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?

Outside the Frame

You are directed out of the frame to complete the story.

The frame is one of the most important aspects of our images. I’m referring to the edge, the border, not what may or may not surround the outside of a print as it hangs on a wall. Sometimes part of the storytelling is to suggest our viewers think about what is happening outside the frame.

The frame

The frame or border around our image is a powerful component of our design. An image is created within a frame. The frame defines the extent and what is included. The frame also defines what is excluded.

This is one of the unique and beautiful things about photography. A painter starts with a blank canvas and is free to include anything he wants for his image. No limits. And if he doesn’t want something, just don’t put it in. The photographer knows that everything in the field of view of the lens is recorded in his image when the shutter opens.

So a photograph is constructed by deliberately deciding what is included and what is excluded and what the viewpoint on them is. Unless you are constructing a still life or compositing images together. My focus here is on natural scenes.

It’s a dance with the frame. It’s a succession of tradeoffs and optimizations. The result is the artist’s unique viewpoint.

The edges

Magic happens at the edges. Most of the standard “rules” of composition are relative to the frame. For instance, the famous “rule of thirds” is relative to the frame edges. Leading lines come in from the edge. Diagonals are diagonal because of their relationship to the frame.

And how often has someone advised you to look carefully for things poking in from the edge of the frame. They tend to be distracting, because things near the edge of the frame are powerful. As you become experienced it is an automatic action to scan the edges to check for these elements.

The famous Jay Maisel rightly said: “You are responsible for every part of your image, even the parts you’re not interested in.” This seems especially true around the edges of the frame.

It’s kind of a paradox. Small elements at the edge are distracting. But large features projecting well into the frame are strong design elements.

A window on the world

So then our frame is our window on the world. The image is the projection within the frame. We are trained to compose carefully within the frame. To make sure the image is self-contained. Anything outside the frame is unknown. It doesn’t exist.

Or does it?

Imagining the unseen

Have you ever considered using things outside the frame as a design element? Is that even possible?

Think of a repeating pattern within the frame. If it is not stopped before the edge, we assume it continues. This brings up questions, like does it actually continue? How far does it go?

Or perhaps you consciously include a shadow coming in the edge of the frame. It can raise questions about what is the thing, is it about to come in, what will happen when it does?

Have you ever intentionally had someone or something leaving the frame? It can raise questions about why, where is it going? What will happen outside? Why is this composed this way?

Ever shoot an image with the subject looking out of the frame? It raises lots of questions with the viewer. We try to analyze the person’s expression and figure out if they are looking at something amazing, or startled, or apprehensive. Is something scary coming? We want to know.

Another example is shooting a tight section of something and leaving the rest to your imagination. We probably know what the overall thing looks like and we start filling is the rest in our mind.

Today’s image

You want to know who he is talking to. It seems to be a happy moment. We wonder what the conversation is. You want to join in the moment, so you make up your own story about what is going on. All because we are directed out of the frame to complete the scene.

The frame is a strong component of the composition of our images. We are very careful to arrange things within the frame. But it does not have to fully constrain our world. Sometimes leaving the outside of the frame as a suggestion to tweak the viewer’s imagination can be powerful.

Packaged Experience

Do you create your own photo experiences and adventures or do you rely on packaged experiences? I hope to encourage you to have the confidence to create your own most of the time.

Packaged experience

What is a packaged experience? It is any situation where you purchase a ready made happening from a vendor. Someone who offers you a ready to go vacation or adventure you can just step into and passively enjoy.

A classic example of a packaged experience is a Disney World vacation. Space Mountain and Epcot may be fun and maybe somewhat magical seeming for the kids, but not much for an artist. Another example is a typical vacation cruise. New scenery, good food, but it seldom qualifies as an adventure or a unique experience.

In both cases, everything is wrapped up in a neat package, all the sharp edges are protected, and a manufactured packaged experience is provided to you. These are exactly the reasons I recommend you avoid them.

