Out of Context

Packed with story

Every image has a context, the setting or framework or circumstances where it was created. Sometimes we try to tell the context to our viewers. But really, aren’t most images viewed out of context?

The setting

Every traditional photographic image has a context. It was created someplace, about someone or something, for some purpose. That is an inescapable reality. Photography records the world around us. But how important is it for an artist to bring the context to the viewer?

If I am showing you street photography, it might help to tell you the country I’m in. That may help frame the culture, architecture, people we’re seeing. But, say I’m shooting in the USA for an American audience. Does it really matter if it is in New York City, or Cincinnati, or Seattle, or Dallas? You look at the image and try to read the subject and deduce what the scene means to you.

Context in this case is supplied from a shared cultural experience. We all know enough of what it is like in a large American city to understand the image.

Or for a landscape, if it is an interesting picture, does it really matter if it is the Colorado mountains instead of the Sierras, or the Maine coast as opposed to the Oregon coast? The impact of the picture is what intrigues us.

The story

And about story, we are told repeatedly that we must tell a story in an image or a project. I struggle with this. Somewhere I missed the training to understand this. Or I read too much into what “story” means.

One legacy of growing up as an Engineer is I start out thinking fairly literally about a proposition. To me a story has character development, conflict, and resolution. What writers call the story arc.

Personally, I don’t think many images tell much of a story unless they are about people. Even then, when we see a person we are compelled to figure out or create a story to explain what we see them doing, or their expression, or gesture. Regardless of the artist’s intent.

But I seldom present images of people. To me, a landscape or an old rusty truck or an abstract motion blur doesn’t tell a story. If it does, the story would be something like “pretty” or “gritty” or “interesting shapes”. Is that actually a story? That seems weak.

My inclination is to say most images do not, by themselves, tell a story. But they might provide enough structure for the viewer to invoke whatever memories or meanings they want. To create a story for themselves.

Do we have to supply the story?

As artists, we often feel compelled to write the story and present it to our viewer to help understand the image. Or, more likely, a gallery requires us to do it. Sometimes that is successful. If they actually take the time to read it. Maybe for a photo project people will read the artist statement summarizing the intent of the project. Maybe.

Even if viewers read a title, they tend to make up their own story about what the image is. Is that bad? I don’t think so. It is their story. If they are happy with it, great. I sometimes ask viewers to tell me what they are thinking when they see one of my images. Often I am surprised. Sometimes they are far off of what I saw and felt or what the image is actually “about”. Their story may be completely outside the context of the “real” image. But they are not wrong, because this is what they experienced. I believe the best art leaves room for varying interpretation.

I know that a well written story sometimes adds a lot of context to an image. But part of me thinks a strong image should stand on its own. If I have to explain it, it is lacking impact. A type of exception I often see is a project like Cole Thompson’s Ghosts of Auschwitz. His images are strong and impactful by themselves, but a few words taking you to the context of where they were taken and what he was feeling makes it a deeper experience.

Maybe the story is already there

What I’m about to say goes against all the conventional wisdom we normally hear. Maybe we do not write the story. Perhaps, in general, the scene is already telling its story. We see it, recognize it, frame and compose it, and try to help it tell its story in the best way we can. But it is its story, not ours. Maybe we give ourselves too much credit.

If this is true, maybe we are documenters more than creators. This aligns with an interesting statement Ben Willmore makes when he says that in composing a scene we should reduce the negatives and enhance the positives. Doing that does not really change the story. Maybe we can slant the story some and write some of our own vision into it.

I am not minimizing the creativity and skill needed to make a good image. Not at all. I know it is exceptionally hard and I wrestle with it every day. I’m just suggesting that maybe we are not actually writing the story. Rather, we are helping our subject tell its own story. Maybe our job sometimes is to recognize the story that is already there and help to bring it to life.

