By Zirrus VanDevere, for the Redoubt Reporter
I took a photo recently of a dock. The metal holding the wood together had obviously been painted numerous times, creating almost an abstract painting, and the lake was calm enough to get a crystal-clear reflection of the three-story house on the hill, with its myriad of windows that created an amazing design on the water.
I was in a paddleboat on Daniel’s Lake, and all I had with me at the time was a camera phone. But I was so enamored with the shot I took, I swear I was wishing I could enter it into a Redoubt Reporter photo contest. It got me thinking about the criteria that we use as judges. They are not arbitrary criteria. In fact, they are born of a long education and even longer consideration about image-making.
Every good photograph does not have to fit inside of tidy rules about composition, execution and style, but there is an underlying truth about what makes a good photograph. One of the first rules is that it should be something “new,” something that has not been overdone, and in some way surprises the viewer. Fortunately, the world is a kind of found object just waiting to be discovered, and there are innumerable new ways to look at it.
It is the photographer’s job to try and capture images that say something novel about the world we inhabit. This is no small task,
because the truth is that there is nothing new under the sun. But the way we represent what we’ve discovered makes the crucial difference. That is why the “judge’s” mantra is usually, “It could use a little cropping.”
Too many times, we center the mountain, include a lot of detail unnecessary to the core image, or end up with a horizon line splitting a photograph and literally making it visually spin on its axis because we are trying to tell too much of the story.
Think of it this way: If photographers are the storytellers, the only way the story will be interesting is if we can impart some sort of meaning in the telling. The way we find meaning is to remove the unimportant parts and get to the core of the story. Cropping is like that, and in so many ways, less is more.
I have to admit to taking a number of shots of that dock, and only one of them really pleases me. I took three or four shots of my shoes, paddling along in the bright blue plastic paddleboat, and the one that works for me contains the best examples of contrast — the texture of leather, the frayed cotton against the cold, hard quality of plastic, or the sleek line of painted metal.
I also took a photo of a rope that looks like something I certainly wouldn’t want to trust, but that carries an aesthetic appeal because of
its texture against that cold, bright blue that reminds me of the Kenai River. It says so much more to me than it possibly could as only a documentary shot. And if one were to analyze the direction and dynamic created by the lines in the photo, it becomes so much more. The negative spaces are understated, but they add a sense of relief that gives greater volume to the positive ones.
In every celebrated photograph we can find contrast, between textures, between hue or intensity, or between clarity and diffusion. There are lines that draw our eyes in and around the image, rather than immediately swinging it away. And most importantly, there is some sort of statement that speaks to the heart.
Beyond that, bring your better camera wherever you go, because, fun as the images can be, your camera phone is often not going to take the shot you actually want to print. And who knows? You might be capturing a shot that speaks to everyone’s heart, in one way or another, and it would be a shame to miss it.
Zirrus VanDevere is a local mixed-media artist and the exhibits and cultural coordinator at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center. She has bachelor’s degrees in fine arts and education.