Talking About Photography

- - Working

As the Director of Photography at a national magazine one of the most difficult things I have to do is discuss photography with people who know next to nothing about it. Most editors are very literal minded when it comes to photography, they want a picture of the person, place or thing that the writer talks about. To convince them that other images will better serve the story is a difficult but important task in making a magazine’s photography great. Learning how to describe what you intuitively know makes one photograph superior to another is the greatest skill you can have in this battle.

There are many ways to use photography at a magazine. The worst is to use photos as decoration or as a literal translation of the story into pictures. Low end catalogs, real estate brochures, those car rags next to the gum ball machine at the grocery story all use photography this way. So, goddam boring *snore*. This does not serve the reader, it only serves the editors unconscious plan (my theory) that the photography only support the story not equal or trump it. High level photography and photo editing brings additional information about a subject to the story and when it’s really cracking the reader reacts emotionally. In my book “that photo makes me want to throw-up” is way better than “it’s fine by me.”

I have a sweet technique I use for finding the great images from a shoot that really tends to piss-off the editors: I edit the film without reading the story. This helps me tune into which images have the most impact on me and which ones transcend subject matter and become forces in their own right. When you read the story first you react differently to images that match important plot points and wrongly ascribe more weight to them.

Once you’ve found the images you want to use how do you defend them? There’s always the time honored technique of the scowling Director of Photography telling everyone that will listen that these are the best images from the shoot and to publish anything else would be the greatest tragedy in the history of all magazine making, to be used as an example for future generations of the perilous pitfalls associated with not listening to the DOP when it comes to the goddam photography.

If you can’t use intimidation you need to find language to describe the photography beyond the obvious lighting, focus, exposure and subject matter. Editors will use those terms to determine if a photograph is good or bad and it’s an easy trap to fall into but as photo editors we know the power of photography lies in its ability to affect us emotionally and there is no literal translation to the emotions it projects (or some shit). The first place to look is the fine art world, because they have shattered any preconception that focus, exposure and subject matter have anything to do with what makes a photograph great. And, they’ve plumbed the depths of an emotional connection in photography for such a long time they’ve developed a whole language and way of speaking about it that makes it somewhat easier to understand and explain to laymen.

The best place to start and develop your language for photography is anything written by John Szarkowski, who recently passed away, but was the Director of Photography at the MOMA from 1962 to 1991. I started with these two books:

Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art  

Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art

and

Ansel Adams at 100  

Ansel Adams at 100

John gives you language to defend photography, an important skill to have.

There Are 51 Comments On This Article.

  1. I could not agree more, these two books are among the few that every photographer should read and refer to. Unfortunately for those of us who look at pictures, most photographers have never seen them much less read them.
    I’d add “The Photographer’s Eye” by Szarkowski, to the list.

  2. Read? You are actually advocating reading? Good Gawd!

    Szarkowzki’s book is one that must be read, I believe, by every photographer. Period. Adding in Sontag’s for some flavor, as well as most every Aperture from the 70′s through 82 or so.

    I work with photographers who have never read a single thing about photography other than postings in some forum. When mentioning Adams, Caponigro, Newton, Penn, Avedon I get stares and shaking heads.

    Now I understand wanting to be ‘contemporary’, and eschewing the past, but your point of being able to discuss it from a business perspective makes an even more compelling case for understanding what it photography is. (of course you will have to know what the meaning of is,… uh, is). I would also recommend the writings of Weston (Daybooks). They stuck with me, and even today I can recall passages that describe the creative processes so well. And it turn it can make our own approach to creativity take on a definition, a scope with which to craft our work.

  3. One of my professors would consistently stress the idea that we remember 100% of what we feel. We only remember 1/3 of what we read and 1/2 of what people tell us. I’ve been making it a point to carry this over to the photographs I take. The best images move us. They pull at our heart and bring us into a situation. They make us feel like a participant versus a bystander. It’s easy to show in a photo what something looks likes, but making a viewer feel something requires a lot more. For me photography is about “collecting” experiences and allowing myself to be more than a fly on the wall in my subjects’ lives. I need to be in tune with my subjects. It has also meant unlearning everything I knew about taking pictures. My senses now drive the images I make.

  4. Right next to the Szarkowski and the Sontag on my shelf is “Camera Lucida” by Roland Barthes. I refer to all three (must dig out the Adams from the box in the basement) if and when I need a little inspriration on how to translate the non-verbal into the verbal.

  5. My favorite approach is to go out and find the story at the same time as the writer. We can then feed each other ideas as to what the story is both verbally and visually.

    When that is not possible I want to read a draft of the story before going out. I want the background information floating around in the back of my brain as I look for the visual story which may be different, and complimentary than the words or supporting.

    I don’t need my photo editor to read the story before shooting, but I want the background.

