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“There is nothing worse than a brilliant image of a fuzzy concept.”
When teaching photography workshops, I emphasize the importance of starting an image with a concept—a notion, inkling, idea or emotion—something that stops you in your tracks and whispers in your ear “there’s something here worth photographing,” even if it’s not yet obvious what that something is.
A concept has no visual characteristics, and the role of the creative photographer is to find a way of expressing it through a composition of visual elements—line, form, color, tone, etc. What the concept does have is significance, something the photographer cares about enough to want to capture and share it, a message, a feeling, a statement, a metaphor or a story.
Regrettably, many photographers don’t consider the need for an image to have such a concept. In fact, it seems that most pursue the opposite approach: They set out in search of aesthetically pleasing subjects and compositions to photograph, at times with great skill, but without regard to any greater meaning they might inspire. This may be the equivalent of writing a trite or meaningless text in beautiful hand-drawn calligraphy. In both cases, a viewer may be momentarily impressed with the photographer’s technical prowess, the capabilities of his or her camera, or with simple aesthetics, but ultimately find little to enrich his or her experience beyond these.
Consider, for example, this image of a giant redwood tree. On the day I photographed it, beautiful rhododendrons were blooming among the trees, and I had ample opportunity to pursue variations on the iconic view of the pink flowers against the large conifers. It’s a visual story already told many times by many others, aesthetically magnificent, but completely devoid of personal narrative. Instead, what I set out to convey was the feeling of being a small and fragile being sheltered by these giants, as well as the giants’ own fallibility. I had no idea how I would express these notions, but I carried them with me as I wandered among the trees. I finally came upon this ancient tree, hollowed out eons ago by a lightning strike, from which it managed to survive. Inside the trunk was a womb of soft pulp and charred timber, where a delicate fern had found purchase. In an instant, the visual elements converged with my own feelings. Such moments of inner/outer convergence are, to me, far more powerful than any random feat of light or well-trodden composition, no matter how pretty.
Two photographers can shoot the same subject at the same time with completely different results. By placing emphasis on the feeling he wishes to convey instead of simply the subject of the image, Tal crafts his compositions to strike an emotional chord between himself and the viewer. Through each color, texture and guiding line, Tal communicates a visual metaphor that tells us about himself beyond that of a photographer and, instead, as a full individual. During this process of shooting, he finds himself in a place of creative immersion and flow. Tal encourages each photographer to approach images with a personally meaningful concept, sometimes first written down or talked through with shooting partners, before being translated to a visual language in order to foster his or her own communicative visual metaphors and flow of creativity.
It can be said that every image consists of a balance between aesthetic appeal and ideas originating from the photographer’s mind, and it’s also fair to say that the latter requires greater creativity and skill, but also offers greater personal reward. Rather than become mired in definitions of what makes a good or artistic image, a rule of thumb I like to use is this: Some photographs are intended to be images of things, and some are intended to be images about things. Put another way, some images are literal and others are metaphorical. The transition of emphasis from one to the other is, I believe, what many photographers mean when they realize they wish to take their work to the “next level,” and it’s not an easy one, which makes it all the more worthwhile.
When in the field with a group of students, I often ask them to describe their thoughts about the scene—how they feel about it and what makes them feel that way—before deciding on a composition. My intent is to illustrate that a good composition isn’t just about making the subject look good, but it also should express something of the mind of the photographer. Not only is such an attitude useful when working in beautiful surroundings, but it also has the power to put the photographer in control and expand his or her range of expression beyond the obvious.
One of my favorite things to do is to wander in natural places without having a particular image in mind. I let my thoughts wander, inspired by the things around me, until a connection is made. Among my favorite places to work are the abundant aspen groves around my home. These trees transform in color and mood with each season, always offering interesting visual characteristics that lend themselves to things that occupy my mind. In winter, the trees are bare and the forest is reduced to monochrome and textures. As storms pass through, snow, ice and fog create a myriad of visual elements communicating chill, calmness and silence. Combining these with an array of graceful boles and branches and a tinge of blue conveys the peace I feel on such wintry walks. Keeping in mind my distinction above, I don’t think of this as an image of trees, but as an image about a pleasant and tranquil state of mind.
