We all take photographs but what is photography? And would understanding what photography is, help us to make better pictures and identify where photographs can be used to best advantage?
To paraphrase Stephen Shore: Photography is an analytical discipline. Photographers start with the messiness and complexity of the world and simplify the jumble through analysis and giving it structure. The photographer imposes order by choosing a vantage point, choosing the frame, choosing the moment of exposure and selecting the plane of focus.
Most people are fortunate enough to be able to turn or tilt their head and get a view of the world around them – the whole scene or the whole ‘messiness’, as Shore would describe it.
A photographer can stand in the exact same spot, go through the same motions, and then use a camera to put four sides around a point of interest somewhere within the whole scene. It’s like having a large sheet of paper in front of you and then using scissors to cut a rectangle out of one part of it.
Through the act of making the photograph, a moment has been frozen in time, and space has been flattened into a 2D image.
It’s possible that there is limited information within the four sides of the image that would help to determine time. For example, I could photograph the road outside of my house but it would be difficult to say what year it was, or even what month, but you could probably determine if it was night or day. What people wear can often be an indicator of time, the same with vehicles, signage, and technology.
If I were to photograph a flat surface such as a road then the distance I am flattening is the distance between my lens and the road surface which might only be a few inches. If I was to photograph over the heads of shoppers from one end of Oxford Street in London to the other end, I could potentially flatten a distance of half a mile or more.
Why does this matter? Because with documentary photography, and even business documentary, our objective is to convey information to the viewer and to do that effectively we need to understand where to put the four sides of our image.
Many years ago I asked a group of students to photograph a flower. It sounds simple enough. What I received back were indeed photographs that included a flower but with many of them, the flower was not the dominant image. There were long garden borders with an array of plants including some flowers, there were tiny flowers dwarfed by the fences they were growing against and other variations. This was a learning exercise and so it was good to discuss how these images could be improved and I suggested that we rethink the task. Instead of asking them to photograph a flower, I explained that we were telling a story and that a flower was a crucial part of the story, in the same way that a weapon might be crucial information in a murder mystery. This change of emphasis from, photographing a subject, to photographing a key part of a story, brought a different clarity to the situation which led to stronger images from everyone.
Sometimes though the brief is to capture an idea.
On my desk at the moment is the revised version of Mark Power‘s The Shipping Forecast. It’s brilliant, it’s simple and it tells a story.
Power describes the time in the early 1990s when he purchased a tea towel depicting all the regions mentioned every day during Radio 4’s, The Shipping Forecast. The Shipping Forecast is essentially a weather forecast for those working or travelling across water around the coast of the UK.
Power decided that he would visit these places and photograph them. Many of locations were new to him and had no idea of what he find there but he knew the story, or thread that would run through them all, was The Shipping Forecast. The idea was to visualise the place names that millions had only heard of through the radio.
All Power could do was to ask himself ‘What’s it like being here?’ ‘What am I seeing?’ ‘How do I feel?’ And then he started to put four sides around the time and space that reflected what he wanted to capture and share.
Large Format Photography
Power, like Alec Soth, Gregory Crewdson, and many other famous photographers working today, uses a large format camera. It’s bulky, you need a tripod, you have to hide your head under a cloth to see anything and even then the image isn’t that clear.
So, what’s the appeal? I decided I would find out.
In February this year I spent two days with a very good large format photography tutor from Format Print Studio in Dorchester. Over the two days I learned about the camera, how to set it up, make a photograph, process the negative and make a print.
Usually I can take my Lumix S1R onto the streets or into a working environment and I will shoot hundreds of images. It’s not unusual to fill a 64GB card. Over the two days of learning large format photography I shot eight frames. Eight sheets of film.
In using the camera I renewed my understanding of photography and became much more aware of the four sides of the image. It takes time to position, frame, focus, measure light and set the lens before taking a photograph, which means you taker greater care to ensure that it is right. The right framing, the right point of focus, the right lighting, and the right moment at which to release the shutter.
Slow down, you’re moving too fast, you’ve got to make the morning last…..Simon and Garfunkel
We are often told in life that we have to slow down to go faster. This is usually a reference to preparation. Get the prep right and things will progress at the pace you want. Any attempt to skip the prep is likely to result in failure further down the line. Hence, slow down to go faster.
I think that is true of photography. Too many shots we see on sharing platforms are of the messiness in the world and don’t have structure. I know too many of my own images are the same, I’ve gone into a situation without first doing the analytical bit and paid the price when I reviewed the images later and they weren’t quite how I thought they would be.
The world is messy and complex. Photography is about finding the structure, order and visual interest that can be framed with four sides.