In isolation

This idea carries over into viewing an image. When we view an image in a gallery or on the wall or online, we are typically seeing it in isolation. A gallery may provide a title and perhaps even a short statement posted on the wall next to the image. People may or may not read it.

Does that matter? Once an image is printed and hanging on a wall, it is complete in itself. When someone looks at it, their appraisal or appreciation of it does not need to be tied to my knowledge of the context or its meaning to me. The image tells its own story, or it does not.

I actually love to provide an image that raises more questions than it gives answers. It would be a joy to me for someone to buy it and hang it on their wall at home and pause over it every time they see it. For them to feel free to create varying stories to fit it. When they are showing it to friends I want then to say “today I see…”.

When they buy the print I could give them a written description of what it is, the context where it was created, and what it meant to me. But then it is all my story. Isn’t that taking away some of their joy and creativity in participating in the art?

An image exists

So if we typically see images by themselves, that means when a viewer takes the time to look at it, the print has to be strong enough to “tell it’s own story”. Or at least to tell a story to them. It must be able to communicate something meaningful to the viewer. Perhaps its job is to connect to memories or to raise interesting questions that make people want to live with it.

If we have to use words to complete the image, maybe it is not strong enough. The words can supplement the effect, but they should not be required to make us see it as a good image.

Context could be important, but usually we should not push it too hard. As artists, we should not be so arrogant as to believe the viewers will or should internalize the context and meaning we intended. Part of their appreciation can be to make their own stories. As an artist I have created this image, but I have to send it our on its own to make its place in the world.

Today’s image

To me, this image has a lot of story. But who wrote the story? Not really me. I saw it, and stopped and took the time to frame it and compose it and narrow in to what I thought the story was. Then I edited it some, not altering any important components.

I can’t honestly say “look at this great story I told”. No, I found a story already existing and tried to put a little of my touch on it to bring it to you.

Would knowing the context make this a better story? Or would it interfere with you discovering your own story?

The Subject?

A no subject image I had to shoot

I wrote recently about the sometimes ambiguity of the subject. But the subject itself? I’m not sure I care what it is. Is that heresy?

Subject is king

People sometimes travel halfway around the world to photograph a certain thing or event. As I write this, several of my friends are preparing to travel to photograph the upcoming total solar eclipse. Or if a friend corners you to watch vacation pictures or videos, it is of their trip to [______] – fill in the blank of the place you don’t care about.

The point is that it seems most people are highly fixated on getting the best images of particular subjects that are important to them. This is probably perfectly natural. After all, when we go to the trouble of taking a picture, it should be ‘of’ something, shouldn’t it?

Most photo instructors emphasize this. Actually, they initially put beginners through a boot camp and hazing packed with technical details and jargon about aperture and shutter speed and ISO and depth of field and … If a beginner survives that, and are still interested in photography, then they are taught to have a foreground, middle ground, and background and a clear and strong subject. Then you work on composition, lighting, exposure, etc. This is standard practice.

Is it wrong? No, but learning photography is actually a difficult thing. There are many technical levels and esthetic aspects to learn. It takes a lot of practice to get good at all of them. People have different preferred learning styles, so a one-size-fits-all regime may not be appropriate.

A genre

Many well meaning experts firmly recommend that their listeners have to pick a subject area and specialize in it. They say if you are going to make a place for yourself in this over crowded field, you have tp be well known for one particular thing.

Are they wrong? Probably not. It is good advice if your goal is money or fame. So their advice is to become the recognized wildlife photographer, or portrait photographer, or street photographer, or night sky photographer, or … pick your specialty.

Then they tell us to look at what our “competitors” are being successful with and do more like that. While I can’t believe any “authority” would recommend that artists copy what other artists are doing, I can see where it is shrewd advice for maximizing your income. If you don’t care about your art.

Develop a body of work

And then we are told that we have to have a body of work. This sounded mysterious and difficult to me until I figured out they were just saying we have to be able to demonstrate we have done this enough to be taken seriously and we have to show the sustained quality of our work. Oh, well, sure. I have to do that for myself every day. I would call it my portfolio.