  6. The practice of judging the photography without reading the story is interesting. Since I started by writing magazine stories before I started to shoot them, it’s likely I have a problem of literalism. I have five or six magazine shoots trying to schedule themselves around the holidays, so this is a good time for me to grapple with this idea. It also reminded me of photographers like Phil Toledano, who often deliberately run away from the literal interpretation to great effect; specifically it called to mind his brilliant shot of the high school athlete, shoulder-high in a corn field ( http://mrtoledano.com/images/photos/editorial/29.jpg ). So different from how a “sports shooter” would have treated it, and I can’t look away from it.

    Have you featured Phil on here? Did I miss it?

  7. I can also second the vote for the Weston Daybooks. I’ve read them multiple times. Very intimate description of his struggle with raising boys on his own, shooting what satisfied him, and resisting client urge to retouch his portraits. (Some things never change). This apparently new version combines both books into one — Mexico and California. I much preferred the period of time in California, when he was living in that cabin with the boys and commuting to San Francisco, shooting 8×10, and printing with a bare light bulb.

    A must read.

    http://tinyurl.com/2qvy89

  8. “I edit the film without reading the story.”

    Do you just look at the title of the story or do you get any information at all about the story (i.e. have somebody who has read it describe it to you) or something?

    Or do you just get a picture of, say, some pandas in a shopping mall that meets your artistic criteria and then explain to the editors why it is the perfect pic to go with a story about a principal in a charter school in Minneapolis?

  9. Ugh. That ‘Looking AT Photographs’ sounds like i’d really like to read/have it. Unfortunately, prices on amazon germany start at 140€ to 240€. Does anybody know where to get them for less money?

  10. The Dude’s Photography Theory 101 reading list:

    Photographers on Photography; Lyons, Nathan (ed.)

    Photography until Now; Szarkowski, John

    History of Photography, From 1839 to the Present; Newhall, Beaumont

    The Decisive Moment; Cartier-Bresson, Henri (read the introduction essay)

    On Photography; Sontag, Susan

    Ways of Seeing; Berger, John

    Bystander: A History of Street Photography; Meyerowitz, Joel and Westerbeck, Colin (specialty but a very good book)

    What do Pictures Want?; Mitchell, W.J.T.

    Richard Avedon: Evidence 1994; Avedon, Richard (read the essays)

  11. @11 tde: I usually make an assignment based on a pitch so I’m familiar with the subject matter and objective of the story. I’m not talking about stock photos here, it’s an assignment so the photos already have relevance to the story.

    @13 dude: I can’t get past the first couple pages of Sontag. May try again in a few years.

  12. @14 PE:
    I just said they were Photo Theory 101… not necessarily terribly readable. I have vague memories about Plato’s cave.

    I fell asleep reading Sontag over and over and over again. I think I read like 1 sentence between each nap. Still, you gotta read it if you want to get educated-a-lized.

    Also, Helmut Newton’s autobiography has some fun little bits to it. Also the documentary about him “Frames From the Edge” is fun. The scene about overly sensitive printers is quite humorous. Not as heavy a read or viewing as Sontag.

  13. Interesting post, just recently I submitted, along w/ 250 others to an online show of work for the David Alan Harvey bloggers w/ the additional incentive of a monetary stipend. So DAH was running a little behind because the edit was enormous. He posted up about the editing process, but he mentioned that because many submissions had no metadata or accompaning text it was tough to read the visual stories. this flies in the contrast to your approach where you base the edit of the shoot on the strength and depiction of the images, before reading the stories text.
    I like your approach, but can see it being ruthless. I am down for ruthless, or just honest feedback.
    I will return to DAH with what I gleaned here. see what he makes from this approach.
    I suppose though, one thing, his bloggers maynot be all busy professionals but a hi % being hobbiest, in that respect one may have to take on a different approach?
    found you thru my unconscious habitual visits to the greatly missed Alec Soth blog

  14. APE:
    Thanks for the post, which reminded me of the day I saw Irving Penn’s work for the first time. My mother is an artist and made it a point to force feed me gallery visits whenever possible (not that often in rural Georgia). I was a sarcastic kid and usually made idiotic comments about the work to rile my mother. Then I saw Penn’s work at one of the galleries, and it was the moment I realized that some of what I was seeing was truly worthwhile and I’d better learn to articulate what I was responding to.
    My mother noticed it and still gets a smile remembering that day.
    Speaking about photography will always be a bit elusive, as we are forced to use one language to talk about another.

    And I second the Ansel Adams books. Gifted photographer and writer. I reread his trilogy of “The Camera”, “The Negative”, and “The Print”. They are surprisingly relevant even in this age of digital imaging.

  15. scott Rex Ely

    Some of the best meals I’ve ever had in my life were with a photographer I used to assist when I lived in NYC . I use food analogies and adjectives all the time and I think the more you think about it the more it really is useful. Sweet, scrumptious, sticky, bland, deep, crispy, chalky, dense, they’re all relative and appropriate to help set the palette… See what I mean?
    BTW, when I go to lectures I always try to ask of the photographer speaking, “Where is your favorite place to eat?” Bruce Davidson answered one time I asked, “I don’t know for sure that’s a metaphysical question” and never answered the question. CIAO!

