As slumber left this morning the world around me awoke, I wiped the sleepiness from my eyes and a snow white landscape came into focus. Pillows of white lay on the ground and across the limbs of trees, mini drifts of snow lay in the corners of the red shingles on the shed in the back yard. It was that easy to see, just open my eyes and the world appeared around me but really that was only the beginning of seeing. I settled in and begin to notice the soft texture of the snow as it lay in drifts and the stiff green needles of the pine trees peeking from beneath their burden of white. The falling snow illuminated the movement of the wind as it danced its way to the ground. I notice the slightly grey and yellow cast of light that fills the scene and watch great clouds of white billow up when the wind catches a branch and sends the snow into the air. A sense of joy rises up in me as I gaze at the world outside my window, perhaps reminding me of the endless winter days of my youth building snowmen and plunking myself down in the deep snow to gaze up at the sky and slowly etch angels in the powdery landscape. Conceivably, by now you have a picture in your mind’s eye of a particular scene, maybe you even feel some emotion. So I wonder, how would you take a photograph to capture that feeling so that someone else viewing the image could share that emotion? How could the study of visual literacy help in the creation of that image?
Photo Credit: Sherry Hudson
Proponents in the field of visual literacy describe a process of accessing a photograph that goes beyond the cursory glance that we give most of our visual world. The five steps include looking, then seeing, describing, analyzing and interpreting. At first I was a bit confused that both looking and seeing were included in the list so I researched their definition and saw the nuance between them. Looking is defined as directing one’s gaze toward someone or something, seeing takes you a step deeper into perceiving with the eyes. This small difference holds a world within it, changing our gaze from the erratic survey of the world around us to a more focussed visual curiosity of a particular element. A recent volunteer judging assignment with the local photo guild, taught me a lesson about the rest of the process.
The photographic subject matter of the contest was nature and all manner of photos were sent in for evaluation towards the prize. One photo in particular caused quite a stir with one of the judges and within the guild itself. The photo was of a fox, clearly struggling for a meagre existence against a stark winter landscape. One judge stated that the image was not fit for public consumption and a lively discussion ensued amongst the members at the guild. I went back to review the image again, and my comments. My observations concentrated on the technical aspects of the photo such as focus and exposure but somehow I had failed to notice the most significant thing about the work. Its emotional impact. I had described and analyzed the image but never took the last step to interpret it, to ask what feeling it evoked and what was the photographer trying to capture? These questions lead to another, what should an image do to be considered successful.
Photo Credit: Derek Johnston
With the digital revolution upon us we are inundated with images of every imagination but how do we determine what is good? One article I read suggested that in order to be good the image has to work. Somehow we all know what that means but might find it as hard to describe as I do. We might grasp at compositional language like the rule of thirds or visual elements such as line or shape or perhaps even the emphasis, movement and balance inherent in the principles of art. We might analyze it through an art history approach or with the principles of design in mind but in the end I believe there is really only one thing that makes an image work, the feeling it evokes. For more exploration of visual literacy visit our Resources page.
My feedback on the fox image had focussed on the technical aspects of the image without considering how they contributed to the visual composition. The over exposed snow and soft focus contributed to the image’s impact by increasing the starkness of the scene and giving the viewer a sense of how the world may have appeared through the fox’s squinting swollen eyes. So many of the articles that I come across on photography focus on creating tack sharp focus, deep contrast and clear vibrant colors they begin to temper the types of images we see as good.
“There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.”
Ansel Adams was quoted saying “There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.” I think he is challenging us to go beyond our own concepts of what makes a good image. The world isn’t a beautiful sunset over a still glacial lake all the time, it is rich with emotional diversity that deserves to be captured and shown regardless of the discomfort we may experience or perhaps because of what we feel. There can be no happiness without sadness, no peace without fear and while we tend to categorize our emotions into good and bad, if we try to block the "so called" negative feelings we block the positive ones too and begin to live a life filled with dullness. So perhaps the lesson is to work on capturing a variety of moods if not for any other reason than to increase the depth and emotional literacy of our photography. Weeks later, I can still recall details of that photograph of the fox in my mind and its submission led to a deep discussion about photography amongst the guild membership. Perhaps the image worked after all.