But then they say our portfolio must have a consistent subject focus and style and look. One “expert” I heard recently answered a question about this by using an analogy of an aspiring musician. The gist was if you are submitting an audition tape, it should all be similar type and style. You wouldn’t do some Country & Western and some rock and some bluegrass and some rap.

Maybe that is good advice if you are trying to break into the music industry. But I don’t think it works for me in my art.

Conventional wisdom is that our work needs to have a theme or be centered on a cause. After all, we can’t be a “serious” artist unless we are dealing with serious, life and death subjects. Right?

And we need to have a recognizable look that sets us apart. And our work needs to be cropped to a consistent presentation format, like square. Of course, it should have consistent color grading so it all looks like it came from the same artist. And so on.

Omnivorous

Some of us have real trouble with this, though. We are missing that ambition gene that allows us to suborn our artistic vision to the needs of marketing and fame. At least, I suffer from this defect.

I consider my artistic interest to be omnivorous and wide ranging. To the point where I would assert that I don’t care what the subject is. If it interests me, I will shoot it. And almost anything can interest me under the right conditions.

I am coming to see that it is not usually the subject that makes a good image. It is my reaction to it, My relation to it. The interest, even love, that comes across to me and my viewer.

Ultimately, an image can seldom be great unless I love it. And few images of an “interesting” subject will be great to me unless there is a strong connection there. I have heard people debating if you should take a picture if you’re not sure it will be a “portfolio” image. I say, if it interests you, take it. You won’t know until later what your reaction to it will really be.

An artist

Am I an artist? My answer is “yes”. The style and theme of any image in my body of work is a record of what I was drawn to at that place and that time when I made the image. I refuse to restrict myself to only shooting rusty 1950’s Chevy trucks in black & white and square cropped. It would make me crazy if I closed down my options like that. I love rusty 1950’s trucks, but I could not exist on a exclusive diet of them.

I may travel half way around the world to go to a place I am interested in and want to explore. But I don’t go to photograph a subject there. As I explore, I will likely find many images to take. But when I take one, it is because the whole scene grabbed me and tweaked my interest.

Let me give an example to make it concrete. I am unlikely to ever go on a safari in Africa. But if I did, I wouldn’t care if I came back with a great shot of a lion. Why? I don’t really care about lions. I would be more interested in a nicely formed tree in great light with a stormy sky. Or a native tribesman. Or …

What seems to happen is, as I’m looking around, something clicks. My subconscious triggers a message to my conscious mind to let me know “there’s a picture there! Get it!”. When that happens, it is not just about a subject. Its the subject, in this place, at this time, in this light, with me in this mood. Bam. That makes an image. Check my current online portfolio. I try to organize it to make it easier for you to browse, but you will see a wide range of subjects and styles.

The subject

So the subject? Not as important to me as it seems to be to a lot of people. The subject is only part of a good image. And it’s usually not even the most important part. At least to me. So yeah, I will go so far as to say I don’t care about the subject.

This is just my personal approach. You do what works for you. I hope you get the shot you want.

Today’s image

Today’s image is an example of the subject not being as important to me as the overall look and how I felt about it.. You could argue there is no real subject. I loved it and had to shoot it, even though it was difficult. I won’t say here what it is, but if you write me I will at least give you some hints. πŸ™‚

It Is What It Is

A story and a lot of unanswered questions

It is what it is. This is actually an expression I hate, but I’m used to it because some of my kids occasionally use it. In one sense, what I photograph is what it is.

My methods

I photograph outdoors in natural light. The subjects I shoot are “found” things. Things I encounter on my way and I shoot them as I find them. That is, I do not stages shots. I will very seldom move anything or do any “gardening” to remove distractions or competing elements.

This is the method that appeals to me. There is a kind of honesty or transparency about it that feels right.

