPhone), I was actually just going to take some quick snaps to test out my new app and some of its “lenses and films”in a new environment. We might consider this the “Umbrella” idea for making images in this case. When my step-daughter looked up at me, I immediately recognized that something special was happening and responded to that moment. The umbrella idea might not be obvious here, but anyone who knows me knows that I don’t particularly like decorating my images with artificial borders, so that might give it away. (Often “umbrella” ideas are not totally clear in an individual image but may become more clear when we see a group of images made with that idea in mind.) But it was my response to the moment that became the primary idea behind making this specific image. I did work this image in Photoshop and can assure you that my modifications were all based on further clarifying my intent for the image!
You can find The Idea: Part 2 here