Sunday, February 20, 2011

More advice from "On Being A Photographer"

Since my last post included some notes on choosing subjects, I thought I would follow up by looking at what Bill Jay and David Hurn have to say about photo essays.

Once you have found a theme that interests you, the first thing to consider, according to Bill Jay is "What is the purpose?" Answering that question can save you a lot of time and help organize your work.

Once you have decided on your purpose, you need to ask yourself how many pictures are required.
"It might be only one image or perhaps seven prints for a magazine layout; 40 for a one-person exhibition; 120 for a major book, or whatever." (58)
Once you know number of photos required for the essay, you can divide and conquer. They suggest listing picture headings for each photo to form a sort of "shooting script" for your project. In other words, decide in advance the types of pictures you will need to take in order to avoid visual boredom. But don't think this means that there isn't room for spontaneity:
"Obviously, you do not preconceive the essay but you must be aware of the basic structure in advance of shooting." (58)
They key is to plan so that you have a frame-work that pushes you along. The authors are talking about art photography, but I think this is a well developed skill for most wedding photographers. Wedding photographers get good at narrating because they have a clearly defined event to record. They know that they need an establishment picture, they need details, they need candid shots, they need the inevitable shot of a cute little kid, and so on. The more weddings you do, the easier the process becomes—not because each wedding isn't unique or because you have lapsed into lazy cookie-cutter choices, but because you learn how to anticipate the needs of the story.

What the authors suggest, in the case of a subject that allows for repeated visits (their example: a photo essay on a club) is to start by experiencing it without your camera. Just be an observer and soak it all in:
"When you leave, write down in a notebook 12 heading or however many images you need to complete the project. You might jot down "loneliness" or "people in conversation" or "competition at the pool table" or "heavy drinkers or "flirting" or whatever stuck in your mind as an impression. (59)
Once you've done your visual research, you go back and try to photograph those headings.
"This means that if there is a club with a stripper in the corner you do not spend nine weeks out of ten photographing the stripper and one week photographing the more difficult headings." (59)
Their "stripper" example shows how having a plan can stop you from spending all your time on the easy photos.Having a plan will force you to create a balanced story. Once you have covered all of your headings, you can tack your images up on a wall (or some computer equivalent) and evaluate it. When you do this, you might find out that you have too many images from the same distance or that some images are weak and need to be re-shot. Reading their advice made me think of a book I read when I was about to start my dissertation. The book— How to complete and survive your doctoral dissertation— gave frightening statistics on how few ABDs (all-but-dissertation) ever complete that last step. So many Ph.D candidates lose their way and never finish because the task gets overwhelming and frankly, because good guidance is not readily available. The photographic equivalent to the ABD would be the photographer with shoe boxes (or discs or hard drives) full of photos that are never organized and put to any use.

As a blogger, I feel compelled to say that having a blog is a great way to do something with your photos. Thanks to blogs, a lot of people are making photo essays every day. As you get more serious about really crafting a good photo essay, however, I think that Jay and Hurn's practical advice for building a good framework is inspiring. In fact, I plan to use it on my current Utah-based project (and my Paris project if I can summon the energy).


Unknown said...

Really great advice. Thank you for sharing this.

Markus Spring said...

As a rich man - I own this book - I, too, have drawn good advice from it. Especially the concise endorsement on becoming an expert on your photographic subject has brought me forward. For me it meant taking serious what I do, and investing the necessary energy and time. This of course holds true for most activities, even hobbies - at least as soon as you don't pursue them only to kill time :)