One of the things I am indirectly pointing out in it is that most of us go through our daily life with blinders on. We tend to be oblivious to most things we encounter unless they are what we are looking for or they seem a threat.

What I want to do is take these found subjects and elevate them in a way that makes them interesting and to gently say, “see what you missed by not being mindful”.

Explore

To accomplish this, I have to be an explorer. I forage for images rather than planning them. And it requires heightened senses. I have to be outside my head and paying attention to things around me. Some may say I’m out of my head, but I will call it outside my head. I have to quiet the inner critic and be constantly scanning around me for interesting things.

It is a learned skill that I have practiced for quite a while. While I am far from perfect, I feel like I am getting better at it.

It has become a joy to me. I look forward to these explores. Most often I am just wandering in the vicinity of my studio. Familiar and well worn paths. It constantly surprises me that I can discover new and interesting things in such familiar territory. Some days it is easier than others. But more often than not I find something new or I see something differently. Even if I don’t come back with any images, I have enjoyed getting out and being in tune with what is around me.

Go out empty

One of my inspirations is Jay Maisel. I have mentioned him many times. Jay is a famous photographer living in New York City – now Brooklyn. One of the many things he is famous for is just going out rambling every day on the streets close to home.

He is so good at spotting interesting scenes that it is almost depressing. I would hate him if he weren’t so phenomenal. πŸ™‚

Jay describes what he is doing as “going out empty”. He wants to go out as unprepared as possible so he can get filled up with what the world has to offer. The point he makes frequently is that if he has a certain thing in mind to shoot, that is a mental block. He might find that, but would probably miss everything else that’s on offer.

Through lots of practice I have determined this style works well for me, too.

Make something out of it

So I explore. I wander. I’m searching for things that catch my interest. And when I find them, I don’t rearrange them or clean them up, except maybe for a stray blade of grass or a piece of trash.

Therefore, the challenge is to make something out of what is there. Position, crop, lens choice – these all factor in to making the image. Someone has said the picture is already there, we just have to crop it. There is truth to that. The excellent instructor Ben Willmore once said “What elements are adding to the image? What elements are detracting? How do I remove more of the detractions and add more of the good?” That is a good description of the game: try to remove enough of the bad and include enough of the good.

It is what it is – work with it

It is often stated that everything has been shot. What matters now is our personal treatment of it. Can we use our unique vision to see the subject in a new and interesting way?

I choose to work with things that interest me as I find them. It is what it is. How can I make it the best it can be? It can be a challenge, but the reality is there is a lot more interest in the world around us than we usually notice.

It is a joy to me when someone exclaims over one of my images and I can think – or say out loud – that is right where you go by every day and you’ve never noticed it.

A final quote from Jay Maisel: I want people to see what I see. It’s all out there. It’s a joy to look at.

Yes, it is what it is, but it can be more.

This process works for me. It fits me and there are benefits. I recommend you experiment with it. It might need several outings to become comfortable. You might discover a new world around you.

Let me know your experience!

Today’s image

OK, I didn’t find this around my studio. But thousands of people passed by this daily and I bet few if any ever glanced at the scene closely enough to take notice of it. It was clearly visible from a main highway. There seems to be a story and a lot of unanswered questions wrapped up in a single frame.

I was driving and I turned around and came back to it. I’m glad I took the time. It is a good memory for me.

The scene is gone now. But that is a topic for another day.

Print It!

Abstract pseudo-aerial. A trick to edit and print.

Some would argue that an image is not final until it is printed. More and more I am tending to agree. Print it – you will learn a lot and be a better photographer.

What is the thing you are creating?

I am intrigued by the idea of creativity and I have studied creativity research some recently. Real, hard core theoretical psychology. It has been disappointing. One of these days I will write an article on what I have observed.

