I saw a photo in a magazine recently that got me thinking.
It was of a wooden structure – maybe a bridge – with parts of the timbers broken off.
Visible below the timbers was a young African man in a coloured Tshirt working his way across the gap.
It reminded me of something Martin Parr said in a TV series critiquing aspiring photographers.
He said that the viewer ought to be able to make sense out of the scene and find themselves naturally asking and being interested in ‘What’s going on?’
That’s not a head-scratching ‘What’s going on?’ as in ‘I can’t make head or tail of this.’ but of being genuinely engaged in a narrative that makes sense, and seeing that something is going on and wondering what it is.
I would contrast that with ‘art’ photos that display pretence rather than narrative.
And I would contrast that with candid street photographs where nothing is going on; where’s no narrative. It’s just a shot of a person standing or sitting or looking with very little dynamic movement in the body.Just a passive body snapped in 1/125th second.
Which reminds me of something I heard from a woman who writes and draws graphic novels. She said that recently she had started hiring actors to act out the scenes she intended to draw. And she said that the most successful actors were those who hammed it up like cartoon characters.
When they were being shouted at, for example, they didn’t stand there solidly. They rocked way back on their heels as though the blast of invective was blowing them backwards.
Of course a portrait, for example, doesn’t have to have a narrative. I am not saying that all photos have to have a narrative.
And of course – each to their own – and what one man finds interesting another man/woman might not.
But a photo of the type I am talking about – where something is going on – is likely to be successful if it makes sense and make us ask ‘What is going on?’
Prowling For Photos
I don’t spend much time prowling for photos, but galleries and museums are a good place because people are preoccupied. And there are often uncluttered backgrounds, which I like because I like simple photos.
The idea I am always chasing is to find something where there is something going on in the photo. If there is nothing going on then for me it is not a photograph – at least not with an emotional connection.
I do my best to stay away from ridicule and easy targets. I look for subjects that invite us to see the shared experience. And it’s hard, and the photos I see are few and far between.
I took this photo of a woman at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, in a corridor between two galleries. The woman seemed to me to have come to a stop. Beyond the rope barrier there was something, I don’t recall what, maybe a door.
But it was just a little rope and easy to step over. But the tilt of her head, the set of her shoulders, the hand on the wall… they all said to me that she was involved in something that had brought her to a halt.
We’ve all been there, so I felt that I could relate to it in a universal way and that it would make a photograph. And if she wasn’t thinking or feeling any of that, it didn’t matter because I could read it that way – it was readable that way.
I went to listen to a couple of authors at the Book Festival in the summer. They wrote graphic novels and one of them described how for her last book she had had people pose for her in little scenes that she would adapt for the book.
And she said that when she drew the scenes, she over-accentuated their positions.
So if someone was supposed to act surprised, she had them almost falling backwards with their arms in exaggerated positions. And maybe it is like that with photography – that things need to be very easy to see.