Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Thoughts on Photography, Writing and Style

In photography there's frequent discussion about style and vision:
What's the style of this picture? (street, landscape, photojournalism, etc.)
What style of processing was used? (digital manipulation, harsh, minimal, etc.)
What vision was I trying to capture when I snapped the shutter?
Which style is better?
What is my style?

I know that in the camera club, I'm getting pretty good at recognizing the styles of particular photographers. They have distinctive methods, subjects, processing, and interpretations. While I was on my latest photography excursion, I spent time thinking about my style and wondering how my style is developing.

Part 1: Image File Management

Like most photographers (or all photographers), I have a catalog of older images. I have photos going back to the 1920s (obviously not taken by me), and images I took going back to the 1980s when I was in junior high. Looking through these images, I can see a progression of skill and style.

There is a spectrum of file management.
On one end are the photographers who keep everything. They don't delete anything, even the useless images. I know there are people like this because I've seen their work on flickr. They come back from a trip, during which they took 1000 photos, and they post all 1000. Some are fun, some artistic, some of friends, some of scenery, and some completely out of focus or blurry. But they make no distinction. They took it - they post it.

I would be on the other end of spectrum. When I process images, I'm pretty brutal. If an image is a little blurry, I just delete it. Why would I keep an out-of-focus image? I also spend time considering which would be the best image to keep. For example, on this last trip I took several dozen images of one waterfall. Although each image is slightly different for composition and exposure, they are all similar. I went through them to find the best 3 or 4 images, deleting the rest. I do the same for each location: identify the best, eliminate the rest, which matches my lifestyle of simplification.

I know photographers who have 100,000 images in their catalog, and I've heard of photographers who have nearly a million images. after nearly 35 years of photography, I have about 12,000 in my catalog. That number goes up when I shoot something new, but it also goes down as I review past images.

Okay, keep that philosophy in the back of your mind.

Part 2: Writing by Collecting

When I wrote my book, I started by collecting stories I thought might fit in the story I wanted to tell. I made a list of memories, recorded details, wrote each story and sometimes the story I was working on would remind me of another story. After months of doing this, I had a large collection of written images - pictures made of words.

Then the editing process began. I started inserting the stories into the manuscript in order to emphasize an idea, or demonstrate a point I was making. Some stories were good, but just didn't fit anywhere. While I was glad I had written them, they weren't appropriate for this book. Other stories required editing. I worked to hone the message, unify the punctuation and grammar, eliminate spelling errors. I added some sentences and words, deleted others - all the things that normally happen in editing. Although my editor was great to work with, giving me assignments and direction, I reached a point at which I couldn't do any more editing. I'd read my story so many times that I couldn't see it. It was time to pass it off to her (my editor) for some professional editing.

I've heard authors asked, "Would you change anything about your book, the one you wrote 20 years ago?"
They answer, "Of course I would."
I understand that sentiment. Reading my book now, less than a year after publishing, there are things I would change, add, delete, etc. I think that will always be true. I could go back every year for the rest of life and make changes because each year I'd have a new perspective on life, and therefore, a new perspective on the book.

But, that's not the way books work. An author writes; an editor edits; a publisher publishes and the book is finished. It becomes a complete project. My book is complete. It's not a text book, with a new edition being published as new information is learned. It's a snapshot of my life at the time I wrote it. It's complete. My next book will be a new book with new ideas, phrasing, word usage - that reflects my current perspectives on life.

Now, keep this idea in the back of your mind along with the idea of collecting and reviewing past photographs.

Part 3: Style Development

As I try to develop my photographic style I've begun to wonder how that happens. I can see changes in my photography as I look back through images, but I wonder if that's been a conscious process or an organic one? It seems to me that if I review past images - just my favorites - I might be influencing my style development. I look at old images and think, "Ahh, that's my style. I like that." But is that limiting my future style development?

I'd like my style to reflect my person: my personality, my values, my perspective, my ideas, and my vision. But can I do that if I keep reminding myself what I used to be like?
I don't want to forget to my past self, but I also don't want to be my past self.
I don't want to forget my past images, but I also don't want to repeat my past images.
I want to create new photographs, new images.

Add Part 3, in the back of your mind, to Parts 1 & 2. You'll need them all in just a moment.

Part 4: The Connection

There is similarity between the writing process and the photographing process, similarities I've been overlooking. Writing and photography both begin as a collection of parts.
While writing, I collect words; while photographing, I collect images.
In both, I edit the full collection, looking for the best sentences and words and images. I delete the unnecessary.
The editing process moves to one of refinement of the writing, and post-processing of the images.
For the images I've collected, I identify the best then process them using software to eliminate the distractions and direct the viewers attention. I highlight some elements and minimize others. And finally I publish both the words and the images.

It's here where the similarity diverges, between the processing and publishing. With the book, I create a final product and publish that. I won't go back and do it again because I created a complete product.

But with my photography, I keep going back again, looking through past images for something overlooked. Re-working images I've processed before hoping for a new result.

I wonder if I'm missing the satisfaction that comes from creating a complete project - like the book.
My latest trip, to the Palouse area of Washington, I captured some great "stories." In total I took about 1700 images. I'm certainly not going to publish 1700 images, and not just because some of them were out of focus or just didn't turn out as well as I wanted. I won't publish that many because I don't need that many images to tell the story.

What if I treat this trip like a book?
What if I process the images - reviewing, editing, processing - with the goal of publishing a complete photographic story?
Maybe I only need 30 images to tell the story of my trip. Once I publish that story, I won't go back to those images. I'll move on to the next adventure, the next photographic opportunity. This story will be based on my current self. It will be a statement about who I am now. The next opportunity will be about my next self, the one who takes the next series of photos. The style will probably change, the product look and feel different, but it will still be me.

I'm certainly not going to delete all my past photos. I like them, value them. So I haven't decided yet how this new philosophy of photography will impact my image work-flow. But I think it's an exciting idea that should lead to some unexpected and fun results.
Post a Comment