Plugged In: Intangible elements have real impact on photos

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

Intangible factors that can’t be reduced to hard-and-fast rules often make or break a photograph, especially photos of people.

  • Energy: Good photographs have a lot of energy. They’re not static compositions, nor boring. Much of the time that energy is psychological rather than something blatant, like fireworks or a storm at sea. Still, there’s no question that powerful subjects and circumstances often impart a sense of awe and energy if you’re at the right place and time.
  • Emotional connection: Typically, we take photographs of people we already know, particularly our families. An evident sense of emotional connection between subject and photographer at the instant the shutter clicks can turn an otherwise ordinary snapshot to something special.

Making that connection and capturing it at the right instant is a skill that usually requires quite a bit of work, the least of which is photographic. More important is the ability to be sensitive and respectful of the person in front of your lens. Not uncommonly, people use a camera as a way of being “sort of” involved with others, even our own families, but from a psychological distance that reduces authentic interaction and is thus less threatening to the photographer. Almost all of us do this from time to time, some more often than others.

This column is not the place to explore these psychological and cognitive questions, and I’m the wrong Kashi to address them (as my wife, Terese, is the psychologist). But think about how you can gradually learn to use your camera to reduce emotional distance between you and your subject, rather than using it as a barrier. That’s easier said than done, but doing so can make a powerful difference in your photographs and family memories.

  • Visual flow: There are many well-known compositional “rules,” such as the Rule of Thirds, using S-curves and diagonals, not splitting a frame in half (such as placing the horizon or subject in dead center), etc. These so-called “rules” have a common purpose, helping you maintain visual interest by aligning a photo’s composition with how our visual cognition works biologically. Typically, it’s wise to avoid static photos in which the viewer’s eye ceases to move around the entire photo frame, so these “rules” frequently help improve a mundane photo’s composition and interest.

Depending on the subject and your inspiration, there are times when it’s more powerful to break compositional rules and frame your photographs in some other, stronger, manner. Often, these efforts will fail, but you’ll learn from the practice. Still, particularly with family memories and documentation photographs, take some backup photos that are framed more conventionally, just in case.

Keep in mind Edward Weston’s famous dictum that, “Good composition is simply the strongest way of seeing something.” Visual strength sometimes occurs when our subject and intent fit those conventional compositional rules. In other circumstances, a photo’s stronger when you ignore them. Experiment and don’t be afraid of taking some bad pictures. You’ll learn more from photos that don’t work than from those that do. In either case, your world won’t be shattered by taking some bad photos. After all, you can privately erase them, and digital photography’s electrons are essentially free.

  • Ego: It’s virtually inevitable that every person who makes photographs has a major ego investment in how others accept their photos. That’s often a significant impediment to improving your work over time because not everyone will like your work. But you can learn from that if you’re able to hear and internalize suggestions and criticism. Don’t let that shatter your view of the world or your sense of personal worth. That’s easier said than done because everyone feels distress, admitted or not, when their photos are rejected by others. To the extent that you can separate your ego and sense of worth from your artistic endeavors, both will thrive.
  • Emotion: There’s a pervasive sense in Western art that the deepest, most authentic emotional expressions are dark ones — despair, anguish, anxiety and emptiness. Personally, I don’t believe that’s inherently and consistently true. Certainly, photos and writing motivated by such deeply negative emotions often intentionally impose similar emotional reactions upon a viewer. Such photographs done consistently, I believe, tend to become histrionic cliché. Eastern philosophies, in contrast, tend to equate greater emotional depth with calm acceptance, unruffled peacefulness and spontaneous observation of the manifold aspects of daily life, unfiltered by preconception or imposed “meaning.” It’s equally valid to see and photograph the peacefulness, joy and wonder that’s often around us, if we’ll only be open to those more positive emotions while avoiding sugary cliché. As Freud once remarked, “Sometimes a good cigar is just a good cigar.”
  • Clichés: It’s a cliché, of course, to urge readers to avoid cliché, but there’s truth there. More than 400,000,000,000 (yes, four hundred billion) digital photos are taken each year in the U.S. alone. Few are eternal works of art. Most look rather clichéd and, hence, rather boring. Been there, done that, seen it before. Ask yourself, “Have I seen this sort of photo, technique or thematic approach a thousand times before?” If you have, then perhaps it’s better to avoid pressing the shutter button unless these photos need to be done for practical reasons, such as family memories or documenting something, like as an EBay sales item or home furnishing for an insurance policy. Remember that straight documentation suffers when you get too cute or artistic. One of the best ways to avoid clichés is to broaden your perspective by learning what sort of work others are doing around the world. That’s fairly easy to do with the advent of high-speed Internet. So look around, perhaps get a few ideas or inspiration, but don’t blindly copy what others have done. Find your own interests, style and subjects and then explore them thoroughly from your own point of view, rather than copying what someone has been doing. One related photographic tradition that simply doesn’t work for me is the archetypical “camera club trip” where everyone troops out to take photographs of some “interesting” subject, like rusting old cars abandoned on an overgrown homestead of derelict buildings. With the right leader, such trips are an excellent way to learn photography, but you really should ultimately grow beyond that point by developing your own authentic style and approach.
  • Spontaneity: Try to be quiet within yourself for a while and let your thoughts flow without directing them in a particular direction. Rather than forcing yourself to make predetermined photos in the usual manner, simply become open to, and aware of, your surroundings. Let yourself be open to all possibilities rather than forcing your photos into a set pattern or subject. Usually, forced work shows, and shows up poorly, when contrasted with photographs that are spontaneously made.
  • Projects and themes: Projects can really help you develop your own ideas and depth. Find a project or theme that interests you and just start taking photos. Go back from time to time to refine your ideas and technique and keep adding photos to that project. In time, you’ll have a nice set of thematically related photos that can be (ruthlessly) edited and distilled to a smaller set that work well as a group. Working and reflecting on a project is a good way to minimize cliché and find a more authentic approach.
  • Photo books: Your projects don’t have to be hanging in a gallery exhibit, although that’s always nice. Instead, you can make them into a book or two to be used as holiday gifts, family memories and pride of place on your coffee table. I generally use http://www.mypublisher.com because of its wider range of larger book sizes and options. My Publisher has frequent sales and it’s worthwhile to prepare your book in advance, then wait for one of the frequent sales. I avoid My Publisher’s linen covers because these are difficult to keep clean, and I avoid the leather covers because they tend to delaminate. I’ve found the glossy, hardcover books with front and back photos to be the most cost-effective and easiest to keep in good condition. Some other vendors also do a good job, but check how professional reviewers rate these services.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published many articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.

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