One of the things I do appreciate about the papers I have read is that they tend to tie creativity to producing something. Sort of the idea that if you just think creative thoughts, are you creative? If you can’t or won’t produce a creative work, is the creativity really there?

There is benefit in producing something and holding it up for yourself and others to see and examine. Small images on a screen do not have the impact

Why a print

A print is real – a tangible, physical product. It takes on a life of its own; it is held, examined, felt, passed around, hung on a wall. It is permanent.

Creating a print changes our thought process and our relationship to the image. We must finalize it, because the print will never change. And we have to re-think it in terms of the limitations of the print medium.

It is kind of like having a child. Initially it is my baby, very closely held and personal and protected. Then it grows up and becomes an independent person.

And by analogy, the print is made to be permanent and independent. It is a work we have produced for others to have and enjoy.

What do we learn

I am amazed by what I learn by printing an image. It was edited for hours until I am sure I am happy with it. Then when the print comes out, it’s “Really? That needs more work”.

Viewing a print is quite different than looking at an image on screen. We have a different relationship with it. Our perception is very different. Even at a simple technical level, an image on a screen is formed by light being generated, an additive process. A print is seen as light reflecting off a substrate as modified by colored pigments. A subtractive process. The perception and the psychological process is different.

But ignoring all technical considerations, there is something about a print that points out all the flaws in your image. Seeing it as a physical representation on paper changes how we look at it and what we see. If you want to find out if your image is any good, print it.

How is it that I can work with an image for hours on screen and not see that sensor dust spot in the sky? Why didn’t I see that the mid tone contrasts are inadequate? And that purple highlight just doesn’t have the punch I wanted. Where did that distracting line leading off the edge come from?

We see a print more critically. Since it is a different process on a different medium we have a fresh look. And a print is far more limited in dynamic range than our camera sensor or computer monitor, so we have to map it differently to get the result we want.

A real thing

Holding our image makes it real. It has weight and texture and it is a permanent work independent of us. To use the baby analogy again, before the child is born it is still kind of an abstract idea. After it is born it is real and living.

In the days of film, making your first print was often a seminal moment. The experience of seeing a black & white image “come to life” in the darkroom bath is often the moment people say they became hooked on photography. It can be somewhat similar with printing, if you do your own. Seeing this baby of yours coming to life on paper right there in your studio is a joy.

Have you held a print? Isn’t it magical? And if you hand a print to someone, watch their reaction. Wonder, joy, maybe fear of ruining it combined with a desire to touch it. They only see images on screens. When it leaps off the screen and becomes a real, physical object they perceive it very differently.

Summary

I am doing more printing recently. I knew it would be a change and a learning, since I had not done it for a while. But even I was not prepared for it. But I love it. A great print is a thing of beauty. The image becomes real, alive, permanent. Like our child, it grows up and has a life of its own.

Try it. It could change your viewpoint.

The Subject Isn’t the Subject

French street scene at night. The comp[osition carries it.

Huh? Wrap your self around that for a minute. When we shoot images, we almost always have a distinct subject. What sense does it make to say the subject isn’t the subject?

Inspired by a quote

This article was inspired by an article by Ian Plant in Nature Photography Network, Feb 8, 2023. In part, he said:

But the single most difficult, most counterintuitive aspect of photography, the one thing that most photographers have a tough time wrapping their heads around, is this: your subject is not your subject. Instead, your subject is just part of the overall visual design. The subject might arguably be the primary element of the design, perhaps the most important part, but it is only a part, nonetheless. To make truly exceptional photographs, you need to include more than just your subject; you also need to include other visual elements that work together with your subject, getting the viewer engaged with the story you are telling with your image.

This requires some careful thought. Many of us tend to be fixated on finding the “right” subject and filling the frame with it. Ian is suggesting that is a limiting view.

What else is there besides the subject?

But if you have a good subject, and if you light it and have adequate depth of field, and you expose it right, doesn’t that make the picture? He says probably not, and I tend to agree with him.