It’s not really an adventure

An adventure is “an unusual and exciting, typically hazardous, experience or activity”. Packaged experiences are seldom unusual, since you are buying the same product sold to a million other people before and after you. A simulated rocket ride or a roller coaster may seem exciting for a few minutes, because they shake you around and it seems dangerous. But the reality is they are carefully controlled and not at all dangerous, unless you have a serious heart condition. They are a simulation of adventure. Once you reach an age where you realize the Pirates of the Caribbean are not going to stab you, no matter what you do, it should cease to hold much excitement. Unless you step into a Westworld situation, but that is unlikely.

The packaged experience is in no way unique or dangerous. It’s effects are short lived. There is no long term benefit or learning from it. And even worse from an artistic point of view, it gives you little chance for creativity or exploration of new ideas.

Maybe the worst part, from my point of view, is that in a packaged experience you did not have to put any of yourself in it. You are a passive spectator.

Roll your own

I guess it can seem intimidating if you’re not used to being responsible for your own adventures. And if you are taking the family maybe you want to be extra careful for the kids. But even for them – especially for them – wouldn’t it be wonderful to give them a legacy of being able to amuse and entertain themselves in strange places?

What does it take? Just a good attitude and the willingness to try it. No special training is required. You have to be open to accepting things as they come and learning to like them. It is almost all your attitude that determines what benefits you will receive.

Let me give an example of a pattern of things that formed some of my belief in this. Way back, when timeshares were a good thing and not yet ruined by greedy developers, we bought one. Kind of on the spur of the moment. No real planning or investigation. Well, the real utility for us was that we always traded for other locations in some part of the world. So we had a week tied to some location we had never been to. Initially we would get somewhere, explore the area a day or 2, then ask ourselves what we are going to do now? But we were stuck there. Sometimes these places were way out in the middle of nowhere.

We were forced to amuse ourselves. We would start to explore the vicinity more slowly and carefully. It amazed us what kind of interesting (and photogenic) things we discovered. Looking back on it, I can see what should have been obvious then. Almost every place has interesting things to find, quirky and interesting people, local things they pride themselves on, unique history, local food specialties to try, and just things you have never seen.

Trust your ability

We’re just not used to slowing down and looking at what is right in front of us. Instead, we’re looking for the tourist attractions with bright neon signs. The places listed on the tour brochures as welcoming busses of tourists (and having a big gift shop).

The time share experience taught me to settle in and look around to see what I can find. I can’t remember how many time share trades we did, I would guess at least 20. In all of those, even when we were initially disappointed with an area, there was not one where we went away at the end of a week saying we will never come back there. I remember the very first one we went to was in Palm Desert CA – in August – it was 120F every day. And we loved it. I found fascinating places and sights I had never imagined. We would definitely like to go back, but maybe at a somewhat cooler time.

I labeled this section trust your ability, but really, little ability is required. The biggest factor is attitude. Keep open and receptive to what is there. This is a learned skill more than any innate ability. I always had a bent toward traveling this way, but the time share experience taught me to recognize and develop it. Now I trust that this is the best way for me to travel.

Don’t go overboard

To keep it balanced, let me tell you about a friend I have who is a wilderness photographer. He goes on solo treks in the Rockies all the time, all seasons and weather. He has probably climbed all the peaks around here over 10,000 ft. Many in the winter. Wildlife encounters are not too rare. He builds and stays in snow caves. Blizzards and storms do not dissuade him. I think he is a little crazy. But that is his thing. He gets unique pictures of places and times few other people have seen.

However, this is not what I am suggesting. It is not at all necessary to go to that kind of extreme to create unique adventures. Just go somewhere new and be open to what is there.

Try it

I encourage you to give it a try. It may take several outings before it becomes comfortable. That’s OK. Being uncomfortable is not a bad thing. Sometimes that just means you are learning something new and exercising a new skill.