It’s surprising that while all humans share an understanding of the visual language and are similarly affected by such things as graceful lines, appealing colors, visual order, etc., few are able to proactively express themselves in it, that is, not just find interesting visual elements, but articulate a meaning of their own through visual elements.
Photography is unique among the arts in that every image draws some of its power from the literal subject portrayed and some from the way in which they’re portrayed (i.e., from deliberate choices made by the artist). This means that the same subject matter can be used to convey a wide range of expressions depending on how the photographer chooses to portray it. On a late autumn afternoon, I camped above a deep canyon. I arrived there in the early afternoon, as clouds drifted above ahead of a small storm. Their shadows created a fascinating chiaroscuro. The striking contrast conveyed a sense of power, which I chose to render in black-and-white, knowing that the bright red rock, however beautiful, would distract from the surreal and forceful sense I wanted to convey. A few days later, I camped in the same place after several storms had passed through. Early in the morning, after a night’s rain, I noticed pools of rainwater that formed in crevices in the sandstone high above the arid landscape—abundant water, so close to the parched desert, yet so far. To articulate this concept, I looked for a pool close to the rim so I could juxtapose it against the dry landscape below. I titled the resulting image “Tantalizing”—two very different concepts inspired by, and expressed through, the same place.
In practical terms, I recommend that photographers wishing to adopt this mode of thinking begin by articulating their concepts in actual, written words. Doing so helps bridge the initial gap between verbal language, which most of us are trained to communicate effectively in, and the visual language, which is less structured and more ambiguous. This may be the equivalent of learning a new language by translating simple expressions from one’s native tongue to achieve some equivalence between them. It’s worth keeping in mind, however, that like any language, the visual language also has its own expressions that aren’t available in others. Once simple translations are well practiced, it behooves the artist to let go completely of verbal language when communicating concepts visually. In order to venture beyond simple translation, the next step is to think in visual metaphors.
Many visual metaphors are part of common language. Consider, for example, the expression “ray of light.” The visual may be different, but most of us instantly associate the words with such things as hope or solace. Encounters with such metaphors can happen at any time and aren’t limited to the predictable “golden hours” nor require impressive subject matter. But there are many visual metaphors that are more nuanced than that. For example, the warm glow of reflected light may feel blissful and calming, even if there’s no exact verbal equivalent for it.
Juxtapositions can tell rich stories, as in the case of these trees against a steep mountainside, speaking of the transient nature of life and its defiance in the face of the imposing scale of geology. Such concepts may only be inadequately expressed in words, but inspire strong feelings when presented visually.
Film director Federico Fellini expressed what, to me, is a great truism in art when he said, “All art is autobiographical.” This simple statement illustrates the gravity and importance of thinking about our images as more than just visually attractive anecdotes. Someone who hasn’t yet understood this premise may ask, “Is this a good image?” The serious artist, however, knows that a far more important question is, “What does this image express?” or “What does this image tell the world about me?” Do your images say that you’re creative? Lazy? Thoughtful? Formulaic? Sensitive? An imitator? Unique? Generic? All these and more can emerge out of your work, whether you’re aware of it or not.
When you consider that an image reflects, at least to a degree, the person who made it, you must also acknowledge that everything that can be said about your image is ultimately said about you. More than that, it means that you have the power to control your artistic legacy. Rather than repeating formulas or producing images devoid of meaning, make sure there’s a concept behind your images, something deliberate you wish for them to express, something of your own making and that represents you, your thoughts, your relationship with the things you photograph, and the importance you wish your viewers and critics to find in your work.
So, consider a change in attitude: Seek images that are about rather than images that are of; let go of the checklist of compositions already photographed by others and instead seek the rewards of discovery and creative expression. Don’t limit yourself to “good” subjects and “good” light; if you have a sensitive heart and concepts worth sharing, you may find their visual expression anywhere, anytime. And, most rewarding of all: The satisfaction of accomplishing something of your own conception is also a great motivator to think of yet more interesting, important and meaningful things to express as you go through life. It’s a mode of thinking that not only makes you a more creative photographer, but a more inspired, attentive and adventurous person.
See more of Guy Tal‘s photography, read his journal, purchase ebooks and sign up for workshops at guytal.com.