Magic, beauty, rage, simplicity, love, loneliness, compassion, awe, inspiration… These are just a few of the myriad of ideas and feelings that we can have in response to our environment and what’s in front of us. In general, as an artist, a photographer, is attempting to capture, portray, and communicate ideas, thoughts, and feelings to the viewer, expressing them in a static, flat, and graphic medium.
In so much of life, communication is everything. Getting clarity around the message you have to convey first, and then finding a way to have that message received without interference, nuance (or “spin”), or diminishment. Our five senses each bring their own unique contribution to communication, but our challenge as photographers is to accomplish this entire feat with an image.
It’s often said that a picture is worth a thousand words. Apparently this phrase had its origin in the early 1900s but is likely traceable to even earlier philosophers. It’s a phrase that we as photographers gravitate to because it adds weight to the value of what we do from a visual/pictorial standpoint. Writers have axioms like “the pen is mightier than the sword” to evoke the power that that form of communication has. Curiously enough though, pictures were the first graphic, or written language.
So as we think, plan, envision, pre-visualize, and compose our images, what is in our mind from a communication standpoint? Is it something overt that we are trying to use an image to evoke, or is it the other way around, where we have an emotional reaction to a scene and simply want to “bottle it” by committing it to a photograph? Either way, the communication must be clear and uncluttered, much as the image itself must be clear and uncluttered. Photography is not an additive art like painting where a canvas begins blank and paint is added. Rather photography can be thought of as a subtractive process, where an entire scene is systematically reduced through selective decisions and composition, until only the essential elements for the communication are included. Of course, for that to be taking place, the photographer must have in mind what the message is, consciously or subconsciously.
As viewers of other photographer’s work, we transition from being the “sender” to being the “receiver. Now we must attempt to derive the message that the artist was intending to communicate. The various elements and characteristics within the image are all clues for us. Spending time in this mode will not only give us an appreciation for the skills and artistry of other photographers, but will also help us improve and hone our own communication skills when we return to being the “sender”.