To get started, take some short trip, maybe one night. Head out someplace you haven’t been before, but not more than a few hours drive. Stay overnight – I recommend a nice local motel, not a big chain. It will be a little more adventurous and without the sterile industrial feel. Besides, small communities need your money. Then home. During the entire outing, give yourself a mission to stop and see and take pictures of anything even remotely interesting. An overlook, some nice trees, a classic old rusty car, a silly local tourist trap – whatever piques your interest. Let yourself go. Tell yourself you’re not in a hurry and you have permission to stop whenever you like. One of the purposes is to learn to find interests on your own.

Photo Tours

Many people I know host photo tours, so I want to address those. Different tours have a variety of goals. For this, let me divide them into 2 groups: tours that take you to famous sites and promise you to make the same well known pictures, vs tours that provide stimulation, discussion, and training while also taking you to interesting locations you have never been. I would call the first kind a packaged experience and advise you to avoid it. The second type, however, would be an enjoyable growth and learning experience. The sights and actual images you get are secondary to the adventure and new experiences. That is the kind of experience I would appreciate.

Do it

I know this isn’t for everbody. Some of you are such hard core Type A personalities that you can’t go to the hardware store with out written goals and a definite plan. So the idea of heading off anywhere without a well researched plan would be horrifying.

But for the majority of us, I encourage you to give it a try. And persist long enough to get over the discomfort and have a fair test to see if you like it. When you learn to see like this, every outing becomes an adventure. Walks in your town become new and filled with sights you never noticed. Trips where you actually get away are more exciting, because you are constantly discovering new things that are not on the tourist brochures. Things that are special to you, that become “yours”. It can revolutionize your life.

Today’s image

An interesting road sign found on a tiny back road in Devon, England. We were staying at a time share miles out in the middle of nothing. Wandering around, we found many terrific discoveries. It was a lovely area that is a special place for us still. No tourist map or guide book would have taken you here.

How To Be Creative

Keeping Knowledge locked away

Is creativity a talent only certain people have? Is it a process to be learned? Did you ever wonder about how to be creative?

The Muse

People often speak of being visited by the Muse. Or more likely, not being visited recently. The muse seems to be this mysterious, invisible force that comes on us at times and endows us with tremendous creative force. For a while. Until she decides to leave. The muses are almost always described as female.

I can’t deny that sometimes I seem to be filled with creative energy and sometimes I can’t come up with a single good idea. Is that because of muses? I don’t want to jinx myself, but I don’t think so. It is too easy to blame external things. There is an ebb and flow to everything in life. I think creativity is part of that. It is unreasonable to expect to be on a creative high all the time. It would be nice, but we have to recharge sometimes, too. If it was constant, we would appreciate it less.

A talent

OK, so is creativity a talent a few have naturally and most of us don’t? It seems like that sometimes. Have you ever met someone, maybe an artist, maybe someone in your work life who seems to exude a flow of creativity? Someone who seems to get more done than anyone else?

I have. Several times. It can be humbling. It can make you want to change careers because you seem so inferior.

Talent is a real thing. Back in my life as a software developer I did some investigation into this and found evidence that there can be a 20 to 1 difference in productivity between developers. That seems to imply that some have a natural talent for doing the work. But, don’t let this slip by, they evaluated a 20 to 1 difference in productivity. That is not necessarily creativity. Creativity is much harder to measure.

Here is a truth of life that is important to remember: just because something is easier for someone than for you does not mean their work is better. So while there are differences in talent, that does not exclude anyone.

A process

On the other hand, we can demonstrate that creativity is a process. We have to do it, not sit around waiting to be inspired. A couple of quotes from my article I reference above:

Inspiration is for amateurs. Us professionals just go to work in the morning.” – Chuck Close

Hard work will outperform talent any day of the week.” – Joel Grimes

One thing we seldom talk about as an element of creativity is domain skill. That is, to be creative you first need to be good at what you are doing. Whether it is photography or writing or software development, you have to be skilled in your domain to be able to rise above the average.

So a good part of our process is to always be working to improve our skills. When “the muse is gone” and we do not feel inspired, at least be working on our craft. I have often seen in my own life that sometimes just focusing on a technical skill can lead to new thoughts and ideas for new work.

