One of the things that I’ve expressed frustration with recently is being unable to get away from the huge element of simplicity in my photography. If you look to the right at my latest stuff, you hardly need to view it larger than the thumbnails to get the gist… Annoyingly, it’s what I seem to produce instinctively and is something I would also be fairly well known for, amongst my friends. It’s also the first thing I would suggest to someone starting out in photography and trying to improve their pictures – strip it down, and strip it down some more until you”’re left with the thing that you”’re trying to put across, then work with how to present that in the frame without all the distractions. But I feel like I want to move on to something more now.
In trying to assess what it is that puts across feeling and atmosphere in a photograph, I would also be inclined to simplify. Thinking about describing emotions, I can pair them up with corresponding visual elements in a kind of formula, which just seems plain wrong and has me feeling unsettled. It seems to fit in a graphic design sort of world, but not photography.
Still, thinking about it just now brings up a few obvious examples:
Joy – bright colours, high contrast, solid shapes
Sadness – sombre, muted colours, darkness
Confusion – randomness, messiness, imbalance
Loneliness – scale, using composition to emphasise a single entity
Calm – lack of contrast, balance
That’s not even getting started on actually including people, or the anthropomorphism sometimes used to convey emotion in some pictures – you can take the above approaches to suggest feeling even in an abstract image. (I should probably mention here that I tend to think of photos less in terms of their physical subject and more just by their representation, so most of this doesn’t refer to photographs including people.)
In an idle, daydreaming kind of way (what else is rush hour traffic for…?) I started to wonder how valid those formulas/interpretations might be by turning it on its head and thinking about whether it might be possible to convery sadness, for example, with a bright and colourful scene? What about a calm picture that’s really busy, with competing, unbalanced elements – it just doesn’t seem to work! That says to me that somewhere down the line, we do follow these visual cues, even if it’s on an almost hidden basis, within something that isn’t so simple at all.
So, is there a way to begin to go beyond this basic a, b, c of visual language? At the moment I’m a little stuck – my idea would be to study images that do put across a feeling, but aren’t so obvious as to fall into the above rulings, and try to figure out what it is that conveys their mood. But that’s almost like saying I’ll pore over a russian newspaper to try and learn russian!
How do you push yourself past something like this, without forcing it or ending up with something contrived and counter-productive? How do you learn something that can’t – and shouldn’t – be turned into a ‘painting by numbers’, and still keep your work as your own?