When people come to visit they are often struck by the walls in my house. The walls aren’t anything truly unique and there’s nothing about them that would draw your attention other than what’s missing from them.
Inevitably, I’ll hear the visitor ask “Why isn’t there anything on your walls?”
I think they’re really saying….”But, wait, you’re a photographer, where’s the photography?”
The truth is, my walls are empty with the exception of two photos. They’re a diptych and are really more like one idea stretched across two frames. Each centers around what is written within the frame and it is what is written that is what I love; simple, thought provoking and personal.
The photo on the left says “My brother wants to be a writer”
The photo on the right says “He should use a pencil”
I’ve written about the love/hate relationship I have with writing and the difficulty it presents for me. Growing up in a family of successful writers, I was the brother. I wanted to write but it didn’t come easily and I realized that it wasn’t my calling. I chose a different path and, as convoluted as it seemed at times, it led me to what I do today.
Recently, I’ve found that when I teach people about composition in photography I often relate it back to writing. Maybe I’m trying to exercise my own demons but more likely I’m taking a craft with which people have a lot of experience and attempting to relate it back to something with which they have less experience. Are they different? Sure, but whether we’re trying to communicate what we think through writing or what we see through photography we are still trying to communicate.
I don’t have to tell you that communication can be difficult. We’ve all found ourselves in situations where we are not getting our points across. I’ve found that people who speak, write or photograph in simple and succinct ways are the ones that capture my attention. There is nothing more beautiful to me than something that is pure in its message and delivery.
As you strive to communicate what you see through your photographs remember to prioritize SIMPLICITY but don’t be fooled into thinking that simple photos have very little in them. That approach often leads to images that fail to engage the viewer. Simple photos can have an abundance of subject matter within or can be sparing with content. When crafting your compositions, think of including everything you need to communicate your idea but nothing redundant or extraneous.
I absolutely adore the Norman Maclean novella A River Runs Through It and I believe that one of its scenes perfectly describes the process we should take when communicating. In the scene, Norman comes to his father with a paper he is writing. Norman hands it across the desk. His father takes his red pencil, makes notes on the paper and hands it back with one simple instruction: “Again, half as long.”
Norman retreats, revises and returns to his father who repeats the process of making suggestions and hands it back with the instruction: “Again, half as long.”
What works in writing can improve our photography. Our photos aren’t simple because they contain too much stuff! Sometimes it’s redundant information, often it’s extraneous subject matter but it always serves to dilute our message or confuse the viewer. If you want your photos to be better, remember this lesson from the school of the Reverend Maclean.
When you’re shooting, continue to ask yourself if you’ve edited out what doesn’t need to be there. Take your photo but then hand it across the desk and then start “again, half as long.”
Often we’ll take a photo or two of our subject and think that it’s good enough. We’ve hurried through the process, made some quick revisions and moved on.
There’s one more quote I’d like you to think about and give some thought as to how it relates to the process. It comes at the end of a famous correspondence in which the author writes “I’m sorry this letter was so long, I didn’t have time to write a shorter one.”
That’s right, simple, effective and beautiful communication takes time. There are no shortcuts and it will take commitment on your part. Invest yourself in your idea and invest time in the process of refining it. Be willing to throw things out of your photo through changes in angle, distance or focal length. When looking at a subject or scene ask yourself what doesn’t support your idea and remove it from your composition. Take a photo and examine it. Again, ask yourself what you need to remove. Which things are extraneous? What elements are distracting? What areas are redundant? Then try “again, half as long.”
Want more? Check out THESE past Finding Focus posts.
For those of you less familiar with the story, I’ve included the scene below. (You may have to suffer through an advertisement first but it’s worth it!)