Am I creative?

Ah, the question that haunts most “creatives”. We often doubt ourselves. After all, what we think and do is obvious to us. So it must be obvious to everyone else. Right? Probably not.

Almost everyone is creative is some areas. But I have never met someone who has all their faculties who does not have the ability to create at some level.

But we set a very high standard for ourselves, don’t we? We expect massive, glowing creativity. World changing things. Really? Not many things change the world to any measurable extent. Our insecurity about our creativity is right up there with our imposter syndrome fears.

Try this experiment. Look at a lot of the published work by other artists is your field. There will be some that blow you away. That really impress you and make you feel inferior. But think about 2 things. First, remind yourself that you are only seeing their best of the best. You never see the 99% of the failures. Are you comparing your failures to their best?

Second think about what you consider the fails among that work. Will there be a significant part of it where you will say “Really? I throw away stuff like that.”? This should convince you that you can be just as creative as most of them.

Ebb and flow

Human nature is such that we don’t just go through life at an even level. There are peaks and valleys, ebb and flow. Sometimes we are up and sometimes we are down. Don’t get disappointed when your creativity follows this pattern.

But one of my points above is, get to work. Do something. Don’t sit around feeling sorry for yourself and waiting for the muse to come back. Work. Maintain a discipline of doing things anyway. You may throw away most of what you do in this phase, but you can learn and improve your skills and it can be effective at getting you out of the valley more quickly.

One of the self help gurus I for some reason get stuff from recently said “Confidence is a byproduct of action”. I happen to agree with this. And I would add creativity is, too.

Little C or Big C

Notice that I have never defined what creativity is. This is intentional. Don’t most of us say “poor me, I’m not creative” without defining what we mean.

One conventional definition from Psychology research is that creativity is “the production of ideas or outcomes that are both novel and appropriate to some goal” (COMPONENTIAL THEORY OF CREATIVITY, Teresa Amabile, Harvard Business School). The clause about goals is there because the motivation of the research was the corporate environment. Talking solely about art, I would remove that and concentrate on the novelty of a work product.

So, what is novelty and how novel does it have to be to be considered “creative”? Amabile and others say that almost everyone has some degree of creativity. It is expressed in different ways and with different impact.

She uses an example of what she terms little C creativity vs big C creativity. The dentist who came up with the idea of letting kids wear fun sunglasses during exams to protect their eyes from the bright lights is what she calls little C. It is creative but not hugely novel. At the other extreme Schawlow expressed the principles on which all lasers are based. He won a Nobel Prize for that. Definitely big C.

So maybe we ought to give ourselves a little more freedom. Creativity does not have to be Nobel Prize winning. A novel composition or idea in our images is genuinely creative if you have never seen it before.

Novelty for its own sake

So if creativity revolves around the concept of novelty, how novel and new does something have to be? I think many artists are too caught up in this and try to do novel things regardless of their artfulness. Just browse through most contemporary art galleries or The Hand Magazine.

The definition of creative above brings together novel and appropriate. Maybe doing something solely because no one else has ever done it is not good enough. Don’t forget that the idea is to make art while we are doing it.


So maybe we shouldn’t be expecting lightning flashes of brilliance in our daily work. Maybe we should work our craft and perfect our skills to make sure we are about as good as anyone else. Then “connect the dots” as Steve Jobs used to say. If we can be open and receptive to thinking in new ways, we can look for opportunities to apply novelty as an edge to differentiate our self from the pack. Then the novelty is actually a creative enhancement to our work, not just something novel.

Today’s image

I seldom try to create “message” images. When I came across this scene, though, it was too powerful to pass up. It connected several dots with me. I think I have made a creative image that can express a strong idea. Maybe more than one. What do you think?

Overcome Boredom

I have written before that we should be able to find interest wherever we are, even if it is familiar territory. I still agree with this, but sometimes it helps to do something different. It is easy to get stagnant without a refresher. So what can we do to overcome boredom?