Photo Credit: David Muir
A chance meeting at a local printer led me to the work of David Muir, part of his photographic expression is the creation of aleatoric boxes davidmuirphotographer.com/boxes. It was interesting to see that two of his boxes included a dead bird, a subject not normally seen as beautiful. In each box the bird was presented in a slightly different way evoking very different responses in me. Looking over the remaining boxes I was taken on a fascinating visual and emotional journey. I began to wonder what it was about the combination of items in the boxes and how they were arranged that were so evocative. The arrangements are made from seemingly everyday items but somehow they tapped into something beyond the arrangement of items alone. It was then that I realized they would be interesting for a further exploration of emotional literacy. I invite you to take some time to explore his work and see what kind of a journey you take. Let me know what you discover.
Libraries are not what they used to be. I spent the evening at the shiny new library in Halifax thinking that I would be poring over interesting books on Art History and Photography. Of course, most of the information and perhaps inspiration I was seeking could be found with a few clicks of the mouse but I longed for the weight of a book in my lap, the smell of a slightly musty volume and simple pleasure of leafing through the pages while sipping a cup of tea.
A faint memory of drawers jam packed with file cards filled my mind as I walked up to the terminal and started my online search session of the library. I noted the reference number of the first book on the list and used it as my guide to find a treasure trove of information I was seeking. It directed me to the Art History section, as luck would have it, not far from the Photography section. Anticipation welled up inside me as I purchased my tea and headed to the 4th floor to walk along the columns of books to the 790 section.
Something must be wrong I thought as I went from one side of the shelf to the other finding an anorexic collection of books dedicated to the pursuit of art. Gone are the days when shelf after shelf in the library was dedicated to a topic and you could while away an evening randomly selecting books from the shelf and browsing through them. The one book that did not disappoint was a giant volume of photographs “A Photographers Life” by Annie Leibovitz, extra large format and at least 3 inches thick, it sat with a presence on my lap.
I was genuinely surprised when I opened the giant cover to find the ordinary photographs laid out before me. Within the first few pages was a 4 shot spread of her round and slightly sagging mother wearing a bathing suit holding the hand of a young child near the edge of the sea. Her mother's leg was held upright more than perpendicular to the ground in one photograph as if she was about to break out in a Russian march. As I gazed at the photograph, I noticed a comfortable and slightly happy emotion those simple photographs evoked in me. Perhaps I had found the source for my inspiration.
Page after page of seemingly ordinary photographs filled the book each rich with a story told simply and profoundly with a single image. Peering deeply with my photographer's eye I looked for what made these photographs so full of life. Depth of field was ordinary, no creative blurring, shooting angle was for the most part pretty simple too, no post processing special effects. They did have a soft quality and a realness to them. People were not posed and it seemed as though I was standing right there in the middle of the scene.
This same quality remained as the book transitioned from personal photographs to portraits. Everyone seemed to be captured in a private moment when the masks of everyday life had fallen away. As much as I am intrigued by this portrait work and don't believe I will ever be a portrait photographer, I do believe there are lessons to learn from the work. It brings to mind a concept we explored recently in a Contemplative Photography course. In particular the idea of “forming the equivalent”. What struck me the most about these photographs was their realness, the feeling while looking at them that I was there in the scene with the characters caught still on the page.
In the book “The Practice of Contemplative Photography – Seeing the world with Fresh Eyes” by Andy Karr and Michael Woods, the authors discuss the difference between perception and conception. Perception being the act of actually seeing what's before us, conception is the story the mind tells us about that view. Rather than seeing lines and shapes on this page you see words that quickly turn into ideas and meaning. The camera doesn't see concepts, it only sees its own form of perception limited by dynamic range and other technical constraints. Seeing clearly through the lens requires stripping away the layers of a lifetime of learning to reveal the lines, shapes and tones that the camera sees. Visions devoid of meaning.
So why, I ask myself, does the photograph of Annie's mother evoke such emotion in me? Is it that the whimsical shot of her mother with her leg outright reminded me of my own mother's whimsy when she would pop her false teeth out at children of a certain age if they pushed her nose. Perhaps this was forming the equivalent in a different way, the creation of a photograph that touches something common in us all. When I looked again at the photo I noticed that camera angle was unique, it was shot from a level that suggested I was sitting on the beach behind the woman and child, perhaps this is what put me so intimately into the scene. If this is the case. I'm led to wonder how the vast range of photographic concepts like camera angle, tone and focus create emotional impact.