I have been thinking about the importance of having narrative in photos and have become quite hung-up about it. Thinking about what makes a good story and how it can be represented in a picture has made me question the value of all these pictures I have that evidently have no particular story. Well, first of all, do they definitely not have anything that could remotely be called narrative elements? Like the above – is there nothing that suggests a narrative of any kind? Ok, the answer to that is probably no. Does it make the picture valueless? I don’t think so. Does it make it less valuable than a dramatic moment in a war-torn country or a heated debate in the lines of a demonstration? My instinct is to say yes – it’s like the hierarchy of genres in painting: historical, portraiture, landscape, still life. Maybe I’m just languishing down there in the least important genres. Does that matter? Certainly not now. It does give me something to while away the hours when I am fed up over-thinking the other really important issues in life, but it doesn’t matter. Certainly not yet.
I’m obviously thinking a lot about this, as every photo I frame up I am thinking about the importance or irrelevance of story. Making a photo seems deceptively easy. In fact, it’s not just pressing the shutter – even if the camera is set on automatic – because there are many decisions to be made before the camera is even lifted. Before I have even walked to the place where I intend to take pictures, I have to think about the format, the camera, the available light. I have to decide if there is actually anything in my head that might want to come out. This might, or might not, be affected by what I did last time I was out with the camera. I read a bit about composition, I test the camera out at home when I’m not pressured into clicking in haste, but when it comes to recording something interesting, it is much more difficult than at first it seems.
So, story. Have I even decided what I think it is in a photo? I think maybe narrative elements can be quite loose, but defining this has limits otherwise every unimportant detail can be termed an element of the story. The picture above has rudimentary elements – you might wonder who they are, what brought them to feed the birds, where is this happening? I don’t think so. Story needs to be more than this. It needs to urge, maybe even compel you to know what’s happening. I think it has to have more inherent drama. Something that leads the eye and forces your brain to infer what is happening from what is presented. It has to suggest a denouement or crisis or dramatic finale or something is taking place or about to take place or has taken place and there are the effects right in front of you. There is no doubt that I have not taken a photo like this yet. Not one.
This is the state of my thoughts on finding story in images, in particular photographs. I have no idea if I am anywhere close yet and, of course, this doesn’t help me in actually getting a photo like that. What would make the photo above have story? Maybe if the child had been running up to the pigeons and they were flying away because of that, I might have counted that. Maybe. Otherwise, I need to continue looking for photos.
I have been thinking about how to make photos ‘meaningful’. Every time I write that, I put it in quotation marks because I still don’t know exactly what I mean by it. I think what I am getting at is that I am trying to find pictures that convey a mood, or invite questions, or make a statement about something. That’s the closest I can get in twenty words or so. A concrete example I can come up with right at this second would be pictures by Tish Murtha. I look at her work and immediately they have a mood, a feel and on top of that, in my opinion, they have something to say about the way a group of people lived. That’s what I would like my photos to do. There are many examples of photographs that, through the aesthetic or the artistry show the beauty, or the interesting form of a subject, or can capture something that I am incapable of putting into words. That’s what I would like to be able to do through my photographs. But I am not there yet. In this time, therefore, that I am searching I think what I have to do is just make photographs and look at them almost with surprise when they are developed, as if I have never seen them before. Look, and look and look until I find something that I think is good and then examine that as closely as I can. Examine it and try to excavate that – find out how I managed it – and then make more photos. Keep doing it and, at least for a while, let the photos make themselves.
I took this just to finish a roll of film while walking and it turned out to be one of my favourite photographs. It was taken on the cheapest Kodak colour film that I could find, but the colours are just much smoother and softer than I can achieve using a digital camera. It looks old, and calm, wet and green. This is why I like this picture and why taking photos confounds me because no matter how hard I try, I don’t have any consistency yet. I take some photos that I like, a whole load of photos that are rubbish, despite my best intentions – and the ones that I least expect to be any good turn out to be the ones I am happy with. I have taken black and white specifically because I wanted to cut down the variables to keep the result more within my control, however, this is a colour picture that I am really happy with, perhaps in part because I cut the subject down to the green of the tree, cut the composition down to the branches of the tree and looked at what I was doing.
Here’s something I’ve been struggling to understand. What makes a photograph meaningful? What do I even mean by ‘meaningful’? I don’t know the answer to this. I’ve been thinking about what seems to be commonly called ‘storytelling’ in photography. Is this all that matters? To have photos that tell some kind of story? My instinct is to say that it is important, and can make a photo that says something that is meaningful. By meaningful, I think what I am getting at is that the photo seems to persist after it’s been initially viewed. There is a sense that something is going to happen. I think maybe this means that there have to be characters – people or animals, and I’m not that great at finding those subjects. So here are a couple of examples of my photos. Above, there is a picture of the gate at the back of my yard. I liked the uneven wood and the empty sky above the gate, but I wouldn’t say this photo ‘tells a story’. Does that make it a bad photo, or less meaningful than a photo that definitely has a story to it? I would try to justify this photo and say yes, there is a story – what’s beyond the gate? Why have I chosen this as a subject? But I think this is reaching a little. I’m still trying to tell myself that this idea of ‘story’ doesn’t matter, but I think that maybe it does. I think that maybe photos that tell a story are inherently better than those that don’t.
Here is another picture. I think this one maybe gets a bit closer to telling a story.
Does it tell a good story? I’m not sure about that either. If I look at this and try to think about it as objectively as possible, I think – who are these people? What are they doing? What’s their story? But I think that’s reaching a bit too. They are two middle-aged people sitting on a bench. I think a photo needs more than this, much more, to be truly great – certainly to be truly great as a piece of story telling. Maybe there is nothing for it but to be in the right place at the right time and get pictures that show things really happening. I think I need to search out photos that I think do a really good job of telling a story and I think yes, it is important and adds meaning and value to a picture. I don’t think that means that any other pictures are worthless. I still need to think about this some more.
I’ve been thinking about what the point is for me of taking photographs. Is it ‘worthwhile’? Not sure about that one. In terms of other people seeing them, and in terms of them being worth being seen, I think the answer is possibly that there is little point. In terms of me enjoying the process and finding some kind of peace when I am doing it, enjoying the act of making the picture and enjoying looking at the end result, then it is worth my time. I have to remember that I am doing this solely and exclusively for my own pleasure, well-being and enjoyment. If making photos, developing them, scanning them, editing them feels like a good way to pass the time I have, then it must be worth it. Not sure if that’s a satisfactory answer but it it the only one I currently have.
Just trying a different way to present the photos. Not sure if it looks good or dreadful. Live with it for a while and then decide. I think it probably distracts from the picture itself, so I will probably not do this again.
I was unexpectedly happy with this picture. I came across it after leaving it lying around for months. It was taken in the winter and it is now the middle of the summer. It brings back the memories of this time fro me and so, on that count, I consider it a success. I take pictures when out on a walk or session. Usually I will shoot a whole roll of film on one excursion or if I don’t quite finish a roll, I will take a couple of inconsequential images at the end of the roll so that I can develop it and see the results. My rate of ‘keeper’ images has been quite low and one of my objectives is to concentrate really hard to try and make each individual image better so that I improve the percentage of images per roll that I think are worth showing to others. I get some satisfaction in meeting my own internal standards for images, but I never know if these are too high, too low, or it just doesn’t matter. Maybe if I like one of my own pictures, then that’s enough.