Love the familiar

There is a comfort and special knowledge that comes from working with well known subjects or locations. We get to know all of the moods, the look in different lighting and conditions, the “best” times. When we have a familiar subject we can work when we want, we are not dependent on the luck of what we find the day we are there. We can keep coming back whenever we want to explore how we best like to see it.

This has always been true. Claude Monet was drawn to his water lilies. Some artists only do portraits, because they are energized by the personal interactions. Guy Tal mostly does images of the Colorado Plateau in Utah. That is what he loves and it is where he lives.

Probably most of us have a favorite place or subject we are more drawn to and spend a lot of time working with. It is natural. Familiarity tends to build strong ties and a deep appreciation.


But if we are not careful, we can get stagnant. We get into a rut. If we keep doing the same familiar thing over and over without injecting new thought or new creative approaches, we will cripple our art.

Are we able to see something new in the familiar territory? Can we look at the same thing and visualize it differently? This is a skill. Like any skill, it must be developed by thoughtful practice.

I mentioned Claude Monet. How much can you do with a small pond with water lilies? Well, I recently visited l’Orangerie in Paris. This museum has a special wing built to host an incredible set of paintings he did of his garden. It hosts 8 images, each 2 meters high and 91 meters long. Yes, each painting is 299 feet long! It is quite an experience. This, to me, is an example of creating a fresh approach to a familiar subject.

Seeing new approaches to the familiar is a great creativity exercise. Sometimes, though, the subject doesn’t support the depth of vision required. We burn out on certain subjects. That is OK. Take what we have learned and fall in love with a new subject. This is one of the advantages of doing projects. A project gives us a subject or a theme to pursue for a while until we feel it is exhausted. Some may run out in a few weeks. Some last our whole career.

Shake yourself up

However we do it, we have to shake our self up. Shake off the rust and barnacles. To pull out of the rut and make our work fresh again. What works for you is intensely personal. I am not one to try to tell you what you should do. I don’t like it when someone presumes to know what I need without even knowing me.

Some things commonly recommended are projects, travel, workshops, classes, and tools. I have tried all of these and all have varying degrees of impact on me.

I mentioned projects already. This has been very useful for me. Having a project as a focal point for your creativity is stimulating. Taking a subject or a concept you have never seriously considered and trying to make a coherent and excellent portfolio around it is a great creativity exercise. It might give you a fresh viewpoint on other things, too.

As a personal example, I just returned from an international trip. Rather than going with the idea that I would shoot “everything” that is interesting, I had 4 projects in mind for the trip. Yes, I shot lots of pictures just because they were interesting, but I found myself drawn to my project ideas in a deeper way. They gave me a focus for my creativity.

Travel is almost universally recommended. Getting out of your comfort zone and into a new environment tends to change our perspective. I believe almost any travel is useful, but that idea of getting yourself out of your comfort zone is important. What I mean is, if you live in Philadelphia, traveling to Cincinnati would be interesting, but going to Utah or France would have a lot more impact. Those are a major change of comfort zone.

Other tools

Workshops and classes have good results for a lot of people. I find myself not drawn to workshops for a variety of reasons, many related to my personality and learning style. I do, though, take a lot of classes. Mostly online. There is a wealth of instruction available now. I get many of my classes from CreativeLive or Kelby One. And I get no consideration for referring them.

Sometimes new tools or technology can spur us on to new levels. New camera bodies with great built in features might cause us to try new things. New software tools might give us incentive to apply new techniques to our work. To think in different ways.

Whatever works for you, find a way to do it.

Feed your head

Like Jefferson Airplane said way back, we have to feed our head (but hopefully not the way they did). Our creativity comes from within. We must protect it and grow it. If we let ourselves get stuck in a creative rut, all our work starts to look alike and we are just repeating the same things over and over.

Sometimes this is the result of boredom from focusing on the same subjects and the same locations too long. Get out of your comfort zone. Get scared when you cannot find new things to do in your work. Don’t repeat yourself.

I don’t want to do that. I hope you don’t, either. And have fun while you are doing it. After all, this is your art.