or… how does a tiny branch or twig, smaller in print than the size of a postage stamp, elevate the impact of a picture?
First things first, though. Last night’s print meeting was a lot of fun, and hopefully provided some useful information and new ideas to think about. Attendance was great. No shortage of discussion. Prints were lined up the entire length of the room.
What I learned begins with an idea I’ve heard many times before. I’ve been told a million times that a picture should stand on its own. The artist shouldn’t have to explain it. After all, if we had to talk about our pictures, we’d be writers instead of photographers. However, it’s not quite that simple. Ansel Adams, famous for a multitude of quotes, responded when asked why he never included people in his pictures by saying: “There are always two people in every picture, the photographer and the viewer.” I don’t know if he ever discussed that idea to any greater degree… I can’t imagine he didn’t, but I’m gonna take a leap and imagine what he might have been thinking. I think he meant that there’s a human element in every photograph, even if it’s a landscape picture. The human element is the connection between the two people he mentions. And the greater the understanding of the ways and thoughts of the photographer by the viewer, the greater the impact of the picture. But is it a big deal for the photographer to express his thoughts verbally, or just depend on the viewer to respond entirely to the image, however he wishes, without verbal or written influence? Ahh… the great debate. Ansel Adams was an outgoing person. His early involvement with the Sierra Club led to numerous contacts with people who loved his pictures. Undoubtedly he spoke with great passion about his pictures to whoever cared to look and listen. That sort of passion followed him all the way to New York and Washington DC where he became famous for his environmental protection work. That didn’t happen without his speaking out about his pictures. So are his pictures perceived to be much greater than those made by anyone else of his era simply because they’re better pictures, or did he make the most out of it from his passionate and expressive personality?
Which brings me back to the print meeting last night. One of the photos shown last night was made by Annette Collier – a simple image of a stream with a small patch of grass and flowers in it. Nothing particularly unusual, although I really liked the tranquility of the image, and the delicate colors of the grass and flowers. My first reaction though was to point at the isolated elements around the outside of the picture. Those sort of things that many competition judges would deem to be “distractions.” And we all know that’s not good. Right? I even joked a bit with Jeff about Annette’s rock cut off at the edge of the picture, reflecting on a picture I had submitted a few years ago which competition judges had hammered me on for exactly the same issue. And then I pointed at the tiny twig or branch protruding into the scene from the lower right… normally a no-no of traditional composition wisdom.
But a strange thing happened along the path of improving that picture. Annette started talking about the picture. And she talked about her choices to delete something another in the opposite corner, and leave the rock and the twig in. She talked about every element in that picture. And the whole time she’s talking, I’m thinking, wow, she really put her heart into that picture. Who am I to tell her she should clone out that twig? The object itself wasn’t overwhelming. The branch was just quietly speaking next to the rush of the water… “hey, slow down and notice me!” Don’t we all feel that way? And by midnight, soaking in the quiet of my hot tub at home, I’m thinking that twig was the best idea I’d seen in a picture in a long time. I know some competition judge citing some rule or another is gonna say that Annette should clone out the rock, get rid of the twig, or crop her picture some way or another. However, just as the rock in my own picture is still sitting there split right down the middle – because that’s the way I want it – I suggest to everyone at the meeting last night who was hearing all sorts of feedback on their pictures, to go with what’s in your heart. After all, it’s your picture and an expression of what you see. And as for the other person in the picture (the viewer), I suggest that you try and understand the image from the perspective of the artist, and if you do, there will be communication between the two people in every picture. In other words, try and listen to what the photographer is saying, rather than what you’re wanting to hear.
I’ll tell you another story that sort of relates to the subject at hand. Last week I was meeting with the General Manager of a hotel in Aspen about placing some of my photographs there. There was no question that he liked the images. But not long into the conversation he said: “So tell me about yourself.” Uh-oh… hadn’t really planned on that. So I stammered a bit… something to the effect that I like making pictures. Of course, duh… no kidding. He went on to explain that if Paula was gonna buy it, she’d want to know something about the artist. People don’t spend a lot of money for just a picture… they buy a piece of the artist. So they like to know what they’re getting. Or so I was told. At that point I’m curious about who this Paula is that he kept referring to. Well, he said, “Paula… Paula Crown.” Sorry, I don’t recognize the name. “Oh, the Crown family owns the Aspen Skiing Company, which owns this hotel.” Great, I’m thinking, I get this wonderful opportunity and can’t think of a damn thing to say about myself or my work that would possibly make a difference. So when somebody claims that the picture should do all the talking, remember that in the real world, people want to connect with other people in some way or another, and communication comes in many different forms. If you don’t think talking about yourself makes a difference in the way your pictures are perceived, think again. And, Annette, if you’re crazy enough to still be reading this, I hope you leave your picture exactly as it is.