The Sentence Structure of Photography
In a previous blog, I compared photography with Jazz music, illustrating how photographers need to play with what’s presented to them. Now I’m here mixing my metaphors to tell you that photography is like writing.
Working to become a professional photographer has a lot in common with learning to write. When you’re starting out, you need to learn correct grammar and sentence structure to progress an idea or tell a straightforward story. If you don’t have a firm grasp on the foundation, you might produce a confusing or meandering narrative. However, once you’ve mastered the rules of writing, that’s when you can start to break them to tell an altogether compelling and meaningful story. The same is true for photography.
As you read a story, exposition created with basic sentences moves the story along, but sometimes there are sentences that are crafted with such care or elicit such a vivid image in your mind that it stops you in your tracks.
It’s the difference between, “See Jane run,” or “He walked into the store,” and a sentence like this one from the novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close:
“Sometimes I can feel my bones straining under the weight of all the lives I’m not living.”
The first time I truly understood this concept was toward the beginning of my professional career. I was working hard to photograph every day to hone my basic photography skills like aperture, depth of field, and refining the camera settings.
I was starting to experiment a little with different techniques; not so much breaking the rules as bending them slightly to test their strength. During one of these sessions, I took a photo of a cosmos flower straight on. As I was checking the shot, I realized I had taken that same photo before. I remember thinking, “There has to be a new way to do this.”
As the sun shined behind the flower, I got down on the ground and lined up the cosmos just below the sun. I took the shot.
The resulting photo was entirely different than the first. It looked as if the flower was supporting the sun, sparks of flame streaking across the surface. This time when I reviewed the shot I thought, “That’s it!” A light turned on, and from then on, I’ve strived to find that kind of shot and the feeling of creating art from beyond the basics.
The Importance of Boredom
There is still merit in the basic sentence structure photos of sunsets, waterfalls, or our cats doing something cute. These are still stories that are important to tell. In my corporate photography work, my clients aren’t always looking for an out-of-the-box, thought-provoking headshot. They need a clear, straightforward portrait. Their stories have value and help make up a larger narrative of the organization.
As photographers, storytellers, and artists, we shouldn’t ignore the obvious. Pick that low-hanging fruit. Write that basic sentence. But that isn’t where you should stop. Push yourself to keep going. If you’re bored with the basics, then use that constructively to seek out that rule-breaking angle. When you stretch yourself and the medium in which you work, that’s where art happens.
If you’re interested in more rule-breaking photography, check out my portfolio.