  16. I big part of the job of photo editor is “advocate” for good photography that moves the story along without a literal translation of the writing. Though I often found writers couldn’t quite grasp just how much work the photographs could do for them. And I found it irritating when a writer would say “I don’t like that picture” without any reason. I didn’t think it was my place to say “I didn’t like their story”. (Very old rant for me… haven”t photo edited in awhile… so sorry!!)

    As for books.. I’ve been reading Robert Adam’s “Why People Photograph”, and trying to get a hold of a copy of “Beauty in Photography”. There’s a rich history and of photography and writing on photography… take advantage. You need all the ammunition you can get to shoot down the “I don’t likes” of the world!

  17. Sontags book on photography is a joke. She was a fine writer and thinker, but that little bit is hot air and blather.

    Maybe it makes sense though. I think she wrote it after her relationship with Avedon fill apart. Kind of a jab at him and photography.

    Wonder if she ever rethought it later when she had a much more successful relationship with Leibovitz…?

  18. that’s funny…I always thought Sontag’s On Photography was a pretty easy read
    and it tackles the more philosophical questions that we as photographers need to consider before we go out and fill the world with more visual garbage.

  19. a couple to add to dude’s list:

    ‘On Being A Photographer’ by David Hurn and Bill Jay

    “Creating a Sense of Place’ by Joel Meyerowitz – it has a great interview in which Meyerowitz talks about how and why he makes photographs..

  20. @20 suzanne – Yes! Robert Adams “Why People Photograph” – you beat me to the punch. That’s a great one.

    APE: many enlightening and revealing things have surfaced in this forum, but I really appreciate the content of this particular post. I know I’m not alone in having butted heads up against the wall of literalism way too many times. Unfortunately all too often it seems PEs give in, and then of course photographers give in, and it just trickles down ’til you look up a few months later at the pictures you’ve been making and say “What the hell am I doing?”

    I always assumed part of this came from the idea that editors felt the reader was kind of stupid and had to be hit over the head with an idea that reinforced the story (or some aspect thereof) very literally: “See! It’s a guy wearing a tie in a big oak conference room! He must be Important!”

    Then again it’s interesting to see how some photographers consistently slip non-literal and transcendent images through the system. I wonder if anyone ever stops Chris Buck and says “Hey, dude, what the hell was that? Where’s the conference room? What happened to this guy’s tie? What’s with the rubber duckie?”

    [just an example - I don't know if Chris Buck employs a rubber duckie, but I'm sure it's possible]

  21. Oh, and one more book – not necessarily the same as the rest, but really inspiring nonetheless:

    W. Eugene Smith: Shadow and Substance, the Life and Work of an American Photographer – by Jim Hughes. I loaned this book to a friend and she kept it for the better part of a decade before returning it (without the dust jacket – Thanks, Amy).

  22. Stephen Shore’s recent re-release of “the Nature of Photographs” is amazing and well worth the price it goes for online.
    I can’t think of any better book to get people critically thinking about how photographs work.

  23. Shoot. I was hoping for some concrete examples of the language you use communicate about photographs. This just told me to read two books.

  24. Facial Expression

    What I find fascinating sometimes is editing the take with another person, or even worse, being on set, looking at CaptureOne thumbnails, with every image that I’ve shot, and the AD is standing there, and sometimes even the client, and I’m Command-T’ing my choices, but they’re pointing to other frames in the same setup, but with RADICALLY different facial expressions, or body positions.

    Sometimes, it just blows me away, “You think THAT is a good frame?”, I say to myself, under my breath of course. The range of choices amongst three educated people, standing in the exact same room, can just astound me sometimes.

    And it’s not as if I always think I’m right. Most of the time, it just amazes me that there’s such a range in what three people think is the best frame. I just wonder, where does it come from, in each person, to make up the sum total of some kind of knowledge bank that you’d use to choose/edit a photo session?

    Sometimes, someone else, (never me) will choose a frame where the subject looks either not human, not breathing, not alive, or like a deer in headlights, but what they’re choosing from is criteria like “I like their hair in that frame”, but that’s all they can see — the hair. They see nothing in the frame. Or the frame where the person looks dead, but the AD likes it because there are no smile lines in the face, (because there IS no expression).

    And even worse, as Murphy’s Law would have it, the frame that is their “absolute favorite, bar none” is the frame that’s slightly soft… Some days, you can’t win.

  25. Speaking about photography is an essential skill that will help a photographer with picture editors, clients and editors.
    So you have to describe the pro and con fo a picture with clean and easy language.

  26. I absolutely agree with you on this post, APE. I sincerely believe that some of the editors I work with are visually dyslexic and feel that because they are editors they should have the final word, thus totally disregarding the input you have as regards the images that should work for the piece. Don’t get me on my rant box today!!

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