Alright, so let me set the scene. A student and I are standing in a place which is undeniably beautiful. All day we’ve been surrounded by its unique appeal and yet, the student is lamenting that his images just aren’t that beautiful. Sound familiar? I thought so.
“Well, you’re like me.” I said.
“Really?!?!” he replied. I could see a flash of excitement on his face. After all, if we were alike, there must be a solution to his problem and surely I would have the key.
“We’re very literal, you and I.”
“Oh?” He could just as well have said “tell me something I don’t know” and walked off with a dismissive wave of his hand but he didn’t. Instead he leaned in for more.
“Stop recording what you see and start capturing the magic of what you see.” “Just showing me the subject the way it is, isn’t enough.”
With that, he was charged with the greatest task that we have as artists. And while it is essential to creating effective work, knowing that doesn’t necessarily make it easy. It’ll take a lifetime to perfect, but it’s a start and at least you’ll be heading down the right path.
There is very little interesting about showing your audience the world as it is. Show me what makes your subject magic for you and make me care. If you don’t like the word “magic” just substitute a word of your choosing. Try, exciting, heartbreaking, mysterious, moody, thought provoking…okay, that was two words but you get the drift.
I can’t tell you how often I see photographs of STUFF. Mere documents of what was in front of the camera. Photos which are often followed by a story about why that thing was so interesting. Stories which are necessary because the images fail to convey the photographer’s intent.
It’s time to stop doing that! Stop telling me and start SHOWING ME. It’s not enough to take a photo of someone interesting; you need to take a photo which shows me why they are interesting to you.
Now if you’re looking for a way to make your photos less literal or just more interesting I would say that it’s high time you stopped telling the truth.
Take liberties with reality and start telling me some lies. Really, lying is okay in photography…in fact it’s essential. Stop showing me the reality in front of your lens and start bending the truth; your photos will start getting much more interesting I promise.
In his essay “The Decay of Lying” Oscar Wilde points out that bad art tries to replicate nature and proposes that “Lying, the telling of beautiful, untrue things is the proper aim of art.”
All photographs are lies anyway. They aim to distill the scene down to a fraction of a second and a specific angle of view. This impossibility and the resulting images lead the viewer to draw their own conclusions so why not take control?
You are the master of what I see, think and feel in your photograph so make the most of it. Lie to me and make it a good one! Make me buy it hook-line-and-sinker. Create a fantasy that I just can’t ignore.
Sure, you’ll have to do a little work first. You’ll need to answer the questions that all liars do. Why do I need to tell this lie? What do I want the person to believe and what do I need to conceal in the process?
Seriously, think about the purpose of lies. They make the person you’re communicating with believe in something that may not be true. To make your audience buy in to the reality you’re creating.
There are so many ways of doing it and you just have to ask yourself what you want the viewer to think and then set about how to get there.
Many lies are ones of omission. They take away those things on which you don’t want the focus. Distractions from what you want your audience to see. Figure out what runs counter to your goal and start to subtract.
Conceal things from me. Hide them behind other things. Place them in the shadows or point me in a different direction entirely until the ugly truth is just out of sight.
Distort the truth. Make small things big and big things small. You can make something tiny seem significant by making it so large that it overwhelms everything else. Draw so much attention to it that it seems like the whole darn point in the first place.
Distract me! Shift my focus. Find something that I can’t look away from and dangle it in front of me until I no longer care about reality and fixate instead on the shiny, pretty thing in front of me.
Include information which helps bolster your argument. Find things that support the tale you’re spinning and create your story within the frame.
Weave in an element of fantasy. Bend time. Show me minutes elapsed within one frame. Stop time. Record light, contrast and color in ways my eye can never see them.
So next time you head out to capture the world with your “lie machine” remember your goals:
Decide what it is you are trying to say
Remove or conceal things that don’t support that
Distort things to make them more important or less significant
Make me focus only on what you care about
Support your argument
Create a fantasy that I can’t look away from.
Sounds like the whole aim of composition doesn’t it?
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