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Write Your Story

Developing an ability to write about your photography will make you a more powerful storyteller

“Seeing and feeling beauty is more vital to me than any resulting imagery. When the key elements of photography—light, composition and emotion—are before me, I am fully engaged, yet detached, without expectations. The magic of my discovery—whether the dramatic light of a clearing storm or an intimate detail on the forest floor—recharges my spirit with a sense of wonder.” From William Neill – Photographer, A Retrospective.

By the time I graduated from college, I had already decided to forsake a traditional path of employment and become a photographer. My father, who was a writer, suggested that it might help if I learned to combine writing along with my photographs. His experience as a journalist was that combining image and word was a powerful way of communicating a story; that being able to do both added value and opportunity to my efforts. As a young man, I resisted, wanting my photographs to speak for themselves. Eventually, I came around to my dad’s suggestion. The emotions and experiences arising from my visual explorations began to formulate in my head, and through teaching, I discovered I had something I wanted to say, in words as well as images.

My first opportunity to write in depth about my work was for Outdoor Photographer in 1986. The essay I wrote was entitled “Intimate Landscapes.” The essay has endured for me, still ringing true, and the key ideas have formed my artist’s statement ever since. The article’s title pays homage to Eliot Porter’s book of the same name, and to the inspiration of his photographs. I open the essay with these words:

Photography is a quiet, contemplative activity for me. It is a time to slow down and enjoy the beauty of the natural world. I seek to experience and reveal the mysterious, spiritual aspects of nature.”

To define your personal point of view, it is useful to give a title to your portfolios. A clear and concise title is vital. Depending on the audience or intent, the theme could be named descriptively, such as that of the subject or location. Your potential viewer will literally know what to expect. For a series representing your most artistic work, a poetic or conceptual title will entice the potential audience to look further. At the very least, a subject or style should be communicated. Examples I’ve used include “Landscapes of the Spirit,” “Meditations in Monochrome” and “Impressions of Light.” Each of them gives a sense of the mood or style by which I organized the portfolios. The right words can trigger curiosity and anticipation for what is within.

“From within [Yosemite’s] protected walls, the peacefulness and beauty bring comfort and calm to me. Given this sense of sanctuary, my creative energies have been given the freedom to express what I feel, to express the connection between my spirit and the beauty of Creation.” From William Neill – Photographer, A Retrospective.

Of course, the words we might use to describe our images don’t make the photo successful. The photograph should stand alone on its own merit. However, good writing can explain, amplify and expand the viewer’s understanding of the photographer’s philosophy, passions and point of view.

If you spend much time online, you know we are inundated daily by images on social media and blogs, ebooks and ezines. Most of the superstars of social media are making excellent photographs. Although much of social media emphasizes the image far more than the words, if you dig under the surface, you can discover the intriguing details of a photographer’s experience, their history and philosophy. I urge you to look into those photographers who inspire you.

Guy Tal is one photographer who has embraced both word and image. Coincidentally we happened to be corresponding as I was writing this essay. When I mentioned this, he shared these words:

“I think that any creative artist must have an understanding, first of all, of what he wishes to express, and then pick the best medium for it based on his personal taste and skills. To me, photography came after writing, and I realized early on that the two play complementary roles in my life and that I had to do both to express what I find important and noble. Photography for me is a way of exploring the world outside myself and then to overlay personal meaning on it. Writing for me is a way of exploring my inner thoughts and feelings, and then to overlay elements of the external world that elicit these thoughts and feelings.”

If you haven’t already, write an artist’s statement, find the themes about which you are most passionate, frame them with enticing titles, and help distinguish your own photography with words to define your own perspective.

William Neill is a renowned nature and landscape photographer and a recipient of the Sierra Club's Ansel Adams Award for conservation photography. Neill's award-winning photography has been widely published in books, magazines, calendars and posters, and his limited-edition prints have been collected and exhibited in museums and galleries nationally, including the Museum of Fine Art Boston, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, The Vernon Collection and The Polaroid Collection. Neill's published credits include National Geographic, Smithsonian, Natural History, National Wildlife, Conde Nast Traveler, Gentlemen's Quarterly, Travel and Leisure, Wilderness, Sunset, Sierra and Outside magazines. He is also regular contributor to Outdoor Photographer with his column “On Landscape”.