Is It Interesting, Part 2

In the first part of this I made a point I learned from a book on poetry, that if it isn’t interesting, no one will read it. It doesn’t matter how formally structured or well composed it is. More and more I am coming to believe this is true for most art, too. But how do we get from boring to interesting?

Familiarity

It is conventional wisdom that you do your best work in an area you are familiar with. I sort of believe this, but I violate it all the time. Being an explorer nature I get a lot of energy out of photographing in new areas. Things seem fresh and waiting to be discovered. I get really psyched in interesting new places.

I am getting enough experience to see the other side, too. Yes, having familiar places can help us to make more interesting images. We learn the range of possibilities. We see the variations with seasons and weather and light. Familiar subjects give us an opportunity to pick and choose. To wait for the best conditions without having to feel rushed because this is the only time we will see this location.

Once we become well acquainted with an area we can develop a more sophisticated view of it. We won’t waste our time on shots that have little hope of being good. This is a progression to shooting more interesting images.

I do not feel this is an absolute. That is, it is incorrect to take it to the extreme and sat you will only get interesting images of areas you are familiar with. But I do agree that familiarity probably makes it easier.

Recording

Most of us have a progression we go through. We start out making record shots of places we visit. Of the billions of photos taken every day most are record shots or selfies. Have you ever gotten stuck being forced to watch 2000 pictures of someone’s trip to Disney World? Just shoot me.

I call this taking pictures “of” something. We are recording the superficial. We have not formed a refined artistic opinion of the subject. This is still operating at the “oooh, pretty; I will take a picture of it” level.

If you follow this blog you probably do a much better job than average. Our record shots can be well composed and exposed. They are decent images. But mostly they are there to record an event that will trigger a memory for us. That doesn’t make them very interesting to other people.

I’m not being critical, really. We all react this way when we see a new thing that captures our interest.

Interpreting

After we get over the initial excitement of a great new location, we can start to examine what we are being drawn to. We become more aware of our feelings and perceptions. Now we can peel back some of the superficial and uncover deeper aspects of the subject.

I call this taking pictures “about” something. It reveals to our viewers a new side of the subject or our emotional reaction to it. We are giving an interpretation of what we see. These images are probably more appealing than simple record shots.

Being intimately familiar with a location or a subject does make this easier. Take trees as an example. I have aspen trees where I live. If I didn’t know them well, the first time I saw them I would get a “wow, an aspen tree” shot. After having seen thousands of them in all conditions I have a much more focused appreciation of them. There are far fewer situations where I will capture an image, because I look for certain compositions that appeal to me.

Hopefully I now make images about aspens, not just of them. Because I appreciate them more, I shoot them more selectively.

Saying something

At this point, we have figured out what attracts us about the subject. We have refined our emotional attraction to the subject to the point we know what we want to represent to viewers. Now we can bring our creativity in to allow us to synthesize an interesting image based on our vision. This is above and beyond just our emotional reaction.

To continue the aspen example, it is the difference between “I like aspen trees because” and “here is a fresh and interesting image; it happens to be of an aspen”.

Unfortunately, I have to give up the description of what makes an interesting image. I don’t have the knowledge or the vocabulary to be able to quantify it. Actually, I don’t think it is possible to do it.

Thousands of tutorials and books are out there to teach us how to become better photographers. They can help boost us from the taking pictures “of” to taking pictures “about”. We can study vast amounts of description about composition and gestalt psychology and eye movement and contrast and lighting and color harmony and art history and … All of this is extremely valuable and should be studied.

I don’t think it is possible for any of the training to give us the secret of making an interesting image. It is too complex and subjective and personal. I sincerely hope it cannot be quantified. If it is ever reduced to a formula then there will be no room left for artistic vision.

Vision

At the end, artistic vision is the secret ingredient that creates interesting images. You develop it through your training and experience and self examination. It is unique to an individual. No two of us will have the exact same vision.

People may not like your vision. It may not be popular – remember, van Gogh never sold a painting in his lifetime. But what emerges is your vision. Embrace it and develop it. Use it to make unique and wonderful images.

Familiarity with an area or a subject probably helps speed the process. I do not believe it is a requirement. If it were, it would be foolish for me to go to any new locations to try to make images. I do not believe that. Once we have developed our artistic vision I believe we can quickly apply it it new situations.

Example

Since I do not know how to describe the details of what happens, I will give some examples. I love the Trail Ridge Road area in Rocky Mountain National Park. I am a frequent visitor there. It resonates with me and I have refined my view of it a lot over the years.

I give 3 examples here of that progression. The first was taken many years ago. It is a picture “of” Trail Ridge Road.

Image “of” Trail Ridge Road

This next image was shot years later. I have a much different feel for Trail Ridge Road. This captures much more of my emotional reaction to it. Notice that here the road is less visible and important than the setting.

Image “about” Trail Ridge Road

Finally, the image at the head of this article is a very recent interpretation. I feel I am getting down to the essence of Trail Ridge Road and, I hope, it is interesting also.

The first time, I usually skim off the outer layer and end up with photographs that are fairly obvious. The second time, I have to look a little deeper. The images get more interesting. The third time it is even more challenging and on each subsequent occasion, the images should get stronger, but it takes more effort to get them.” – Michael Kenna

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