A successful picture is a complex balance of many, often competing, dimensions. Yes, a subject is usually important, but there is the overall visual design, the composition, the feeling, the processing, even the context.

Presenting a badly designed image of a great subject usually doesn’t work well. Maybe in a photojournalism context, if the subject is truly unique it would be considered a strong image. But as a normal visual image, no.

It’s that balance thing. All the parts have to be strong.

It all works together

A well composed image of nothing particular probably doesn’t work. Neither does a not well composed picture with a good subject. We’ve probably all experienced both.

Another statement from Ian Plant in that article is:

Once you learn to stop thinking of your subject as your subject, you instead start seeing your subject as an abstract compositional element, which is a necessary step for making compelling photos. You start to see your subject in terms of its shape, color, and luminosity value. Seeing shapes and learning how to arrange them effectively within the picture frame is of critical importance to successful composition.

So the subject is part of what you build a compelling image around. Everything else you have learned about composition have to be thought through. You know, the considerations of framing and leading lines and balance and contrast and emphasis and patterns and … it goes on. You can find a million videos on the internet with someone ready to give you the secrets of composition.

Viewer perception

Why doesn’t an interesting subject carry a picture by itself? For you, it might. You were there. The image invokes memories of the experience, or the subject is important to you. Not so for the viewer.

To the user, it is a picture. You have to give him a reason to keep looking at it. People are so inundated with imagery that they are going to move on in about 1/2 second unless you can grab them.

So, let’s say there is a picture you like of a heron. It was your first trip to Sanibel Island in Florida and you shot lots of bird pictures. It is significant to you. But put yourself in the place of your viewer. They see lots of heron pictures. What does this one have to offer to make them pause on it?

Is it a significant moment with the bird poised to catch a fish? Is the bird in an interesting pose? Does the lighting enhance the feeling? Have you brought something of the environment where the bird lives that is of interest? Does this tell an interesting story about the bird? A good image is more than just an interesting subject.

Your mileage may vary

Seems funny how most of my articles contain a disclaimer like “your mileage may vary”. Art is intensely subjective. There are no hard rules. There are only patterns that have been identified over time that seems to strongly influence people’s perceptions.

Ian is describing landscape photography. “Rules” may well be different for portraiture or photojournalism or other things. The fine art I do is a lot like landscapes. Sometimes it is straight landscapes. So his thoughts struck me as significant. As always, you do your own art according to what makes sense for you. Never let any so called authority tell you you can’t.

But listen to opinions of people who have a track record of doing good work. Don’t necessarily follow them, but listen, try it on, see if it fits before rejecting their advice.

Today’s image

This is a quick shot of a street scene in Paris. It is not a carefully planned set up shot. I was out for dinner with family when this grabbed me.

Quick or not, it passed the test of “I’ll think of a reason later“. The more I worked with this the more it went up in my estimation.

Why? It is a pretty standard tourist shot of Paris streets. Look at the things that help make it more. The curve of the street and sidewalk draws us into the scene, as does the diagonal line of light and color., as do the people walking into the scene on the right. The bicycles give movement and make it more alive. The light and color on the building draw us to the side of the street that has most of the interest. As you look along the lighted street, the people in the cafes each seem to have their own story and interest. They all seem to be enjoying the evening out and that is pleasant and inviting. The receding perspective of the buildings on the left also direct and guide us along the street and through the scene.

Conclusion

To me, there is a lot of interest to explore and reasons to keep moving around the image looking at things. A simple shot of a street at night blossomed into an interesting picture. It moved beyond a street scene and became a study of living in Paris.

Most all of that was instinctual, not planned. A (metaphorical) bell went off alerting me there was something here. I got in position and framed the shot quickly. I really didn’t want to hold up my group, and I didn’t.

It’s a fairly standard and common subject. Design improved it to something more special. Instinct helped me craft the interest. What do you think? Is it interesting? Am I kidding myself?