What Do You Have To Say and How Would You Say It?

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Sauvetage dun enfant par un enfant (Le Petit Journal)

Eric’s Note: This guest article is by Dan K, a British Camera collector and photography enthusiast based in Hong Kong.

Many of the great photographers whose wisdom we like to quote are successful because they have an innate artistic sensibility. For the rest of us, it is harder to grasp what makes a compelling photo.

I recently attended the gallery of one of Hong Kong’s most famous photographers. Michael Wolf made a name for himself creating images of high visual impact with a subtly dark twist of voyeurism. His own work is compelling, yet his longest wall is filled with countless rows of historical illustrations of Le Petit Journal. These lithographs portrayed the events of the day, in a highly dramatised style.

Michael is a keen collector and these images clearly have deep meaning for him. When I asked him why, he responded that their dark stories reflected a measure of inner darkness he felt within him. The stories and their portrayal spoke to him. He also marvelled at the artist’s ability to tell this story much like a photographer, freezing the moment in time.

Yet the artist encapsulated the event so comprehensively, so perfectly arranged and from a perspective that would be impossible for a photographer to achieve.

For example, one illustration shows a child diving from a window over the River Seine to the aid of another drowning in the waters below. The artist’s point of view is some 15 feet in the air, floating above the river, a visual that clearly could not be portrayed even with modern photographic technology.

These photos and Michael’s discourse, has made a great impression on me and has led me to reconsider my own photography. There are lessons to be learned and questions that I must ask myself:

1. Tell a Story

© Michael Wolf
© Michael Wolf. From his “Tokyo Compression” series.

An image should have something to say. Ideally it should encapsulate everything that could be said. However, it doesn’t hurt to tell a partial story and leave it to the viewer’s imagination to fill in the back story and the conclusion.

Either way, it must have universal meaning. It’s no good if ‘you had to be there’ or the picture depends on some deep personal connection to the subject matter.

2. See With an Artist’s Eye

© Michael Wolf. From his “Architecture of Density” project in Hong Kong

As you look for a subject or scene to photograph and are about to take the shot, ask yourself if you would spend the time and effort to paint the image instead. If the answer is yes, then it’s worth a frame of film. One of the greatest pitfalls of digital photography is that there is no cost of making an exposure. It doesn’t force you to pre-assess the value of the image.

Once you have determined that the image is worthy, ask yourself how you would paint the image. Would you paint it from that position and eye level? Would you want to shoot it flat, or paint a wider angle of view from a closer viewpoint? What palette would you use? Would you illustrate it in pastels, pencils, India ink or try to capture the fine detail and/or texture with gelled acrylic? These relate to the focus, choice of film, or perhaps to post-process filters.

Would you paint corner to corner or focus on key elements? This relates to the optics. Should the key elements be central or otherwise? Would you be better working in different compositional elements?

3. The Process

© Michael Wolf. From his “Transparent City” project

By over-analysing, you may miss the decisive moment, especially with street photography. You may have just half a second to set up and compose. I console myself by reasoning that a shot missed by positioning and composition would have been a badly composed image and that it’s impossible to capture every even that they eye may see. Lost shots can be minimised.

If the moment happened upon is fleeting, I would shoot a little wide and rely on my own posture for position. Framing and the look of the photo can often be fine-tuned in the darkroom, or in post-production. However, if you have a static subject or the foresight to see a situation developing, you can spend the time to get it right. After a while, which may be days or decades, you will find this becoming second nature and it will seem less of a chore. It may become second nature to the point where it seems like luck.

Please share your thoughts and insight in the comments below.

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